Kansas City sits at the crossroads of barbecue. Once a major meatpacking hub, this city on the banks of the Missouri River remains a major railway center which, a hundred years ago, attracted workers from the deep south who brought with them the traditions of barbecue born on the plantations. As meat industrialized and butchering techniques became more sophisticated, ribs emerged as a product and Kansas City was there to lay claim to this meat and its own style of barbecue. Here ribs are serious business and they are slow smoked with a spicy rib and a thick, get-under-your-nails barbecue sauce.
A great example of this story is Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City Barbecue. Born near Memphis, Tennessee, Perry emigrated to Kansas City in 1907 and began selling smoked meats to workers in the garment district. Eventually, Perry partnered with the Bryant brothers, and by the 1950s Arthur Bryant's was the destination for Kansas City Barbecue. Of course, there is more on the menu than ribs, and no two Kansas City barbecue joints make them the same way, but there has evolved a distinctive style to Kansas City ribs.
Generally speaking and acknowledging that there is, in fact, a lot of variation, if you order a rack of Kansas City-style ribs you are going to get smoky meat with a slightly spicy rub and a rich, thick, tomato-based barbecue sauce. This sauce has become the most universal style of barbecue sauce and Kansas City style sauces are sold worldwide these days.
To make great Kansas City barbecue, start with a good rack of spareribs. Actually, start with two. One never seems like enough. Once you get the hang of making these, you can move up to 10, 20, or as many as your smoker will allow. While these ribs can be produced on a gas or charcoal grill, they are always best coming out of a dedicated smoker. These ribs should be trimmed into a nice rectangular rack. This makes for an even thickness of meat that will cook consistently.
Prepare ribs by rinsing racks and peeling membrane from the bone. To remove the membrane, slip a dull knife under the membrane at one end of the rack and peeling back enough to get a good grip. Try using a paper towel to hold the membrane, then pull. It might take a little practice, but you'll get the hang of it. Once the ribs are prepared, evenly coat with the rub and let sit for about 30 minutes before they hit the smoker. Allowing the rub, which will contain salt, to sit on the ribs for a longer period of time will give the meat a ham-like flavor that is not generally desirable when it comes to barbecue.
Smoking these ribs is going to take about 6 hours, and it should. The smoker temperature needs to be right around 225 degrees F/110 degrees C. This is the low and slow method of smoking and to make Kansas City-style ribs, try the 3-2-1 Method of smoking. This means three hours of smoking, followed by 2 hours of cooking (in the smoker) with the ribs wrapped tightly in foil. Lastly, the ribs get unwrapped and smoked for an additional hour. This method maximizes tenderness without leaving you a pile of boneless meat.
Now it comes time to talk about the sauce. A good Kansas City rib sauce starts with tomato, has a hint of heat and a good dose of sweet. This sauce should be cooked on during the last hour of smoking. This gives the sauce some smoke and allows it to be layered into place. This is the secret behind that sticky, rich, and saucy rib. Apply several layers of the sauce right up to the end when they come off the smoker.
The next thing you want to do is cut the rack of ribs between the bone and sit down with a large pile of napkins.