The Summer of Ribs

I hereby declare summer 2007 as “The Summer of Ribs.”

Until very recently I’d never cooked barbecue ribs. It seemed like an awful lot of work – all those obscure and highly specialized techniques steeped in shadowy folklore. Who can keep track of the various kinds; Southern ribs, Texas ribs, Louisiana ribs, country-style ribs. Ribs with tomato-based sauce, ribs with vinegar-based sauce, dry ribs, wet ribs. Holy smokes!

And speaking of smoke, if you believe the experts, there’s no point in even attempting ribs unless you have an industrial sized smoker in your back yard and a cord or two of hickory wood standing by.

There’s no doubt that perfection in barbecue ribs requires a certain degree of expertise and specialization. But I am in the process of discovering that “nearly perfect” ribs is an attainable goal for mere mortals if we just put our minds to it.

I’ve been putting my mind to it.

After exhaustive research, I’ve narrowed the basics down to the following: Use a dry rub; cook the rubs at a low temperature for a long time (“low and slow”); finish with a wet sauce and a quick pass over the grill. That isn’t the last word on ribs, but it’s the technique that works for the kind of ribs I like.

My first attempt was a few weeks ago. The result wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t bad either. I used a “country style” recipe that I found on the web, and made a few changes to account for my particular tastes. It was a semi-wet style, in that the sauce wasn’t sloppy or goopy – it sort of dried to almost a paste. It was tasty, but it didn’t have the zing I was looking for.

I modified the leftover sauce to use as a baste for some chicken I roasted a few days later and to keep on hand for my next attempt at ribs. Unfortunately I didn’t keep track of the modifications – I know it involved brown sugar, molasses, red wine vinegar, and a few other things. But otherwise, the recipe is lost to history.

However, I do have a record of the original dry rub that I concocted for the first attempt. The dry rub really lays down the base of flavors for the whole thing, so it is crucial to the process. My dry rub uses a lot of smoked Spanish paprika as the smoky flavor helps compensate for the lack of a smoking process in the cooking.

I plan to spend this summer making ribs on a pretty regular basis, with the intention of perfecting my recipe (or recipes, as I don’t want to settle on just one). I won’t post full recipes until I get closer to my goal, but in the meantime I’ll tell you a bit about yesterday’s research, which revealed significant progress since the first try.

I started with the dry rub, which I rubbed on the ribs in great quantity. Then I let them sit in the fridge overnight to really let the spices infuse the meat.

Next day I put some aluminum foil on a cookie sheet, sprayed it lightly with oil, and arranged the ribs. Then I covered it with more foil and crimped it closed. I popped that in a low oven (300° F) for three hours. That’s the “low and slow” phase that I would ideally do in a smoker, but I don’t have a smoker and I don’t want to try faking one on my gas grill.

After three hours I took the ribs out of the oven and uncovered them. They were succulent and falling off the bone. They could have been eaten just like that as moist and tender dry ribs.

But I like sauce.

So on to step two, which is to cover them in barbecue sauce (the modified one I mentioned earlier) and slap them on the grill. This is how most rib restaurants do it by the way – a “low and slow” phase followed by a dunking in sauce and a couple of minutes on the grill. In some cases they give it time on the grill and then dump it in the sauce.

I encountered an unexpected difficulty – the ribs were so tender and delicate taht it was hard to handle them without them fall apart. But I managed to do it without any damage – three or four minutes on the grill just to caramelize the sauce and add some nice grill marks.

Onto the plate along with one of my crazy rice mixes (white rice, wild rice, orzo, mushrooms, shallots, and garlic), some grilled yellow peppers, and some steamed asparagus.

Probably not the best photo (I was too eager to get eating) but you get the gist. See how, again, even the wet sauce quickly dried to a paste? I’m not sure that’s the effect I want. I’ll have to keep experimenting. Here’s another look:

The recipe and the process still need some work, but I’ll say this: it’s nice work if you can get it.

14 thoughts on “The Summer of Ribs

  1. You’ve pretty much duplicated my recipe for ribs, at least as far as method. I confess to using a pre-made rub, however–one that I mail-ordered from this place. Sometimes I make my own sauce, sometimes I use Cattlemen’s or whatever other bottled glorified ketchup I have on hand.

  2. I can imagine Blork checking out their photographic qualities in the showroom. The clerk holding a floodlight, you with a backdrop, Ed with hat on backwards calling out light meter readings…

    The ribs and the plates look great!

    I’m all about concocting dry rubs and slow grilling on the off-burner side of the BBQ w/ the other side at medium heat. You gotta work the cuts used and the leftovers angle to include Southern Style (name a state and there’s a version) Pulled Pork and Burnt End Sandwiches!

  3. If you chose to fake the smoking process on your gas grill (which is my plan), do you think you would still cover them in aluminium foil?


  4. Carl, I’m a real DIY guy when it comes to that kind of stuff. Besides, rubs are so easy!

    Harry, I will probably experiment with doing a hybrid method — partly in the oven, partly on the grill. The thing is, my grill doesn’t go very low, even on the lowest settings. I really like the “low and slow” effect and I don’t know if I’d get that on the grill. I’m worried it would just dry them out.

    Marc, I wouldn’t wrap them in foil if I were using the fake smoker approach. The idea is to let the smoke get onto the meat, and if they were wrapped then the smoke might as well not even be there.

    A real smoker is designed for “low and slow.” It’s not unusual for people to smoke their ribs for four or five hours, or even more. But the trick is that the temperature is really low (between 150° – 250° F) and the smoke is constant.

    That’s smoking — what we’re really talking about is barbecue, which is also fairly low (between 250° – 350°) but not as slow as smoking. Probably 90 minutes to two hours I suppose (but I’m not sure). The biggest danger is drying the ribs out, which is why you should “mop” them with a thin sauce every 20-30 minutes or so.

    When you fake it on a gas grill, you have to use pouches of wood chips. In my experience, a pouch of chips will smoke for 10 to 20 minutes, tops. So if you’re going to try to smoke your ribs for two hours, you’re going to go through an awful lot of chips, and you’ll constantly be opening the lid and letting the heat and smoke out (although you could coordinate that with your mopping). Plus it takes a good 10-15 minutes for the smoke to even start from one of those pouches. It sounds like an awful lot of time management to me!

    What I’m thinking is the hybrid approach that I mentioned to Harry. I’m thinking maybe two hours in the oven (wrapped) at 300, then another hour in the fake smoker with two or three pouches of chips (keeping an eye to make sure the heat stays really low).

    At that point you can serve them a number of different ways:

    – As-is (dry ribs)

    – Dunked in a big bowl of heated sauce (wet ribs — this is what you get at places like Baton Rouge, etc.)

    – Dunked in sauce and put back on the grill (heat turned up) to caramelize the sauce

  5. I’m definately going to try ribs a la Blork (apologies for the rudimentary French – I just remembered in the nick of time you are in Montreal) I like to experiment with different food ideas but I don’t do much with ribs and this looks the place to start – printing page as I speak (type) to add to the 5,556 pages already crammed into the recipe drawer.

  6. Martine-

    That’s exactly what I said when I saw the photos – ‘Hey! Those are the new plates! Nice.’

  7. Um… and oh yeah…Blork: the ribs look great. I think I’ll need to taste test them in person.

  8. You know, Ed, Austin is a reknowned ribs city and I’ve had some at three different places, including Stubbs so… if you need tasters, I’m there :-p

    I thought 2007 was the year of the kilt, it also has the summer of ribs? Interesting mix.

  9. I think what you guys are saying is that we’re overdue for a little get together on the other side of the river, and I agree. Fire up the bbq!

  10. You bloody people, able to have a barbecue.


  11. […] season is upon us, so I decided it was time for some ribs at the weekend. As Blork mentioned a while ago, there are many techniques and “secret” recipes for the perfect […]

  12. Oh, goddamnit. I rarely regret not being able to eat things when I want to, but this…I may have to stop reading this blog until I can eat again.

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