FARGO — Spencer Wirt might be the most popular guy at any backyard barbecue.
As the meat manager of the North Dakota State University Meat Lab, he helps run BBQ Boot Camp which, for the past 10 years, has taught people how to make the most of their backyard grilling.
Last week on "The Scoop with Tracy Briggs," we gave you the lowdown on how to grill beef, brats, chicken and seafood. But this week, as thousands of you are headed to Happy Harry's RibFest, we're tackling Ribs 101.
Wirt has simple tips to help you barbecue ribs that can be as tasty as anything you'd find at RibFest. All it takes is patience and a little know-how.
Watch the latest episode of "The Scoop," and read on to learn more:
Know your ribs
Before you start, understand the kind of ribs you'd like to try. When it comes to pork, Wirt says you can choose between back ribs, which include loin meat, or spare ribs, which contain belly meat.
"Spare ribs will have a little more fat on them, but in my line of work, fat is flavor so that's a good thing," Wirt says. "And spare ribs will tend to be bigger — longer in length."
At competitions like RibFest, Wirt says you'll see more back ribs. He also says if you prefer beef, short ribs are a good choice. For our tutorial today, we're using pork back ribs.
Peeled or unpeeled?
Wirt says after buying the ribs, you need to know if they're peeled or unpeeled: Has the membrane on the back part of the rib been removed or not? If it hasn't, do it yourself with a fork. If you don't, your ribs will be harder to bite through.
A good rub
Wirt used a Kansas City Rub found on the NDSU Animal Sciences website. It contains commons spices and can be combined in just a couple of moments. Apply it liberally to both sides of the meat, making sure to rub it in well.
"It's the salt in the rub that reacts to the protein in the meat, making it stick to the meat and create a seal to keep all the flavors in," he says.
You can let the meat sit with the rub for a bit or put it on the grill immediately.
Wirt uses a Big Green Egg smoker/grill because he says the ceramic in the unit retains heat even if you choose to grill in subzero temperatures.
But he says no matter the brand of grill, it's important to start the ribs at a low temperature — no higher than 200 degrees — to ensure the meats absorbs a smokiness.
"Once the meat reaches higher than about 120 to 130 degrees, it will stop taking in the smoke," he says.
Pop and vinegar?
It sounds weird, but one trick Wirt uses to help the ribs become tender and juicy is spraying the meat with a combination of pop (not diet soda), apple cider vinegar and water.
He suggests waiting until the ribs have a slight crust on them from cooking about an hour. Then spritz with a mixture of pop, vinegar and water.
"I used root beer this time. Anything with sugar to add sweetness is OK," Wirt says. "And the vinegar, because it's acidic, helps tenderize the meat."
Butter is better
Have truer words ever been spoken? We all love butter, right? But who puts them on ribs?
Wirt does, following advice from a couple of barbecuing-loving colleagues from Texas and Missouri.
They suggested taking the ribs off the grill after they've cooked for a couple of hours, then putting them on aluminum foil and placing a few pats of butter on the ribs. Then wrap it all up and put it back on the grill.
"Does the butter add flavor?" he says. "I don't know, maybe. But what it does add is shine."
Turn it up
Wirt says to put the wrapped ribs back on the grill at a higher temp — now set at 250 to 275 degrees — until the meat recedes slightly from the bone. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ribs are done at a minimum of 145 degrees, but cooking them up to 190 degrees or so might make them more tender.
"You can tell if they've been cooked well if you can see the meat shrinking down from the rib bone," Wirt says.
Give it a rest
While the smell of ribs after five or six hours on the grill is tempting enough to make you want to dive in, Wirt recommends letting the ribs rest for an hour or so so the juices can absorb into the meat. But as Tom Petty once sang, waiting is the hardest part.
Wirt says to think of the 3-2-1 rule: Three hours smoking at a low temperature, two hours wrapped in foil cooking at a higher temperature and one hour wrapped and resting off the grill.
"Barbecue is really a patient man's game," Wirt says. "It's hard to have great ribs if you aren't patient."
Wirt cut into the ribs and we gave it a try. I can honestly say they were the best ribs I've ever eaten. I tend to prefer ribs with just a dry rub and no barbecue sauce, which makes the ribs sweeter.
The ribs we made today had a slight kick to them, but were full of flavor. Now that I'm in the mood for ribs, it's nice to know I have the blueprint for at least trying to make them at home.
"What's cool about being at home — cooking ribs — is you can take your time to perfect it to get your timing down," Wirt says. "After all, remember barbecuing is fun."