How to Smoke a Tasty Rib

May 25, 2008

I have a confession to make. I love ribs. That’s not the confession – this is: I love Hormel extra meaty baby back ribs.

Why is that a confession? Because like much supermarket-grade Hormel product, the extra meaty baby back is “enhanced” for flavor and tenderness. Basically, it means that the meat has been brined in a salt solution to help retain moisture during the cooking process.

Unlike a lot of BBQ competitors, I don’t just shun “enhanced” meat out of hand. Instead I prefer to try it out and determine if it’s something I can work with – and in the case of these ribs, I can definitely work with them. They are in my opinion the best baby back rib that you can get outside of a specialty cut from a real butcher.

Most baby back ribs are not much bigger than the things you get at Chinese restaurants. They’re very thin and easy to overcook and/or dry out. That’s why most competitors use spare ribs for contests – they have a lot more fat, are generally thicker and definitely larger and are generally much more forgiving. But these Hormel babies are huge – they are very consistently thick from end to end and are at least as thick as a good spare rib.

So here is my version of the “3-2-1” rib method with a few recommendations for ingredients. Basically this is just a method, or perhaps a “rib cooking framework” that you can plug your own favorite ingredients in to.

Start with 1 or more racks of these Hormel baby back ribs. Look for the “extra meaty” label. They’re not easy to find – I know of two Hy-Vee stores in Kansas City that carry them. You can substitute spare ribs in this process without much difficulty, but if you use any other type of baby-back then you’re going to want to reduce the overall cooking time by 1-1.5 hours. Beef rib cookers should look elsewhere for ideas.

Remove the membrane covering the bone side of the rib. I find this easiest to do with a butter knife and a paper towel – use the knife the pry the membrane up from one end of the rib, then grab the exposed bit of membrane with the paper towel (for traction) and pull the membrane off. Watch out for tearing or problems if there are many gashes in the membrane. Some people don’t take the time to pull the membrane off of their ribs, and those people are called amateurs. Take an extra minute or two per rack and it’ll make a big difference in the overall quality of the product.

I like to apply a little something to the meat side of the rib to help the rub adhere. This can be something as simple as just a very thin coat of plain yellow mustard or a very thin wash of cider vinegar, or something more complex like a mustard slather. Make certain that whatever you use has very little sugar in it – these ribs will be cooking for upwards of 6 hours in your smoker and could burn if your fire flares up at some point. Sprinkle both the meat and bone sides of the rack with your favorite rub, but don’t be too generous. The “enhanced” label means that these ribs are a little bit saltier than natural meats, so if you’re using the extra-meaty baby backs you might err on the side of caution when applying rub.

What rub to use? Again, that’s entirely up to you. Most general purpose BBQ dry rubs are perfectly adequate. In Kansas City there are a lot of teams that sell their products at local shops, many of which are formulated specifically for pork and pork ribs. I’d recommend picking up a couple of bottles and trying them out. Good specialty BBQ stores will have open bottles that you can sample from.

Once the ribs are prepped and seasoned, start up your smoker with enough fuel for at least 6 hours (plus a little extra for transition time). For my Weber Smokey Mountain smoker that’s about a half of a ring of unlit charcoal topped with about 3/4 of a fully-lit chimney of charcoal. Over the six hours the unlit charcoal will ignite from the top down giving me a good clean burn that lasts a long time – this is a variant of the “Minion Method,” named after a nice gentleman by the name of Jim Minion.

Once your smoker is up to around 225f go ahead and put the ribs in the smoker. In my WSM I like to use rib racks for this step. My favorite are a set of racks I got from Cabelas, they are “supposed” to be able to cook ribs and potatoes (!) but they work very well for thick and thinner ribs. I can get 8 racks of ribs overall into my WSM without having to get too creative.

What type of smoke wood to use? My personal preference is for a mixture of cherry and pecan, but your choice is as individual as you are. Other great options include oak, apple, pear and of course hickory. Other more exotic woods may be available in your area – just avoid softwoods like pine.

After the ribs are in the smoker, the smoke is going and the temp is stable around 225f or so (anywhere from 220 to 250 is just fine), let the ribs smoke uninterrupted for 3 hours. That’s right – don’t touch them. Don’t spray them, don’t baste them, don’t even look at them. Let them have 3 hours of good cooking time.

Once three hours have passed, you’re entering the “tenderness acceleration” phase by wrapping each rack of ribs individually in heavy duty foil. When you do this, go ahead and baste the ribs with something tasty. Some folks like to spray the ribs with apple juice, others use a marinade, baste or sop of their own make or choosing. Personally I use whatever I happen to have on hand – sometimes apple juice, sometimes Dr. Pepper, sometimes just a concoction of stuff I have on hand. Once the ribs are basted and wrapped in foil, replace back into the smoker for another 2 hours. The only thing you need to check at this point is temperature – try to keep the smoker from spiking too high, because you don’t want foil packets full of mush.

When that 2 hours of foiling time has completed remove the ribs and return them to the smoker. At this point I baste the ribs again and stoke the fire a little bit to get a little additional smoke to “kiss” the meat at the last few minutes of cooking. This last phase of cooking is intended to both finish the ribs and to get the exterior of the meat to form a pleasing color and texture. The ribs coming out of the foil are probably quite wet and maybe a little gray in color – this last hour or so can be all the difference in making really great ribs.

After that hour has gone by you can baste the ribs with some BBQ sauce if you so choose. Personally I always serve sauce on the side, but I definitely wouldn’t put sauce on ribs until they were essentially done to your preferred level of tenderness. And how do you check to see how tender a rib is? Use a toothpick and push it into the meat between a couple of rib bones, preferably near the center of the rack. If the toothpick slides through without any resistance, you should have a nice tender rib that shouldn’t yet be “falling off the bone.” The meat should be pulling back from the end of the bones by at least a half-inch and should have a nice burgundy color (but that could be different depending on what is in the rub and/or baste you choose to use). If you do want ribs that are really “falling off the bone,” you might want to leave the ribs in the smoker a little longer during the last phase of cooking. Don’t increase the amount of time the ribs spend in foil – 2 hours seems to be the limit, any more than that and they’ll be mush before you can really finish them.

The really nice thing about ribs is that – unlike pork shoulder and brisket – they can easily be done in a day. You can get up in the morning, decide you’ve got a hankerin’ for ribby goodness – and have ribs ready for an early supper. They don’t require a crazy amount of preparation and can be very, very tasty and tender…it’s as simple as 3-2-1!

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The Thrill of the Grill

May 19, 2008

Most mainstream press pundits are calling Memorial Day weekend the “official” start of the summer grilling season. Poppycock and all that – most of us have been grilling all year long. My family has a long standing tradition of grilling steaks on Christmas Eve, and while sometimes that means relatively balmy weather in Kansas City it certainly didn’t this year. I often fire up my weber kettles and/or bullet smokers in the snow…in fact, the only weather that really prevents me from effective BBQ work is really excessive wind. Nothing messes with an airflow smoker like having 50mph wind whipping across both the top and bottom vents.

That said, yes, we’re having a big BBQ to-do this weekend in celebration of both the Memorial Day holiday and – more importantly – TJ’s final adoption this week. Over the weekend I’ll be smoking up some beef brisket, pulled pork, pork ribs (either spare or loin back, I haven’t decided yet) and some chicken thighs. I’ll also be grilling up some standards the day of for those that prefer a burger or brautwurst to traditional BBQ…although how those people got through the invitation vetting process I have no idea.

In the interest of helping foster BBQ knowledge across the vast interwebs, here are some thoughts on how to do each of those things I’ve listed above. No real “secrets,” just common sense tips from someone that’s been doing these things for a while with a small amount of success on the competitive circuit.

First, use charcoal, preferably a name brand with no pre-embedded petroleum products involved. I’m looking at you, Match-Light. Gas grills are only acceptable when your locale forbids the use of charcoal on wood decks, and in such case you should be thinking of buying a home with a cement patio.

Use a charcoal chimney to start your fire. This is always preferred when smoking meats for hours at a time, but if you’re going to be doing some quick grilling then I guess lighter fluid is acceptable. You won’t catch me using it, though. I prefer to use the little white parrafin cubes from Weber – a couple of those can get a full chimney let with ashes showing on the corners of the top layer of charcoal in 20 minutes. Note that the new Kingsford charcoal does start faster, so be sure to empty that chimney as soon as you see the corners turning ash on the top – otherwise you’re losing valuable heat energy.

Good BBQ starts with good quality meat. That doesn’t mean you have to use Prime or Kobe beef, but buy your meat from a reputable grocer or (even better) butcher that knows something about where the meat comes from. This might not be possible for ground beef, but knowing a little something about the source of a pork shoulder or brisket that you’re going to be spending upwards of 12-16 hours (or more) with can’t hurt. Look for marbling (fat running through the muscle), not just fat on top of the meat.

Real BBQ means real wood. If at all possible, try to use something local or interesting. Those ubiquitous bags of hickory chips and chunks at Wal-Mart probably smell and taste just as appetizing as they look, but if you’ve got a wood pile with some local pecan, apple or cherry feel free to use some chunks of that. Kansas Citians can find good selections of wood at any local Ace Hardware, not to mention fine places like Backyard Bash in Parkville.

Dry Rub > Marinade. Marinading meat really doesn’t do a whole lot, while a dry rub can help give a piece of meat a tasty, attractive crust. Injecting some meats, like poultry and pork (and brisket, I guess, but I’ve not tried this) can take flavor into the middle of the product, so if you happen to be somewhere that has injecting kits (Cabelas has them) give them a whirl. Personally, I like to put a very thin layer of mustard mixed with a little steak sauce on the meat before I liberally sprinkle with dry rub – it helps the rub adhere, but don’t use so much that you end up with just a gooey mess.

With BBQ low and slow is the way to go. My Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) smokers never get above 250. I prefer the 230 range for most meat with the exception of chicken, which I smoke around 325. The trick with BBQ is that it doesn’t really follow a prescribed time for doneness, because you’re cooking through the “done” point and into the “tender” point. A good starter rule of thumb for brisket and pork is around an hour per pound, but I find that this is really a guess – let the meat tell you when it’s done by using the “fork test.” Take a fork and stick it in the meat and give a turn. If the fork turns easily, it’s done. With a pork butt the bone should slide out easily when the pork is pull-able. This can be lengthened or shortened by the quality of the meat involved – more marbling generally means shorter cook times at the same temperature to achieve the same level of tenderness, because you don’t have to rely just on the conversion of collagen to gelatin to get tender meat when the meat is tender to begin with.

With grilling I like to have a couple of different zones on my grill, which is easily done by making the charcoal very “densely packed” on one side of the grill and more “loose” on the other side. This gives me someplace to put burgers and steaks when they’re getting close to done but their other brethren haven’t finished yet.

I’ve become a fan of parboiling…but JUST FOR BRAUTWURST. Par-boiling ribs is a quick way to be given admission to BBQ purgatory. No, for brauts I like to par-boil them in a mixture of beer or chicken stock, chopped onions and a chopped apple for just a few minutes. This ensures that the sausage is fully cooked through before burning on the outside, which can be a problem with those oh-so-tasty pineapple brauts that they sell at our local Hy-Vee stores. SO GOOD, but with pineapple ground in to the sausage they burn very easily. Put them on the “cool zone” and just get them nicely browned. And as much as it pains me to agree with Jim Belushi about anything, don’t pierce the skin…use tongs to turn those brauts.

For my burgers I – at a minimum – mix the seasonings in with the pre-ground meat. For a real burger I love to grind my own meat – I use 4 parts beef chuck roast and 1 part something else, either bacon or – get this – duck breast. YUM. Grind together, season the meat and shape into 1/2 pound patties. I make my patties 1/2 pound because they’re generally a little fattier – if you’re using leaner ground beef (which is a mistake, but it’s yours to make) the patties can be smaller.

Just some things to ponder. Have a great time on the grill – I know I will be!


And Now A Word About the Sad State of The American Chicken Industry

March 30, 2008

CRAPPY.

I’ll add a little more to that.

REALLY CRAPPY.

I used to be an active member of the competitive BBQ “circuit” to a small extent, and I loves me some BBQ. The very first category I did well in, and continued to do well in was chicken. I won numerous ribbons and have a rabid following among my family and friends all asking every time I fire up my smokers, “are you making chicken?”

The funny thing is that I just don’t care for it that much. Of the “Big 4” KCBS categories (chicken, pork ribs, pork butt and beef brisket) it’s my least favorite. But as I alluded to, I haven’t been as active in BBQ lately. Last year a couple of guys on the team had some job changes, and this year I’m finally zeroing in on scheduling a lap-band surgery. However, today was a potluck dinner at church, and since I hadn’t done any big BBQ lately I thought I’d have a practice run with the whole “big 4.” And that meant getting a bunch of chicken thighs.

Like most competitors I use thighs – they’re moist, easy to cook and look good when presented in the box. They’re much more forgiving than the breast (the cut I prefer), and especially when cooking a day before serving they’re just the best choice. When I compete I prefer to use a higher-grade chicken – not free range, as they’re fairly tough (but VERY tasty – they just take longer to smoke and get tender), but the untouched organic stuff. Friday I was unable to get any, so I had to settle for the mass market brand from the big company in Arkansas that rhymes with Dyson and sucks just as much.

I take quite a bit of care to make certain that the chicken is trimmed up and gone over pretty well before I prep it for the smoker, and this batch of 2 dozen thighs was just plain nasty. For 2 dozen thighs there was over ONE POUND of EXCESS skin. I don’t remove all the skin, just the huge flaps that seemed to envelop each thigh like some kind of fatty blanket. In addition, many of the thighs had quite obvious pinfeathers in the skin, and their overall condition was just pretty crappy.

It took me almost an hour to get those thighs into what I consider to be cookable condition. I consider myself lucky that this chicken hadn’t been “flavor-enhanced” and I was able to brine it myself, but compared to the natural organic stuff that I usually pay a little bit more for competition use, it was truly nasty. Next time I’ll just call a day ahead and get the good stuff.