Here's What Makes Chili's Baby Back Ribs So Delicious

Did you know that Chili's first launched their legendary baby back ribs way back in 1986 (via Meat + Poultry)? According to Brinker International, the restaurant chain now has over 1,400 locations scattered across 26 countries. Known for popular items like their sizzling fajitas and hand-crafted margaritas, the menu at Chili's provides a wide range of choices. From dishes like classic nachos with guacamole that's made fresh daily to more massive offerings like the Big Bacon BBQ burger that comes with two beef patties and six slices of bacon, Chili's clearly prides itself on catering to a spectrum of palates and appetites.

But chances are that one of the first things you associate with their festive brand of grilled American fare is that famous jingle about Chili's baby back ribs (via YouTube). But what is it exactly about these glistening racks of meat that have inspired us to serenade the world? What's the secret to their tangy tenderness? Luckily for you, we did a deep dive and got the lowdown. Here's what makes Chili's baby back ribs so delicious.

They are rubbed in a secret seasoning

The very first step to unlocking the mystery behind what makes Chili's baby back ribs so delicious is the secret seasoning that's dry rubbed onto the meat (via MultiVu). There are a lot of benefits to using a dry rub when cooking ribs. Unlike a marinade, which saturates the meat and drowns everything in the various liquids and oils being used, a rub of seasoning obviously keeps the meat nice and dry. This is an especially important detail when you're looking to get some extra texture and caramelization on the ribs, because moisture needs to be cooked off before a sear can happen — so in this case, the less moisture, the better (via Bon Appetit).

As for the secret seasoning itself, it seems that the best attempts to replicate it are a mixture of salt, black pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper, granulated white sugar, dried minced onion, garlic powder, and olive oil (via CopyKat Recipes). As you can see, the good news is that all of these seasonings can be commonly found in just about any grocery store.

They are smoked in-house over pecan wood

The next reason that Chili's baby back ribs are so delicious has to do with one of the oldest cooking methods in human history: smoking (via Britannica). According to Chili's, their ribs are smoked in-house over pecan wood. Using pecan wood has lots of advantages. The flavor of pecan wood has a natural sweetness to it, and the wood actually imparts the taste and aromatic essence of the pecans into the meat (via Houston Chronicle). Beyond the complexity of flavor it adds, pecan wood also imbues a natural redness to the meat, which can give the ribs a more attractive and appetizing appearance.

There's another edge to smoking: the amazing effect it has on the fat of the meat. Meat is full of connective tissue called collagen that reacts differently depending on the cut of meat and the cooking method (via Napoleon). If the meat is cooked quickly at higher temperatures, sometimes the connective tissue can get rubbery and tougher to chew. On the other hand, according to The Manual, when meat is smoked at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, the collagen slowly renders down, creating a juicier and more tender piece of meat that melts in your mouth.

They are pressure cooked to keep them juicy

Chili's has yet another trick up their sleeve when it comes to the achieving that one-of-a-kind taste in their baby back ribs we've all come to love — using a pressure cooker. Using a pressure cooker allows Chili's to pre-cook the ribs while also creating a juicier atmosphere from the pressurized steam that helps keep the ribs moist. Unlike slow cookers, which are designed to operate at lower temperatures for longer periods of time, pressure cookers operate at much higher temperatures (via Serious Eats). Beyond this, pressure cookers allow for better browning of the meat and develop much richer flavors.

Locked in a tightly sealed and pressurized cask of it's own juices, the ribs are bathed in continuous steam. Because steam permeates meat more easily under pressure, the connective tissue in the ribs can soften more effortlessly (via The Exploratorium). In other words, pressure cooking their ribs is a smart move by Chili's. It minimizes the time it takes to cook them while also keeping the meat nice and tender.

They are basted in a secret barbecue sauce

Everyone knows that adding barbecue sauce to grilled meat is a good way to bump up the flavor factor big time. But with so many different styles of sauce out there, how do we crack the code to figure out what's in Chili's barbecue sauce for sure? Maybe you could wing it through a taste test, but as luck would have it, cookbook author Todd Wilbur — self-described on his website as a "chronic food hacker" who reverse engineers beloved restaurant recipes for use at home by the masses — has published a simplified version of the Chili's secret sauce (via ABC News).

The barbecue sauce is made with dark brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, tomato paste, yellow mustard, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and liquid smoke for a little extra flavor. Everything is mixed well until combined, brought to a boil, and then slowly simmered in a saucepan for nearly an hour. Remember, it's important to keep stirring to ensure smoothness. When the barbecue sauce has cooked down and reached the desired consistency, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

They are grilled to give them some char and texture

After getting baked, the baby back ribs at Chili's end up on a sizzling hot grill while being basted with their barbecue sauce (via Eat This, Not That!). At this point, it's less about actually cooking them and more about developing some char and texture from the flames of the grill. The ribs should already be mostly cooked through because they have been smoked and baked in a pressure cooker at a high temperature. Putting them on the grill is really about achieving the magic of caramelization.

One of the real keys here is that, according to copycat cook Todd Wilbur's recipe for the baby back ribs BBQ sauce, Chili's likely makes sure to grill the ribs for a few minutes before adding the barbecue sauce (via ABC News). According to Serious Eats, this is because there is dark brown sugar in barbecue sauce, and the sugar will quickly burn when it comes into contact with the flames of the grill. Chili's perfectly chars their ribs by grilling them without any sauce at first so they don't burn, then bastes them with barbecue and grills them again for a perfect finish.

They hand-trim all of their ribs

An often overlooked aspect of cooking ribs is making sure that they're properly trimmed. Fortunately, Chili's understands the importance of this and makes sure to hand-trim all of their baby back ribs (via Chili's). But why does this need to be done, what does the process entail, and why is it so important?

On the backside of every rack of ribs is an inedible thin membrane also called "silverskin" (via Fine Cooking). This thin membrane covers the rib bones, and if left unattended can cause some problems through the cooking process. For one, the membrane can act like a shield, preventing seasoning and smoke from penetrating the meat, resulting in less flavor. To make matters worse, because the silverskin can't render down, it can actually wither when exposed to heat, leading it to pull on the bones and contort and bend the shape of the rack. The end result is an uneven cook.

The good news is that this is a problem that Chili's knows how to fix. By gently sliding a butter knife between the membrane and the bone, then giving the knife a lift and a wiggle, the tight membrane can be loosened up (via Weber). This process can be repeated for each bone on the entire rack. Once the entire membrane has been loosened, you can grab one end of the skin and rip it to the opposite end until it comes off in one large piece. By smartly hand-trimming all of their ribs like this, Chili's ensures a flat rack of succulent ribs that will be cooked evenly, just the way you like them.