Friday, December 28, 2012

Smoked BBQ Ribs

Smoked BBQ Ribs

My first attempts at smoked ribs were rather disastrous. They were either 1) too dry, or 2) too smoky. Luckily I never gave up, as now they are one of my favorites.

Keys to success:

  1. Ability to maintain a low steady temperature on your smoker. I smoke ribs at 250 degrees. Temps above 275 degrees will almost certainly dry out your ribs.
  2. Take it easy with the flavored wood chip/chunks. This is a thin piece of meat and it is easy to overdo it.
  3. Preparation. Proper trimming of the ribs is the key to cooking them evenly.
  4. Wrap. While I'd consider wrapping of a larger piece of meat like a brisket or butt to be optional, with ribs it is essential to keeping them moist.

Baby backs vs. Spare ribs

Baby back ribs are cut from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. They are smaller than spare ribs and are meatier and firmer in texture.

Spare ribs are cut from the belly side of the rib cage, below the section of back ribs and above the sternum (breast bone). Spare ribs are flatter and contain more bone than meat.

For smoking, I definitely prefer spare ribs. The extra fat and bone helps keep the ribs more tender, and able to stand up to the longer cooking times in the smoker. 

Preparing the ribs:

We are basically creating what's called the St. Louis cut of ribs. You can buy them already cut this way to save time, but then you'd be depriving yourself and your guests of rib tips, which I'll explain below. 

Above is a basic illustration of the St. Louis cut. The object is to make the ribs as uniform in size as possible. To guide your top cut, look for the longest of the rib bones, and make your cut directly above the top of this bone. 

The second step is removing the membrane. Slide a butter knife under the membrane at one end of the ribs to loosen it. Then grasp the membrane with a paper towel and pull across the ribs to remove it. If you're luckily you'll get almost all of it at once.

Spice Rub:

Once your ribs are prepped, it's time to add the spice rub. If you're preparing your own rub, go lighter on the salt than you would for a larger piece of meat like a brisket. I also like a lot of hot chili in my rib rub, it goes well with the sweet glaze we'll add during the wrapping stage.

Adding a layer of yellow mustard can help your spice rub stick to the meat. Once your ribs are prepped and rubbed, they can be wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator to marinate.

Smoking the ribs:

Remove your ribs from the refrigerator to allow them to come to room temperature before smoking. During this time you can prep your fire.

Please don't use briquettes for smoking, unless you have access to "competition" briquettes. Regular charcoal briquettes can contain additives such as coal and other chemicals and you don't want that flavor in your ribs. I only use 100% hardwood lump charcoal. Lump charcoal burns hotter than briquettes and is often less expensive.

For additional smoke flavoring, I also add chunks of hickory and apple. Pecan is another popular choice for ribs, and other fruit woods such as cherry. If you're going to use smoking chips instead of chunks, soak them in water for at least a 1/2 hour before using them.

Cooking the ribs will be done in three stages:

  1. Initial smoke. Add the ribs to the smoker, add your wood chunks/chips to the fire, and smoke at 225-250 degrees. For spare ribs, about 3 hours; baby backs about 2 hours. The clue that you're at the end of this stage is to watch for the rib meat to start to pull away from the end of the bones.
  2. Wrap the ribs. Place a large sheet of heavy duty on a flat surface and prepare the glaze. Using squeeze Parkay margarine, apply a generous coating to the foil. (if you use butter it will burn) Sprinkle some brown sugar on top of the margarine, and then add a tablespoon or two of honey. Finish the first layer of glaze with some BBQ sauce. Lay your ribs on top of the glaze, and then repeat the glaze on the top of the ribs. Close the foil, and return to the smoker. For spare ribs, stage two will take 2 hours. For baby backs, 1 hour.
  3. The last stage is to unwrap the ribs and return to the smoker to firm up. Your ribs are already fully cooked at this point, so this is just to your taste. You can also add more BBQ sauce to the ribs at this point, if they seem a little dry.
Allow the ribs to rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Rib Tips

One of the reasons I resisted the idea of trimming ribs to the St. Louis cut was the waste created by all the trimming. That is, until I discovered rib tips.

Rib tips will be subject to much of the same treatment as your ribs:

  1. The initial smoke. Add your spice rubbed rib tips to the smoker for 2 hours. 
  2. Wrap. Using the same treatment as for your ribs above, wrap and cook for 1-2 hours.
  3. To finish your rib tips, remove from the foil and cut into chunks. Add the tips to a disposable foil tray and toss with your favorite BBQ sauce. Add the tray to the smoker with your ribs for the final stage. The tips are already fully cooked at this point, you just want to firm them up and get a little carmelization on the sauce. 

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