Kick off summer with these dry-rubbed baby back pork ribs. The key to this recipe is a heady rub that does not skimp in the flavor department. It’s an evolution of a dry spice rub I was inspired by years ago at the now-closed East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The chef, Chris Schlesinger, devised this mouth-tingling blend for his baby back pork ribs, which packed a whammy of flavor and officially kickstarted my passion for barbecue ribs.
The key to the rub is heaps of salt and sugar along with an abundance of dried spice that leaves enough wiggle room to tinker with flavor. The sugar and salt ensure crispy, succulent ribs that are wildly crave-worthy, and the flavors tip to the Southwest with the addition of cumin, paprika and cayenne. In the restaurant, a sauce was always served on the side, but it’s the rub that stands out in my memory, since I prefer my ribs crispy and not overly sauced. Since then and over the years, I’ve replicated this rub in various iterations. The common denominator is to never skimp on the sugar and salt: If you think it’s too much, it is not.
There are many ways to cook dry-rubbed ribs, but my favorite method is to grill them low and slow until the meat is tender and succulent with a crispy finger-licking crust. The method is simple — so simple, you can make it year-round, on the grill or in the oven. While these ribs aren’t very wet, in the final moments of cooking I often lightly baste them with a sauce and increase the grill or oven heat to hasten the coveted crisping and caramelization.
If you have time, rub the ribs the night before grilling, so the spices permeate the meat. When you are ready to grill, place the ribs over indirect low heat and let them cook until they are tender. Then turn up the heat to indirect high heat (and brush with a little sauce if you like) and continue to cook to char and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes more, while keeping an eye on them so they don’t burn. For a sauce, use your favorite barbecue sauce or try the smoky chipotle sauce recipe included below.
Spice-Rubbed Baby Back Pork Ribs
Serves 4 to 6
2 racks baby back pork ribs
For the rub:
4 tablespoons packed brown sugar
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cayenne
Combine the rub ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
Pat the ribs dry with a paper towel. Arrange in one layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Rub the spices all over the ribs on both sides, coating well. If preparing in advance, cover the ribs with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Prepare the grill for indirect cooking over low heat (or preheat the oven to 250 degrees).
Arrange the ribs on the grill over indirect low heat. Close the grill lid and cook until the ribs are tender, 2½ to 3 hours, turning once or twice (or bake in the oven until tender).
To finish the ribs, increase the grill heat to medium-high (or increase the oven heat to 425 degrees). If using a sauce, baste the ribs with it. Continue to cook until the meat begins to char and crisp in spots, 5 to 10 minutes more. Serve with the sauce.
Smoky Barbecue Sauce
Makes about 1½ cups
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small sweet onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press
1 cup ketchup
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 chipotles in adobo, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft without coloring, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a food processor and process until smooth. If too thick, loosen with a little water to your desired consistency. Taste for seasoning, then cool to room temperature.
Lynda Balslev is a San Francisco Bay Area cookbook author, food and travel writer and recipe developer.