By Mad Coyote Joe
When it comes to cooking over an open flame many foods are revered. Chicken, steak and brisket are all held in the highest esteem. But the benchmark for a grilling guru has to be ribs and pork ribs in particular.
For the beginner or someone that doesn’t have the time to work a barbecue masterpiece, baby-back ribs are fine. But for the pinnacle of the smoking world, spare ribs are where it’s at.
Spareribs like all legendary regional or ethnic cooking traditions are based in a few realities. People of limited means use a product that is inexpensive and readily available where they live. Spare ribs are tougher and fattier than baby-backs. So they cost less. This why poor people in the American south, spent the time it took, to figure out how to make them so wonderful.
Making perfect ribs every time is easy if you follow the simple rules below. The questions are fuel, sauce verses rubs and how do we make them fall off the bone tender. Once you have these basics down then you can add your own touches creating your own masterpiece. You too, will then be the stuff, of family cooking legends.
When thinking of cuts of both beef and pork I put them into two categories, tough and tender. Tender cuts are those that are seared rapidly, retaining the natural juices and flavor. They do not need long slow cooking. They include steaks, chops, tenderloins and rib roasts. When talking about cooking meat I do not think in terms of time but instead internal temperature. I measure this with an instant read, digital meat thermometer placed at the center of the thickest part of whatever cut I am cooking.
With beef the tender cuts are those that you would serve rare or medium rare, which means an internal temperature of 124° to 132°. With tender pork cuts we look at two temperatures. Tenderloins are now being served pink in the center, which is an internal temperature of 145°. For other tender cuts of pork done, which is fully cooked but still very juicy, is 165°
For both pork and beef tough cuts are those that benefit from long, slow cooking. Pot roast, pork shoulder, chuck roast, seven bone roast, flank steak, brisket and spare ribs all fall into this category. These cuts are less expensive and traditionally have a higher fat content. They need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 192°f.
What happens in the long slow cooking process? We’ve all taken a roast out of the oven that was so tough that it felt like rubber, the proverbial “tough as an old boot.” Think about a dishtowel that is slowly being twisted. This is what happens in the slow cooking process, the fibers in the meat get tighter and tighter. Around 160°f if you would cut into the meat it would look fully cooked but too tough to eat. At this point many people give up, believing the meat is ruined. But put it back it the oven, grill or smoker and continue cooking and when it reaches an internal temperature of exactly 192°f the collagen is released. The meat literally breaks, the fibers in the meat, like twisting a dishtowel, have turned so far that they rip apart. At this point the now ripped fibers soak up the fat and collagen giving it that fork tender, mouth-watering flavor.
People often ask me if I pre-boil my ribs… NO, NO, NO, NO, NEVER! Boiling removes flavor. I start my fire either in my smoker or on one side of my grill. I place the ribs as close to the coals as I can get them without being directly over them. Then I stand there and watch, turning often. As soon as I get some caramelizing on the outside of the ribs I move the ribs as far away from the heat as I can and close the lid, making sure the vents are open. The rule of thumb with pork is low and slow. If your smoker has a thermometer try to maintain 190° to 225°. With ribs you do not need a thermometer. You need to cook them with the right fuel for the proper amount of time. Keep an eye on the ribs and if using a basting sauce, baste and turn every 45 minutes or so. You will see the ribs tighten up and then the bones will start to stick out the meat. When you can twist a rib bone and it easily comes out the meat, clean the ribs are done.
Cooking with mesquite wood is an art form unto itself. I suggest you avoid it as it often results in a smoky flavor that is so strong that it can ruin the meat. Instead I use pure mesquite, chunk charcoal, not briquettes. Chunk charcoal will give a nice light smoky flavor that is not overpowering. Now we get you your first set of personal choices, additional smoke flavorings. Here are a few ideas for you to think about. Try adding some wood chips in the last half hour of smoking. Cherry, hickory and alder are all sweet woods that add a specific flavor. They need to be soaked for an hour or so before adding them to the hot coals. What about soaking the wood chips in wine or rum or whiskey. All of these will impart a different flavor. How about adding other flavors to the wood chips. Kitchen scraps are great, orange peels, little bits of onion or garlic, apple, peach or any fruit all add flavor. Give them all a try. You’ll be surprised.
Now we need to think about rubs and sauces. Rubs have two jobs, they flavorize and tenderize. Traditionally they are a combination of what we call flavor accelerators. Flavor accelerators are salts, sugars and acids. All of which cause you to derive more flavor out of whatever they are added to. These are not called sprinkles or dusts. These rubs need to be worked into the meat. I rub them well into the surface of the meat and then wrap the ribs in plastic and let the rub work into the meat overnight. This tenderizes the meat and starts the flavorizing process. Although I don’t like barbecue sauce in general, I do use a basting sauce, which also adds flavor while tenderizing (see recipe below). The last bit of advice is to keep a few notes. If you toss a quick rub together and add a few things to the smoker and the ribs are the best you’ve ever had, and then you can’t remember what you did. It will haunt you for the rest of your cooking days… trust me I know!
Basic Barbecue Rub
This is a good place to start. Give it a try. Then think about adding a few flavors of your own.
3/4 C Dark brown sugar
1/4 C Mild New Mexico red chile powder
1/4 C Mild paprika
2-1/2 TBL Kosher salt
2-1/2 TBL Fresh-ground black pepper
1 TBL Granulated onion
1/2 TBL Granulated garlic
1/2 TSP Cayenne pepper
Mix and store in a covered container. Rub into ribs or chicken just before cooking.
Missouri Basting Sauce
This sauce will make ribs, brisket and pork shoulder, tender and delicious.
It will keep fresh in the refrigerator for 2 months.
1-3/4 C White vinegar
2 TBL Tabasco® Habanero sauce
1 TSP Kosher salt
1 TSP Fresh-ground black pepper
1 TBL Dark Brown sugar
1 TSP Sugar
1. Mix in a glass bowl and cover.
2. Baste ribs while slow smoking.