Ribs. For meat eaters, “Ribs” typically evokes an immediate mouth watering reaction. Good ribs are a divine eating experience. Tender, juicy, meat that carries a flavor that explodes in your mouth. On the other hand, average ribs suck and badly prepared ribs are an absolute torture of abrasive, chewy, dryness.
Ribs don’t work like that. With most meats, the time at which it is “safe to eat” is about the same time that it is “done”. Once a steak’s internal temperature hits about 120 degrees, you take it off and tent it in foil to achieve a perfect medium rare to rare steak. Any longer? Medium. Much longer than that? A shingle…
With ribs, the longer you cook ‘em, the more tender they get as the connective tissues break down. The challenge is to keep ‘em moist throughout the cooking process.
Hence my fear. Here is a food for which no amount of temperature probes or timers is going to help. Beyond controlling the cooking temperature, there are very few variables beyond initial preparation. Since cooking with the BGE is all about not peeking or opening the egg, there is the potential for many hours of imagining all the ways this could go wrong.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained… we invited a handful of friends willing to be my guinea pigs and I went for it. Christine set a beautiful table and made her famous baked beans with bacon on top.
After a bunch of research via Google, I decided to go for a puritan approach of only using a dry rub and smoking the ribs for a very long time at a low temperature. This excellent article provided much of the foundation for what follows.
I started with about 18 lbs of spare ribs — 5 racks between 3 and 4 lbs each. A ridiculous amount of pork. At $1.99/lbs, why not?
I used something pretty close to Alton Brown’s Dry Rub, scoring the fat and rubbing down both sides of the ribs with a thick coat. The ribs were then refrigerated for about 5 hours.
Actually, my rub went quickly far afield of alton’s as I didn’t have some of the ingredients. I started with 2 cups of brown sugar and maintained ratios from there. I didn’t have cayenne pepper, so I used a mixture of dried hot peppers from my parents — scotch bonnet, serano, and several others. I ran out of Old Bay and didn’t have onion powder, so I used extra thyme, finely ground fresh onion, and dried orange/lemon peel.
While the ribs absorbed the spices, I soaked hickory chips in red wine, apple cider, and bourbon. These soaked for several hours. Once the BGE was lit with several handfuls of chips on top, I drained the liquid off the chips and placed it in a metal container nestled in the coals — maybe about 1/3rd of a gallon or so — as an additional source of moisture.
With the BGE at about 270 degrees, I placed the ribs into two rib racks connected end to end. The racks just barely fit into the BGE and the rack of ribs stretched from one side to the other, but everything just barely fit.
I brought the egg down to 200 degrees and maintained that cooking temperature until the guests were seated and ready to eat. The smells coming out of the egg were quite spectacular and keeping the early arrivers from cracking the egg was increasingly difficult.
I’m happy to say that the end result was awesome. The first picture is of the ribs fresh from the egg. Note that they are quite moist and that is without any kind of a glaze or sauce. The ribs were extremely tender and came off the bone easy, but still had a bit of structure/texture — they were not “fall off the bone” tender.
Not quite perfect yet. For one, five hours of cooking time at 200 degrees is simply not enough. Next time, I’ll go for at least seven hours.
The puritanical “dry rub only” approach worked really well. However, I believe I’ll try some kind of a glaze or basting sauce next time. I’ll likely apply it about an hour and half prior to the ribs being done to give time for the sugars to caramelize a bit.
All in all, achieving great ribs is both surprisingly easy and I have now overcome my cook-well-beyond-edible fear.