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.