Coffee BBQ-Sauced St. Louis-Style Ribs

3 to 4 servings

St. Louis ribs are spare ribs trimmed of their skirt and tips. They have spareribs’ usual robust pork flavor plus the rectangular shape of baby backs.

You can cook them by the indirect method (for about 5 hours) at low heat (about 225 degrees). But if you are feeling adventurous, try direct-grilling them. The trick with direct grilling is to pay close attention. You can’t wander off for long periods of time, as you can with smoking, because the ribs can burn. But the reward is a wonderful charcoal flavor and a lovely crispness on the ribs.

Mastering direct grilling is more about feel than about following directions. Watch for a mahogany color and a somewhat limp texture; when picked up by a set of tongs, the ribs will gently fall on both sides. Although most ribs recipes tell you to put the lid on and keep from peeking, the direct-grilling method requires that you check your ribs about every 10 to 20 minutes as they cook.

A little blackening is both natural and desirable. But if the ribs start burning too much, use tongs to move them to the cool side of the grill. Leave the ribs on the cool side for 30 minutes or so with the lid down, then move them back to finish cooking.

You may close the lid, but make sure you keep your fire steady.

Some of the most fabled barbecue restaurants in the country grill their ribs, such as Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Once you get the hang of it, you might prefer to do so as well.

In this recipe, the ribs are sauced as they cook. If you sauce the meat too early, it will burn. Add the sauce during the last 10 minutes or so of cooking. Smoke Signals’ coffee-chili sauce (published in August 2010) is used here, but any barbecue sauce you like will do.

MAKE AHEAD: The seasoning blend can be composed well ahead of time; sprinkle it on the ribs just before you’re ready to cook them. The barbecue sauce should be made and refrigerated a day in advance so its flavors can marry. It can be refrigerated for up to 1 month. The ribs need to marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours. From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.

Ingredients

For the ribs

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2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 rack (about 21/2 pounds) St. Louis-style pork ribs

For the sauce

1 cup tomato puree

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped

1 cup strongly brewed coffee

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Steps

For the ribs: Whisk together the salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.

For the sauce: Stir together the tomato puree, honey, brown sugar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, chipotle in adobo, coffee, salt and black pepper in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and cook uncovered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. This will yield about 13/4 cups, enough for the ribs and for passing at the table.

Place the ribs on a baking sheet, meat side down. There is a thin membrane on the bone side. Some say it prevents flavor from penetrating the meat and is papery to chew on. But pulling it off can be a little tricky, and a lot of ribs are served with the membrane still on. The choice is yours. If you opt to remove it, slide a small knife beneath the membrane to cut it enough so that you can grab it with your hands and pull it off. The best place to insert the knife is in the midsection, so you can tear off first one side, then the other.

Coat both sides of the ribs with the seasoning blend, working it into the meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

Prepare the grill for two-zone direct grilling. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal in a chimney starter and let the coals burn until the flames subside and a light layer of ash covers the briquettes (about 20 to 25 minutes). Dump the lighted coals onto one side of the grill. Place a drip pan beneath the grate on the other side of the coals. Place the ribs on the grill rack above the fire, meat side down. Maintain the temperature inside the grill between 325 and 350 degrees. Add charcoal as needed, maybe a dozen pieces after the first hour.

If using a smoker, use the cooking chamber in the same way as described above.

To cook in a gas grill: Preheat the grill to high for about 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium. Place the ribs, meat side down, directly above the fire.

After about 20 minutes, use tongs to lift the ribs in order to check them for blackening. If the ribs are just flecked, keep them where they are and check again in 10 to 20 minutes. When the ribs have a nice sizzle and are taking on a deepening red hue with some blackening, turn them over and repeat the procedure, but in approximately half the time. It’s okay if you get some flames, but if they are high flames or if they leap, immediately move your ribs to the cool side of the grill and let the fire cool down.

After about an hour, when both sides have been over the fire, move the ribs, bone side down, to the cool side of the grill over the drip pan. Close the lid and open the vents. Cook for about an hour. If the ribs have a nice mahogany color, move them back over the fire for 10 minutes. Turn them over and cook for 10 minutes. Flip them back again and, this time, brush sauce on them. Cook for 10 minutes. If you want them a little crisp, turn them over one final time so that they are meat side down, and let them sizzle over the coals for about 5 minutes.

Use tongs to transfer the ribs to a cutting board; let them rest for about 10 minutes.

Use a sharp knife to cut between the bones. Serve warm, either as is or with sauce at the table.

NUTRITION | Per serving (based on 4, using all the sauce): 650 calories, 63 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 35 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 165 mg cholesterol, 3400 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar

Recipe tested by Jim Shahin and Bonnie S. Benwick; e-mail questions to food@washpost.com

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