Sunday, June 8, 2014

A method for cooking ribs



The title is quite deliberate:  A method.  I would never presume to have the method.  But I have worked on this for a long time, and I am finally satisfied with the results.  Judging by the rate at which they are consumed, I think my family agrees.  I think I've come up with a reliable way to make good, smoky ribs at home that rival most of the ones I've had at barbecue joints.

The Benchmarks

For me, excellent ribs should be juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender.  At the same time, the meat can't be overcooked--it should neither be hard nor mushy.  It should hold its shape and not be stringy or crumbly.  The ribs should have a smoky flavor.  They should be well-seasoned but not overpoweringly so.

I've made ribs by various means:  smoking, baking them in the oven then putting them on the grill, just on the grill, you name it.  But I never quite achieved the balance between keeping the integrity of the meat and having it come easily off the bone that I was looking for, until now.

The Basic Secret

I'll go into excruciating detail in case you want to know exactly what I do, but I'll give you the short version up front (sort of like an abstract in a dissertation--the metaphor is apt):  the key is slow cooking over wood (to get the smoky flavor).  I like to use a barbecue grill rather than a smoker.  The key to the proper use of the grill is indirect heat that is high enough to cook the meat but low enough to have it happen slowly.  That's all there is to it.  Sort of.  I've picked up a lot of tricks and tips along the way.  I will give all the steps here.  Cooking ribs takes about five hours, start to finish.

How I Did It (the Young Frankenstein reference is deliberate)

Here it is.  My step-by-painstaking-step instructions for really good ribs.  I hasten to say that I think what's important here is the method:  slow cooking over a charcoal fire.  The particulars of how you season the ribs, whether or not to use sauce, what the sauce is like, and so on, are up to you.  I will tell you what I do about seasoning and sauce, but don't feel bound by it.  My family and I like them this way (with a dry rub and a Kansas City-style sauce), but you may not.  I think the method will work well no matter how you season and sauce the ribs (or don't sauce at all--a la Memphis).

1.  Prepare the grill.


Coals lighting up.
I start the grill for ribs the same way I do for any other cooking--nothing special here.  I use a Weber kettle, and for a project like this, I start with all fresh coals. (For other applications, I might reuse coals from the previous outing, but since these have to last a long time, I prefer to start with all new ones.)  I also like to remove all the ash and debris from the bottom of the grill before I start.

I long ago dispensed with lighter fluid (too scary) and self-lighting charcoal (just icky).  So I use a chimney, pictured at the left.  You put newspaper in the bottom (two full-sized, double sheets--each sheet is four pages from a big paper like the New York Times, loosely crumpled up) and the charcoal in the top, then light the newspaper.  Be sure all the vents are fully open at the bottom of the grill (this is no problem for me:  the bottom vents on my grill got stuck long ago in the open position and won't budge).  Allow plenty of ventilation and air circulation around the grill, and keep it well away from anything that could burn.  It takes about half an hour for the coals to be ready.

What kind of charcoal?  Kingsford has a line of charcoal with hickory or mesquite wood embedded in it, and I like this a lot.  I think it really does add more smoky flavor. (I bought a bag of the regular stuff recently, because the bag was bigger and it was less expensive.  I thought the flavor was noticeably different and less interesting.)  I know it's not as fashionable, but I prefer briquettes to lump charcoal:  they burn slower and more evenly.  But if you're skilled with lump charcoal and prefer it, by all means, use it.

2.  Prepare the meat.

I emphasize, this is what I do.   You can approach this very differently if you want!  You might like seasoning your ribs earlier (I haven't found that it makes a big difference, but go ahead if you want!).  You might like a different style of ribs.  It's all OK.  I'll note the steps that I think are crucial.

OK, but what kind of meat?

Yup.  Here's the first bone of contention.  I could also have said, "Aye, there's the rub."  All puns are fully intended.  Feel free to rib me about it.

But seriously, there are different styles of ribs, not to mention different meats altogether.  I should probably have said right up front that I'm cooking pork ribs here.  If you want to make beef ribs, you'll have to figure that out for yourself--I've never made them.

There are two basic styles of pork ribs:  baby back ribs and spare ribs or St. Louis-style ribs (more about this in a second).  The baby backs are smaller, leaner, and have shorter bones.  The spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs are longer and flatter; they're also fattier.  Left to my own devices, I'd more often cook spare ribs:  the greater amount of fat means that they are more likely to be tender and juicy if you cook them properly.  But my family generally prefers the leaner baby back ribs, and I'm proud to say that this method has yielded excellent results with both types.  The ones pictured throughout here are baby backs, and believe me, they were tender, juicy, and succulent.  I liked them a lot.  If your family is indifferent on this topic, you may want to start with spare ribs until you master the techniques, as they are more reliably tender and juicy.

If you buy spare ribs, chances are they will be untrimmed.  It is just fine to cook them just as they are, but if you want a more elegant presentation, you can trim them into St. Louis-style ribs.  There are good directions on how to do this here.  (Personally, I'm not convinced that anything about barbecue needs to be elegant, but again, this is a matter of taste.)  Be aware that packages of meat labeled "St. Louis-style ribs" may actually be untrimmed spare ribs.  If you want St. Louis ribs, you'll need to do a little cutting.  It's easy to tell if the ribs have been trimmed or not:  the untrimmed ones have an irregular (rhomboidal) shape.  If all the bones are neatly the same length, the ribs have been trimmed.

Getting the meat ready for the grill:

First, remove the membrane.

Whichever kind you get, chances are (unless you have a very special and careful butcher) that the membrane will still be attached.  While it's a bit of a nuisance to get it off, I think it's worth doing.  This is the ickiest part of the process.

Removing the membrane.
To remove the membrane, set the ribs meat-side down (the underside of the bones is exposed) on the counter or board.  With a small knife or your fingernail or whatever, get under the membrane at one end.  It will resist you.  Once you get it going, though, it will peel off fairly easily and usually in one long piece, as in the photo above.  (I had the ribs in one hand and the camera in the other.  Kinda tricky.)  Pull it off completely and discard it.

If you're having trouble finding an edge, make one by making a small, shallow slit in the membrane between the bones.  Try not to cut into the meat, though it's certainly no big deal if you end up poking into the meat a little.  Pull the membrane off in one direction, then go back and get the other side.  As I say, this is the messiest and least pleasant part of the whole enterprise.  I've never skipped this step--I feel that the seasonings penetrate better without the membrane and that the resulting ribs are tenderer, but this could be my imagination.  If you find this too hard to accomplish, I don't think it would be the end of the world if you left the membrane on.  Just don't enter your ribs in a competition in that case.  (Frankly, the only prize I need is delicious ribs.  I have no interest in contests.)

Pat the meat dry with paper towel.


Patting the meat dry.
While this too is icky and leaves you with a pile of really gross paper towels, resist the urge to skip this step.  The seasoning will work better if the surface is dry, and the meat will cook better, too.  Just get yourself a big wad of paper towel and pat the meat dry on each side.

I was cooking three slabs of ribs on this occasion.  In the photo, one slab is already seasoned, and I'm drying the second one.  In the upper right corner is the unspeakably gooey towel from drying the first rack of ribs.  (None of this is for the faint-hearted, and it's also why Sue will be a vegetarian once I'm no longer around to deal with the nasty chores involved with cooking meat.)

Season as desired.

I suspect you could just salt and pepper the meat, and it would be delicious.  I like to use a dry rub that I got from Saveur magazine some years ago.  You can find the recipe here.  I keep the rub (which you don't rub into the meat at all--you just sprinkle it on) in a quart-sized plastic container, like from yogurt, then I transfer it to an empty seasoned salt bottle that I use as a shaker.  The seasoning mixture isn't only for ribs; it's also good on things like chicken.  Sprinkle the meat generously with the rub on both sides.  Despite the name, you don't need to rub it in.  And while you want to cover the meat thoroughly, you don't need to bury it in dry rub.  The rub is pretty salty, so keep that in mind.

I haven't found that there's any benefit to doing this way ahead, but I know that some people feel as though they're doing more if they get the meat ready a day or so before.  Go ahead and try it if you want!  My ribs come out fine if I just do this while the coals are lighting.

Three racks of ribs, ready to go.

3.  From the counter onto the fire.


The coals are ready.
By the time you're done cleaning and seasoning the meat, the fire is likely to be ready, or nearly so.  Since you're going for long, slow cooking here, there's some merit to emptying the coals from the chimney a little earlier than you might do if you're direct-cooking steaks or burgers.  My signal that they're ready is that the coals on top are just tinged with ash.  The ones on the bottom will be fully lit, and the ones on the top are getting going.  This will give a fire that is plenty hot but that will burn for a good long while.  For other kinds of cooking, I usually wait until I see flames coming from the top of the chimney and all the coals are fully gray.



Coals on one side, water pan on the other.
At this point, you'll build your indirect fire.  And here's a place where I do something different from what the Weber Company suggests.  They will tell you to scatter coals in two heaps, one at either side of the grill, and to leave the center open for cooking.  But I find it gives more space and is easier if you heap all the coals on one side of the grill:  just dump them out of the chimney right at the edge of the kettle.  You can make a heap that will come just under the grate.  This will give you much more cooking surface--about half the grill or more.  While it's true that it's a little hotter closer to the heap of coals, it's not that big a difference.  Once you've heaped the coals on one half of the kettle, place a pan of warm tap water in the other half.  Since it will get really messy, I like to use disposable aluminum pans for this purpose.  You could also use a pan from your kitchen that you're not too in love with and cover it with several layers of foil.  Set the cooking grate on top, leaving the flap over the coals open, which will make it easier to add stuff later on.

Circulation of heat and smoke is important.

In order for things to cook evenly, there has to be good circulation of heat and smoke under the dome of the kettle, and this took me some figuring to achieve.  If you're just cooking one slab of ribs, it's no problem:  just set them on the grate.  But if I'm going to all this effort, I want to cook a couple of slabs, and this is where some ingenuity is required.

I suspect you can get a gadget that would let you set racks of ribs on their side on top of the grill (I think I've seen this in catalogs).  But that would be a bulky object that wouldn't see much use.  I found that I could improvise something that works pretty well.

A roasting rack can be used to arrange your ribs on the grill.
I just use my roasting rack--the folding rack that I put under my turkey at Thanksgiving.  It will get messy, but you can clean it up pretty easily (the rack in the picture has been used frequently for cooking ribs for years and doesn't look bad).  Soak it for a while in the sink after you use it, then scrub off as much as you can.  If you're still not satisfied, pop it in the dishwasher.  As you can see in the photo, I set the rack to a fairly open angle.  I then set this on top of the grate in the grill and lay a slab of ribs onto each side.  The slab that's closer to the fire slightly risks overcooking, so I make sure that the bone-side of that slab is on the outside nearest the coals.  Since I was cooking three slabs of ribs, I put two on the roasting rack and laid one directly on the grill, bone-side down, behind it.  I'm showing you two views of the ribs on the grill below, right at the beginning of the process.  (Click on the photos to enlarge them if you want.)  Note that the flap on the grate is open.











One more little trick:  add some wood chips or chunks to the fire just before you put the lid onto the grill.  I used mesquite in this case, but I've also had excellent luck with hickory.  You may like a different kind of hardwood--that's all up to you.  No need to soak the wood:  it'll smoke just fine.

Add some wood chunks to your fire for more smokiness.
4.  Now, be patient!

Set the lid on the kettle and partially close the top vents--I keep mine about halfway open.  You can futz with this, since I'm sure a lot depends on the kind of charcoal you're using, the ambient temperature, etc.  You want a fire that is hot enough to cook the meat, but gentle enough to do it slowly.  The water in the pan, which probably helps to keep the meat moist, most likely also keeps the temperature down a bit.  Plan on the meat cooking for 3 - 4 hours.

Try your best to resist peeking.  Every time you open the lid, you're letting heat and smoke escape.  I try to limit my fussing with things to about once an hour or so.  (OK, maybe 45 minutes.)

Here's how they looked after an hour:


After one hour on the grill.

Notice that the meat looks like it's cooking, but it doesn't look that much different from when it started out.  The meat is beginning to shrink from the bones a bit in the middle rack.  You can also see that I added a few unlit coals and some more wood to the fire at this point.  You'll want to replenish the charcoal and wood occasionally.  (I add charcoal maybe once and wood chips two or three times.  Allow the fire to die down a bit towards the end of the cooking to prevent overcooking.) Also peek to see that there's enough water in the pan underneath the ribs and add more water if necessary.  Hot tap water is fine.

After two hours, it's starting to look more like cooked meat.


After two hours on the grill.

But even though the meat has shrunk from the bones even further, they're still not ready.  (Truthfully, you could probably safely eat them now.  It's just that the meat will get softer if they cook awhile longer, especially if the fire is slow.  I added wood but not charcoal at this stage.)  My test?  I try jiggling a bone.  If I can move it or even pull it out of the meat, then it's done.  The slabs will also seem a bit fragile, almost like they'll fall apart when you handle them.  That's what you want!

If you like your ribs sauced (I do), brush them generously with sauce during the last 15 - 30 minutes of cooking.  (Here is my recipe for barbecue sauce, but use any sauce you like--including a good bottled sauce.)  You'll want to leave them on the grill for about 3 to 3-1/2 hours in all.  If it's going quicker, it's not the end of the world--I've never thrown away any ribs I cooked!  It just means your grill was too hot:  try closing the vents down further next time.  If it's taking longer, open them for a hotter fire.  If it's cool outside, which it never is in Arizona, they will take longer, too.  So the time is approximate, but I'm shooting for 3 hours in the smoke.

Here's how they looked when I took them off of the grill.  They're mahogany in color, the meat is soft but still has its shape, and they're glazed from the sauce.


The ribs, fresh off the grill.

I suggest taking them from the fire with as little fanfare as possible, because there's one more step that will ensure total success, and you want to fend off the hungry hordes.

5.  The ultimate secret:  let them rest.

You'll notice that the ribs are in a large roasting pan.  A bit before I took them off the grill, I preheated my oven to 200 degrees.  (What's this???  You're using an OVEN????!!!??? For BARBECUING????!!!)  I know, it's heresy.  But bear with me here.

I cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil and slip the whole shebang into the oven for about half an hour.  This lets the meat rest and probably even steams it ever so slightly, which in my opinion creates just that last bit of tenderness.  You can also use this time to finish your preparations of potato salad, cole slaw, tomato aspic, or whatever else you're serving.  I've even successfully let them cool once they're off the grill, then reheated them in the pan with the foil on, using a very slow oven (200 - 250 degrees) until they're hot and you can smell the smoke.  They'll be terrific the next day, so you could conceivably cook them one day and serve them the next.

To carve the ribs, place them bone-side up on a board and cut carefully between the bones.  They're more on an angle than you think, and you'll need a sharp knife to deal with any cartilage that's between the bones.  Serve them up with plenty of sauce--and plenty of napkins.  Don't worry about leftovers--there won't be any.

It's worth asking:  why go to all this trouble?  Well, for one thing, I actually enjoy it.  For another, I can make the meat just the way I want it:  commercial barbecue is often too something--too salty, too sweet, whatever.  I have always been pleased with how my ribs taste; it was the tenderness, etc., that I found hard to achieve.  And that's the one thing that barbecue places pretty reliably get right.  So once I accomplished that, I knew I'd have something I liked even better than what I could buy.  Which is often the case.

Do what you like, and don't apologize for it.  If it ends up producing yummy food, trust me:  no one will complain.

UPDATE: Lately, find it easier to take the ribs from the grill when they are done, slather them with sauce, wrap them in foil, and leave them in the 200-degree oven for an hour or so. This is easier than saucing them on the grill, and it yields a lovely, soft glaze with no risk of charring. Also, somewhere along the way, I picked up a grill rack that holds four racks of ribs more or less upright. I use this now instead of my improvised one. Be sure to put the meaty end of the ribs downward. (May 27, 2017)

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