The American Series, Pt. IV — The Soul of BBQ

50 million grills will be fired across America on the 4th of July. On many of them, the breasts of chickens who gave their lives for the event will be cooked long periods at a high heat into chalky oblivion. Burgers that held such promise will be transforming into rocky discs while their cooks chat with party guests over a beer. But on the best barbecues, magic will be happening. And I want that to be yours.

When I contemplate what to grill for Independence Day, my imagination travels the great barbecues of our country. I could stay close to home and smoke a lovely tri-tip over local oak ala Santa Maria; I could go all tropical, and do some sticky sweet Hawaiian pork brushed with coconut and pineapple; I could invite some blue blood East Coast transplant friends and do a clam bake and grill lobster. But I choose, instead, perhaps the best of them all — the one I want you to make. Kansas City.

What defines Kansas City-style barbecue? I’m a tenderfoot Westerner, and don’t claim to be an expert on Midwest grilling. Moreover, grilling is a highly subjective art and one Missourian’s style can be 180-degrees different from another’s. But there are certain trademark qualities that appear with some regularity: racks of pork ribs are favorites, slow smoked — often over hickory — with sugary, peppery rubs; slaw and baked beans are common sides; and KC sauce is the template for every sticky sweet orange/red barbecue sauce you’ve ever encountered at restaurants from Claim Jumper to TGIF.

The 4th of July seems like a good occasion to also reflect on my previous rib posts. Not in the mood for KC? How about costillitas (Cuban-style ribs marinated in citrus juices with onions)? Prefer ribs with an Asian twist? Check out my Hawaiian soy glazed ribs. But if you’re with me for smoky sweet Kansas City, here you go:

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Kansas City-style ribs with cole slaw
serves 2-4

1 large rack baby back ribs or two smaller racks
1/2 cup dry rub
1 cup KC-style barbecue sauce
1/2 stick butter
salt & pepper to taste


3 tbsp. salt
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. mustard powder
1 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper

In a small bowl, mix ingredients thoroughly and set aside.

KC sauce:

1 cup ketchup
2 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp. molasses or Indonesian ketcap manis
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. chili powder
1 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. ground black pepper

Several hours before cooking (or the previous day), mix ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. Cover and set aside or store in the refrigerator.


Note: this recipe assumes that most home cooks do not have a smoker in which to cook a rack of ribs for several hours at a low heat. To achieve a similar outcome, I cook the ribs slowly at a low temperature in the oven, then cook them on the grill outside for the final 40 minutes with wood chips to add a smoke flavor.

Remove the sheathy membrane from the back side of the ribs (to do this, slip a flat-head screwdriver between the membrane and the bone, and peel off). Sprinkle dry rub liberally onto both sides of the rack and let the ribs sit for 10 or 15 minutes at room temperature. In the meantime, put a handful of barbecue wood chips (hickory, apple, oak, etc.) in a bowl of water to rehydrate.

Heat your oven to 220. Place ribs in a large baking pan (you may have to cut the rack in two). Cover with foil and cook for 2 hours. Remove from oven, and remove ribs from pan. Drain the juices into a large glass. Stir in 1/4 stick of butter and set aside.

Heat your grill — medium heat for a gas grill, or a low heat on charcoal. Place ribs on the least hot part of the grill, put half your soaked wood chips on the coals (on a piece of foil if they will fall through). Cover, lower heat on gas, and cook for 10 minutes. Open, and with pastry brush baste with juices and then barbecue sauce, close lid and cook for 10 more minutes. Open, and turn ribs over, baste with juices and then barbecue sauce, add more wood chips and close. Continue, alternating between your baste and sauce, until rack is golden and glazed — 40 – 60 minutes. Before removing, brush top of ribs with the other 1/4 stick of butter.

Remove from grill to a cutting board, cut into individual ribs or sections for each guest, and serve with additional BBQ sauce, cole slaw and cold beer, mint juleps or fruity California zinfandel.

Cole slaw

1/2 head cabbage, grated
1 large carrot, grated
1 sweet Vidalia or Hawaiian onion, chopped finely
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp. sweetened rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. celery salt
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Toss cabbage, carrot and onions in a large bowl. Add mayonnaise, vinegar, celery seeds, salt and pepper to taste and combine thoroughly. Cover and place in refrigerator until ready to eat. Best made a few hours to a day ahead, as the flavors develop with sitting.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. paul
    Jul 04, 2011 @ 13:42:07

    We’re going all North Carolina pulled smoked pork shoulder with dry rub and vinegar mopping juice, homemade BBQ beans, spicy coleslaw (made with some of the vinegar mopping sauce and mayo), grilled corn on the cob and broiled sweet cinnamon peaches on a sweet pastry crust with Honey/yogurt cream drizzle . . . Happy 4th of July everybody . . .


  2. Leo
    Jul 05, 2011 @ 05:13:31

    I cooked Ribs today as well….they’re one of my favorite classic American dishes and our kids all love them. My recipe is a little different and I like to put the rub on the ribs 12 to 24 hours before I cook. I usually use my smoker but have also had great results with a gas grill using indirect heat. The best tip that I’d like to share is wrapping the ribs completely in foil and then putting them in a closed paper bag for 30 minutes after they come off the grill. They steam themselves and the moisture redistributes through the meat, ensuring really tender, fall off the bone, meat. Happy 4th everyone!


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