Now that I'm a bona-fide, gen-yew-wine southern boy (after ten years you get a certificate), I've grown to appreciate the south's one true contribution to world cuisine, the barbecued pork sparerib. Cooked over a wood fire for up to twelve hours while constantly bathed with some sort of "mop" or baste, the once-sinewy meat should be falling off the bone and juicy. Rule number one: if there ain't any wood used, it's not barbecue. It's grillin'. Barbecue includes at least a little wood smoke. (Purists prefer nothing but a hickory and/or fruitwood fire for ribs.) The ribs you get at Tony Roma's are baked ribs smothered in barbecue sauce! No self-respecting 'cue fan would count Tony Roma's as a valid 'cue joint at all.
The device you use to barbecue ribs is referred to as a "pit". This is probably because the earliest barbecuing would have involved building a fire in a hole, throwing the meat in, and burying it all for a day. However, most consumer pits now are metal, and most commercial pits are made of cinderblocks. I have a barrel smoker (you can get 'em at home depot for $29) and a new braunfels silver smoker offset box. The barrel smoker I keep around just for thanksgiving turkey, but the NB is where the rib magic happens.
Get good hickory firewood. Half the varieties of hickory trees produce pecans, so hickory has a nice, sweet pecan-ish flavor. Oak is also good but does not have a sweetness to the smoke. Fruitwoods are excellent, especially apple and peach, but I wouldn't use fruitwood for more than half of my fire -- hickory is the tried-and-true taste of 'cue. West Texans and other southwesterners like mesquite, but I don't. I think the meat tastes too bitter with mesquite to be edible.
Those big tongs and steamtable pans that they have in foodservice are awesome to have handy. I got the biggest of each I could find and it's amazing how much they help!
2. Pre-cooking treatment
Normally people will marinate or rub their ribs the night before cooking them. I usually just throw 'em on dry, unmarinated and unrubbed, but if you're gonna marinate 'em, I recommend fruit juices; they really bring out the pork flavor nicely. They will also make the ribs very sweet, so you'll want to add some salt or some heat to temper the sweetness a bit. But like I said, I just do 'em dry. Why bother with marinating and rubbing and all that when your mop will season 'em just fine?
I usually go to the farmer's market and pick up three slabs on the night before, and don't unwrap 'em until they're about to go on the fire.
I normally cook the ribs in here for 5-6 hours (washing down thoroughly and liberally every 20-30 minutes with 10 parts pineapple juice, 1 part texas pete's hot sauce, and 2 parts jack daniels) over a hickory fire running between 300 and 400. I try to keep it around 350 but with a fire, there's a lot of variation.
Starting with the shiny side up, turn the ribs over every 2 hours. Use tongs to flip 'em; don't debase your ribs by puncturing them. And most important: the entire time the ribs are cooking, you must liberally sauce the cook with good beer. If the cook has several "assistants" helping him watch the ribs cook, they must be liberally sauced as well.
After you pull dem bones off the pit, wrap them in tinfoil (that's aluminum foil for y'all yankees), pour in a bit more of your mop and put 'em in the oven at 300 for two more hours. This will make your house smell amazing and everyone around will begin salivating Pavlov-style.
Pull the ribs out and drain them. Toss the juice. Cut off the breastbone first; this section is fatty, but very very tasty, so I usually serve 'em up as appetizer. Slice between the ribs -- this is tricky, and i still screw it up a lot. Put three ribs on your own plate, sauce as desired, and announce that the ribs are ready -- after you've gotten your own.
Most everyone serves their ribs already sauced, but I hate it that way. I'm a dipper. I put my sauce in a custard cup and then leave everyone else to however they like it. The best sauces for pork ribs that I've found so far:
1) Dreamland. OH MY GOD this is such fantastic sauce for ribs! Tangy and spicy, but doesn't leave a lasting burn.
2) Jim Neely's Interstate. Sweeter, more brown sugar, but great nuance and taste.
3) A simple recipe: 1 cup vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1tsp pepper, 1tsp sugar, 1tbsp molasses, 1/2tsp cayenne, brought to a boil and then cooled. This is a good summer sauce when you don't want the sticky stuff. It runs right off but leaves behind a nice taste.
With the flavors the ribs were mopped with, it is also pleasing to eat them 4) naked.
Enjoy! If you're ever 'round here and would like me to cook some up, or if I'm coming to visit you, I'm always game for makin' ribs.