(CNN) - Here's the cruddy thing about ribs: you can spend hours upon hours lovingly seasoning, basting and smoking a rack to melting, knee-knocking perfection, and at least one of your guests is going to be sitting there thinking, "Well, if I had been manning the grill, I would have..."
Fine. They get to host next time. Meanwhile, rest assured that there are as many ways to prepare ribs as there are meat-loving lunatics with nothing better to do than to spend four or more hours slaving over a hot grill. You're not going to please everyone, but if you follow these basic guidelines (and add your own touches along the way), there's an awfully good chance you'll at least please yourself.
Step one: Pick your ribs
Depending on where you call home, there will likely be a few different options: beef, pork or (if you're lucky) lamb, and they'll probably either be labeled as spareribs or baby back ribs. There are no bad choices here; spareribs have more fat and meat, but are often less tender than babybacks, which are leaner, but often thought to have more flavor.
If you've got the cash, opt for a rack of each ("slab" and "rack," by the way, are often used interchangeably and just mean a row of ribs that are still connected) and see which you like better. Otherwise, point and choose one. The barbecue deities will not strike you down. If you're serving lots of sides, a full rack can serve 3-4 people. If the ribs are the star, figure a rack for each pair.
Step two: Silverskin pick-off - or not
Once you've locked in your ribs and brought them home, blot them dry with a paper towel. At this point, you can decide how fussy you're going to get. Many rib fetishists will get in there and slice out the meat and expose the bone tips for a St. Louis-style rack. That's lovely, but not at all mandatory.
Neither is removing the membrane that coats the bone side of the slab. Debate rages as to whether or not the step is actually necessary: some argue that silverskin helps a rack maintain its shape and adds a pleasantly chewy texture, while others insist that it keeps rubs from effectively seasoning the meat and that its texture is unpleasant.
Some split the difference and score along both sides of each bone without removing the membrane, but to remove it completely, work a butter knife or a clean screwdriver tip under the skin until you have enough give to grasp it with your fingers. Peel, and repeat the process until the whole rack is freed. A butcher will usually undertake this process for you if you ask nicely, but again - it's a matter of taste.
Depending on how your rack was trimmed by the butcher, there may be a glossy flap of meat dangling on one side. Jackpot! When no one is looking, toss that on the grill, then gobble it up for yourself. It's arguably the most delicious part of the whole shebang and you'll have earned it.
Step three: There's the rub
Some people will at this point parboil their ribs in beer, apple juice or cola. We cannot condone this, despite how tasty they claim the results to be, and if you do this, do not admit it aloud to anyone, lest you risk withering taunts, gestures and stares.
Marinades, however, are a perfectly respectable option. If you've got the time, a few cups of apple juice mixed with a hefty pinch of salt and a shot of bourbon make a great overnight soak for a slab, but do not lose any sleep over it if you don't.
Rub, however, is the key to achieving distinctive flavor. Here are a couple of building block recipes that can be tweaked to add or omit flavors you love or loathe.
1/4 cup Sweet paprika (or hot or smoked if that's more to your liking)
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly-ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a bowl with your fingers, working out any brown sugar lumps.
From here, you can add your own personal twists -- tablespoons or teaspoons of dry mustard, coffee, celery seed, dried chiles, oregano, powdered onion, garlic salt -- up to you. Coriander and cumin play beautifully with heady wood smoke like hickory or apple, but really -- even if you keep it super-simple, these ribs are going to be delicious.
Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson B-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama shared this all-purpose rub with Eatocracy a while back:
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup paprika
1/3 cup garlic salt
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
Rub this all over the racks, sprinkle on some more until they're thoroughly coated, and then wrap and stick the slabs in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), or go out and start building your fire. If you'd like, you can slather a very thin layer of mustard, oil, honey, vinegar or barbecue sauce on the ribs first to get more rub to stick to the surface, but it's definitely not necessary.
Step four: Fire it up
If you're blessed enough to have a smoker, set that baby to 225°F and toss in your