Ribs for Fathers Day 2016

plated-ribs-fathers-day-2016For Fathers Day this year I did another long cook. Our Jewel store had St. Louis Cut Spareribs on sale two racks for the price of one, so ribs it was.

I started the Weber Kettle early in the day, setting it up with ten unlit coals on each side of a foil pan filled about halfway with water. I added four or five lit coals to each side, along with some apple and hickory chunks. One bottom vent was wide open, one completely closed and one open about halfway. Top vent was wide open as well.

Once the temperature stabilized at around 250 F, I put the slabs on a rib rack over the drip pan. I’d seasoned them the night before with my usual rub recipe. From then on it was a matter of monitoring the temperature and spraying the ribs each hour with a mist of apple juice, cider vinegar and coffee. After three hours, I wrapped them in foil and moved them to the Genesis to finish.

kettle-smokingThere’s something magical and Zen-like about a long cook. The smell of the smoke and the sight of it wafting over the patio is an experience unto itself. It’s satisfying to know that you’ve acquired the skill necessary to maintain an even temperature over several hours of cooking, and the other fairly specific skills needed to turn out a perfect plate of ribs. The pace of the cook affords time for relaxation and proper anticipation of the delicious meal to come.

We’re in the Gray Farms CSA this year, and one of the cool things about it is that we get a lot of produce that we likely wouldn’t think to try otherwise. It’s like this lovely surprise package every week. This week, we had both turnips and collards, which neither of us had ever cooked before. We diced the turnips and roasted them on the plancha, and the collards we cooked in a Lodge cast iron Dutch Oven on the Genesis. I cooked up some onions and garlic in the pot for starters, then added the collards, a dried cayenne, some stock and a couple of smoked ham hocks and let them simmer for a long time.

These turned out really delicious and they’re something we’d definitely make again.

I also melted some Brie on a cedar plank with a little blackberry jam drizzled over the top for an appetizer.

It’s always a pleasure to cook for the folks on Sunday, but it was especially fun to do a full day of cooking for my wife’s dad on Fathers Day. Since my own father passed away when I was very young, I feel especially grateful to have a wonderful father-in-law in my life, and appreciate every chance we have to spend time with him.

St. Louis Style Ribs

St. Louis Style Ribs

Messy to eat and a lot of work to cook, ribs are what many people think of first when you mention the word “barbecue.” The ability to turn out competition quality ribs is what separates the serious outdoor cook from the dabbler. It requires the use of a multitude of techniques, along with precision in timing and temperature control from start to finish during an all-day process. When done correctly, the result is a complex of flavors and texture that cannot be found in any other dish.

I have to admit that I have never been a huge fan of ribs. They’re like longhair music to me. I appreciate the artistry, but they’re just too much bother. I’d rather listen to light Chamber Music or Showtunes, and I’d rather eat pulled pork.

Still, the lure of developing the high-specific skills necessary to prepare the dish was too much for me, so I had to give them a try.

I won’t claim that they were the best ribs I’ve ever tasted, but they were certainly in the hunt. The meat came off the bone fairly easily, but it didn’t “fall off.” To me, this is the perfect doneness for ribs (although my wife would have preferred them more done). They were the rib equivalent of “al dente” pasta – tender and yielding to the tooth rather than overdone mush.

As to the flavor, that would be hard to top as well. As you can see from the photo above, there was a nice smoke penetration. They were well-seasoned (even unsauced), although I would use more rub next time and likely add some mustard before the rub to help create a denser bark.

We served these with a delicious cole slaw that my wife made, roasted garlic bread from Grammy, and some Texas Baked Beans that I made on the grill (my wife’s Aunt Nancy’s recipe).

What would I change? Not much. Other than the change with the rub mentioned above, I might leave them to braise a few minutes longer next time. I also might try my hand at making my own sauce.

I doubt that these ribs would win any medals, but I wouldn’t be ashamed to serve them to the champs. Not only that, the process itself was a pleasure. It’s hard to beat a cool, bright day spent with the sound of the Allman Brothers Band and the smell of Cherry wood drifting over the patio.

racks-of-ribs

My Plan For Ribs

Many, many years ago, I used to cook on a water smoker. It was a Brinkman Sportsman model, if memory serves. In addition to smoked salmon (caught on fishing trips to Lake Michigan), I liked to smoke a ham and a turkey on it for New Year’s Eve. The ham would go on the top rack, and its drippings would baste the turkey on the lower rack.

Since my wife is not a huge fan of smoked foods (nor of the smell of the smoking process) I haven’t replaced the smoker, which I abandoned in a move for various reasons more than a decade ago. Although either a Komado style ceramic smoker or a Weber Smokey Mountain is on my short list for future barbecue equipment purchases, since I decided to smoke some St. Louis Rib racks this weekend, I’ll have to cook them on my trusty Weber Kettle.

Here are the challenges.

1) I have no experience with the cut of meat. Other than the advice people give to cook them “low and slow” there are a lot of other parts of the process that seem shrouded in mystery, including “secret rub” recipes, methods with names like “minion” and “3/2/1” – and almost too many recipes and techniques out there to fathom. Should I slather the ribs with mustard before putting on the rub? Should I mop them, or not? Researching and sorting through the volumes of information on how to cook “championship” ribs has occupied most of my non-work waking hours for nearly two weeks.

2) By far, it looks like the biggest challenge will be that of controlling the heat on my Kettle to keep it in the 225 to 250 degree range, which most folks seem to agree is essential to cooking tender, mouth watering ribs. A water smoker would make this easier, but I’ll have to make do.

Here’s the plan.

1) I settled on a rub recipe based on dozens or so that I found in research. It includes paprika, black pepper, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, nutmeg, turbinado sugar and a little cayenne. I’ll salt the ribs and let them rest awhile before rubbing. I also may put some brown mustard on them to add flavor and help to adhere the rub.

2) I’ll spray the racks every hour or thereabouts with a combination of port wine and apple cider vinegar.

3) The grill setup will be a pile of charcoal on each side, with a drip pan full of water in the middle. I’ll start with four lit coals on each side, and let them ignite the others throughout the five or six hour cook time. This is the “minion” method mentioned above. I’ll also have to close the vents on the bottom of the kettle most of the way in order to slow the flow of oxygen to the fuel and keep the temperature low. Cherry wood chunks will provide the smoke, and I have a simple (analog) thermometer that I can place in a vent hole on the top of the kettle to monitor the temp. I figured that using the old style thermometer would help keep me from constantly fidgeting and tweaking over two-tenths of a degree here or there.

4) After three hours of cooking, I’ll get the ribs into some foil with a little dribble of the mop sauce and let them mostly finish cooking that way. I’ll take them back out and sauce them (with Sweet Baby Ray’s, of course) for the last 30 minutes or hour of cooking. Our friend, Ken, who turns out the tastiest rib tips I’ve ever eaten, says that I should put some chopped onions in the coals toward the end to help flavor the meat as well.

If it all goes well, Sunday dinner this week ought to be grand. We’ll have baked beans, slaw, and roastin’ ears as sides, and I suspect that I’ll be consuming a bit of a certain beverage brewed with hops.

I’ll likely be posting pictures of the process over on Instagram and Flickr, and will definitely have a full update here after we see how they turn out.

Wish me luck!