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Published June 04, 2012, 11:30 PM

Ribology 101: Local RibFest judge tells you what to look for

When it comes to ribs, you could say Griff Potter is something of a fan. A certified rib taste-tester, Potter, of Fargo, judged last year’s RibFest, and will return again to judge the seven entries at this week’s event.

When it comes to ribs, you could say Griff Potter is something of a fan.

A certified rib taste-tester, Potter, of Fargo, judged last year’s RibFest, and will return again to judge the seven entries at this week’s event.

Potter, certified as a judge in 2008 through the Kansas City Barbeque Society, has also judged rib contests in Kentucky and Illinois.

And on the eve of this week’s Rib Fest, running tomorrow through Saturday, we caught up with Fargo-Moorhead’s local expert to find out what exactly makes for a good rack of ribs, and ask about what we amateurs should know.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Potter says judges look mainly at three specific things to determine the quality of ribs: what the meat looks like, its texture and how it tastes.

Appearance: While the taste of the ribs might be the most important factor when it’s all said and done, how it’s presented matters.

“Appearance is the first thing you see, so we look at things like, is the sauce evenly applied, or is it pooling in the bottom of the container?” Potter says.

On top of that, the ribs should actually look good and not resemble a saucy mess on a plate, he adds.

Texture: Potter points to four different layers in the texture of ribs that judges notice, starting with the sauce on the outside. After that comes the dark brown crust (which Potter says is his favorite part of the rib), followed by the pink layer of the meat called the smoke ring, followed by the meat itself.

Texture, too, is a matter of how the meat comes off the bone when you’re eating it.

Some people think ribs need to be falling off the bone to be cooked properly, but Potter says that’s a common mistake.

“A falling-off-the-bone rib is an overdone rib,” he says.

Conversely, you shouldn’t have to gnaw at the meat to get it off the bone, either. Instead, there should be a good balance of a soft meat that still stays on the bone when you bite into it, Potter says.

Taste: Another common mistake with ribs that Potter sees is that many people over-sauce the meat.

“In this part of the country, people really like to sauce up their ribs,” he says.

In some contests, he’s seen cooks hardly use any sauce at all, allowing the flavor of the pork to shine through.

“That’s what you’re really there for,” Potter says. “You want to be able to taste that delicate pork flavor when it’s all said and done.”

Potter admits finding a balance between the sauce and the taste of the pork might be a little difficult to achieve.

“It’s about getting all those things balanced just right,” he says.

With many different types of barbeque sauces, though, personal preference can vary greatly.

For Potter, at least, a good barbeque sauce is one that has a kick to it.

“I like a barbeque sauce that has a flavor, where I taste more than just brown sugar or molasses, and maybe it has a fruit taste, or a spice to it,” he says.

Though the sauce can certainly make a difference if it’s applied correctly, it should complement the taste of the ribs, not compete with it.

“Sauce shouldn’t be all that I taste,” Potter says.

DIFFERENT STYLES

When asked about the best ribs he’s ever had, Potter pauses for a minute to think, then answers confidently, referring to ribs he tried at a 1987 contest in Kansas City.

Potter, news director at Valley News Live in Fargo, certainly has an extensive background of ribs from which to choose a favorite – he’s tried ribs from all over the South, and just this spring took a trip to Memphis, where he tried as many BBQ restaurants as he could in three days.

The regional difference in ribs that exists from state to state and even city to city is one of the things that he enjoys most about the food.

“One of the neat things as you travel to different places in the country is that there are very different styles of barbeque,” he says.

Potter lives in North Dakota, which he admits certainly isn’t prime rib country. But he thinks there’s a reason why that’s so, and it has to do with how ribs are prepared.

“The idea of people standing around a smoker, drinking beer, wasting a day – that’s a foreign concept to North Dakotans,” he says, referring to the strong work ethic here. “I’m sure people have always been cooking ribs and BBQ here, but not the way they do in other parts of the country.”

And that, he thinks, gets to the appeal of ribs on the most general level.

“It’s sort of a primeval thing, of folks standing around the fire, cooking this meat for hour upon hour, and then eating it without modern utensils,” he says.

While eating ribs with your hands might make some people feel a little self-conscious, Potter thinks that’s really the only way to eat the food.

“I would say that no self-respecting rib eater would ever touch a rib with a fork,” he says. “Ribs are finger food.”

As for side dishes to be eaten along with ribs, though, Potter isn’t quite as particular. Some people prefer the classic coleslaw or baked beans, but he understands that everyone likes different things to eat along with their ribs.

And at RibFest, there’ll be plenty of options, ranging from deep-fried fair food to the traditional coleslaw, the variety of which is just fine by Potter.

“I think the opportunity RibFest provides is if you’re a big rib fan, but other people in your family aren’t, there’s something for everyone,” he says.

If you go

What: RibFest

When: Gates open daily at 11 a.m. Wednesday

through Saturday

Where: Fargodome parking lot

Info: For parking and admission info, visit http://happyharrysribfest.com

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