Today is memorial day. A day intended for America to sit back and meditate on the fact that people have actually fought for our country and died for it. Regardless of your feelings on America’s role as the world’s greatest war machine, the military industrial complex, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that dedication at home with your loved ones. And well, if you’re going to doing all that, you have the time to make something good to eat with all that meditation.
Ribs. Ribs, in addition to surrounding vital organs with a bony protective cage, are delicious if cooked properly. There are different kinds of ribs. Today, we will be making baby back ribs. If you go to a different foodie-friendlier, they can explain to you how the different ribs, spare, baby back, etc, are all the same ribs just cut from different sections. So, no, baby back ribs are not actually from a tiny pig, or from the thorax of an infant, no matter how ultra-metal that might sound. Except for beef ribs. Those actually come from cows rather than pigs. Kudos to you if you figured that out.
So the first part is the easiest, actually procuring the ribs themselves. Unless you choose to tackle a pig and proceed to slaughter and butcher it on the spot, they’re usually easily found at the grocery store. Luckily when summer holidays start creeping up, they go on sale.
The ribs, still in packaging
So now that you’ve gotten your ribs, you want to give them a good rinse, as pork is often packaged in a saline solution that attempts to keep the pork moist and juicy when you cook it. After rinsing it, depending on the size of the ribs you bought, you might need to trim it up to make sure it will actually fit on your grill.
Our ribs, trimmed up to fit on the grill
Now that our ribs are more managable, it’s time to put the rub on them. In the picture above, the rub is the reddish-orangey-brown substance in the bowl. Rubs are a way of adding a quick extra burst of flavor to your ribs and concentrating the flavor in the meat. Again, more descriptive foodie blogs will give you exact details on how to make your rub simply superlative. Yours truly simply prefers to mix paprika, garlic powder, brown sugar, chipotle powder, cayenne powder, cumin, mustard, and salt and black pepper. While some people have a very careful specific rub recipe, I simply like to mix ingredients together in what proportions seem correct to my eyeballs and stick my finger into it and taste it. If it tastes like barbecue rub should taste, I stop. Otherwise, I add what seems to be missing from the desired list of spicy savory and sweet flavors that are what make barbecue great. I like to use other ingredients in my rub, but to impart these would ruin the age old tradition of barbecue secrecy… that is to say, if you knew everything I already put in my ribs, then why would you ever want to come over for dinner?
Ribs with rub applied, just begging to hang out in wood smoke
So now the ribs have received a thorough rub down in seasoning. I like to leave the rub thick enough that after cooking, it becomes a crunchy flavorful crust upon the rib meat. So now are ribs are ready, eager to spend some time in the delicious hickory sauna that will allow them to transform themselves from mere sections of a swine carcass that upset members of PETA into proper barbecue.
True, if you don’t have the ability to cook foods over flame or add smoke, then you could stop at this point and put them in your oven at 250 for 5 hours, and they’d be edible… sort of. The key to making pork transcend its mere existence as simple sustenance and become the American art form that is barbecue is embodied in the phrase “low and slow is the way to go.” This is because animals’ muscles are connected by tough stringy connective tissue.. membranes, ligaments, all made of collagen. Collagen renders down at about 200 ish degrees and just melts away. Cooking at low temperature allows the collagen to break down and soak into the meat. Leaving it moist and ridiculous. Add in fragrant wood smoke, and now you’re really talking.
Adding in just the right amount of smoke is where the real artistry occurs. People have devised several different ways of adding just the right amount of wood smoke without over cooking the meat. Today, I am using a Weber Kettle Gold 22.5″ model. While it is not necessarily optimized for smoking like some other smokers, such as the Big Green Egg or Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, it is a great all around grill that allows both slow indirect cooking and high temperature direct heat grilling for things like steaks and hamburgers.
Fueling our Weber kettle today is Trader Joe’s charcoal briquettes. While I have used Cowboy brand charcoal in the past, I’ve been a long time fan of all things Trader Joe’s and trust that I won’t be disappointed. All I must do is load it in my chimney starter, a method of starting charcoal that requires no lighter fluid but gets the coals burning just as fast, and I’ll soon be grilling!
Chimney starter in the Weber Kettle
The coals take forever to get started, but soon enough, they’re ready and I can get my indirect cooking setup together. Indirect cooking allows the cook to use the heat of the coals to cook their food in a way similar to that of an oven rather than putting the meat directly over flame, where it is more likely to burn.
Preparing for indirect grilling
As can be seen in the picture above, I am preparing to use the “Minion method” in which I put fuel in the grill before placing hot coals on top of them, so that as the coals burn down, the fire will simply move into the fuel below. Also, I am using hickory, as it is a traditional smokewood that always goes well with pork. I’m also using some oak and applewood chips to supplement the flavor that I’ve begun soaking before adding them to the grill.
Oak and Applewood chips soak up water for a slower burn during my rib cook.
Now that the chips are soaked and my coals are getting nice and hot, it’s time to add the hot coals to my unlit coals and put the chips in as well. Additionally, I’ll be using the casserole dish as a water pan, making sure that the inside of the kettle stays nice and humid so that our meat won’t dry out.
With our charcoal briquettes, hickory chunks, applewood and oak chips all ready and water pan in place, we're almost ready to go!
Now that everything is in place, we put the grate back on top of the grill and cover it up to let the entire thing get nice and hot. After five minutes is the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
Rubbed up, bathing in hickory, apple and oak essence, getting ready to render fat and collagen… A thing of beauty for sure!
But, unfortunately, there is an old barbecue addage… if you’re looking, you’re not cooking! Time to cover it up and only peek every now and then to make sure there’s enough fuel. After a few hours, I’ll wrap them up in foil and cover them up to make sure they don’t dry out.
My Weber kettle, vents all but closed to give me a good low barbecue temperature, covered up and cooking!
After about four hours, I decided to wrap them up in foil. After about an hour in foil, I sauced them.
Foiled ribs get hit with sauce
What’s in the sauce? Again, some other blog will tell you about how to make an amazing sauce, I just start off with Sweet Baby Ray’s as a base, and then add things like apple cider vinegar, honey, sriracha, etc. till I think it tastes like it should. After a half hour or so, I took them off the grill.
Finally off the grill!
The outside got cooked a little more than I had planned on. I probably should have foiled them earlier in the cook. Using foil is paradoxical. The longer the ribs are wrapped in foil, the less chance there is of them absorbing smoke flavor. At the same time, the longer they are unwrapped, the higher the chance of the meat drying out. Did my meat survive?
They most definitely survived!
The rub became a crunchy chewy layer of smokey meaty spicy goodness. Below that was tender juicy meat with not a hint of toughness.
Perfection. The meat is almost falling apart, it separates cleanly off the bone, and the surface is a perfect combination of smokey rub and a pink smoke ring.
Happy Memorial Day!