There are a lot of ways to prepare barbecue pork ribs. Traditionally BBQ ribs are made in a smoker, though many people insist on other methods. Boiling, baking and even grilling won't produce ribs that are worthy of being called barbecue. I know this probably upsets a few people, but if you've tried all the methods you know that you need a low and slow smoke to make them right. I've tried to distill all the methods and information on real barbecue ribs into a basic set of instructions to help make the best ribs possible.
Selecting: To start off with, you need to select your ribs. There are several different cuts of ribs available so it's best to know what you're getting into. Still more confusing is that not only are there different types of pork ribs, but each type and cut has several different names. For reasons of simplicity I will divide the types in two, back ribs and spareribs. Back ribs, also called Canadian or Baby Back Ribs come from the loin portion or back. Spareribs, from which St. Louis Style Ribs are cut, come from the rib section of the pig. St. Louis Ribs are the most popular rib cut. These are the kinds of ribs typically found in restaurants, long and thin with a good amount of meat. Generally I recommend St. Louis cut ribs because they are a little easier to work with and you get more meat per bone. However you can use whatever you like in the way of pork ribs.
Prepping: To prepare your rack of ribs you should start by removing the membrane from the inside of the ribs. This is a tough skin like material that blocks flavors from getting into the meat. To remove the membrane, lay the rack down so the ribs curve up on the ends. With a sharp knife gently cut under the membrane on one corner until you have enough to grab. Now take a paper towel and grab hold of the membrane. Gently pull it back. With any luck you should be able to get most of it off in a single shot. Otherwise continue until the membrane is gone. Now you can trim off any loose pieces from the rack and you are ready to apply your rub.
Rubbing Most rib rubs usually start with paprika. This gives a nice color and tends to make up the bulk of most rubs. From here you should decide if you want a sweet, hot, or savory flavor. If you want sweet, add brown sugar. Other ingredients can be garlic, onion, chili powder, cayenne, and any other herb you enjoy. Remember that the rub should be an addition to the flavor of the ribs and not overpowering. Another tip is that you should use the same basic flavors in any mop or sauce you intend to add later. This keeps the flavors consistent and avoids the risk of flavors that don't mix well.
Set-up: Allow the ribs to sit in the rub for a little while. An hour or two will be enough for the flavors to start to sink in. In the meanwhile you can prepare your smoker. You want to aim for a smoking temperature of 225 degrees F. Pick a wood that has flavor but doesn't overpower. For instance, if you want to use mesquite, use it in small amounts. I suggest if you want a sweeter flavor to your ribs that you choose a fruit wood like apple or cherry, otherwise pick something like and oak or hickory.
Smoking: Now they are ready to be smoked. You will be smoking these ribs for 4 to 6 hours. During that time you may want to baste the ribs in a mop. The best way to make this mop is to take some of the same rub you used earlier and mix it with a little vinegar and enough water to make it thin. You can apply this every few hours to help keep the moisture in your ribs. When smoking ribs you will want to turn them every hour. This is a good time to baste the ribs so the baste can remain on the top side. Baste lightly so as not to disturb too much of the rub. If you hold the right smoker temperature your ribs should be cooked through in a few hours. The additional time will allow the fats and connective tissues in the ribs to break down and tenderize the ribs.
Saucing: Most barbecue is not coated with sauce. Sauce is served on the table with ribs. However if you are a big fan of barbecue sauces then you can brush it over the ribs shortly before you remove them from the smoker. People will warn you that sugary sauces burn, but at these low temperatures that won't be a problem. Giving time for the sauce to cook on the surface of the ribs will allow it to caramelize a little and cook into the ribs. If you take your original rub and mix it with tomato sauce or ketchup you will get a traditional sauce. If you serve it on the side warm it first so you won't be dipping your hot ribs in cold sauce.
If you follow this plan you will get tender, juicy ribs that are better than any restaurants. With a little practice you will be making great ribs and be ready to move on to the kinds of pork ribs you can take to any competition.