There are certain things I’ll almost never order in a restaurant: steak, pasta, chicken … and pork ribs. It’s not that I don’t like or even, in the case of ribs, love these foods … it is because I’m appalled at what restauranteurs will charge for fare that I can, in almost all cases, make as well or better myself at a fraction of the price. (Ok, so there is a frugality to me when it comes to food, I admit.)
Judging by, among things, Ottawa’s very own Ribfest held in the middle of June each year, ribs are one of those dishes that defines any chef who claims bbq supremacy. Each has a signature; each has a view on what makes the perfect rib.
Many of those who order ribs in a restaurant think that the perfect rib should “fall off the bone.” While tenderness is indeed an essential quality, as I’ve written before, no quality is more important than taste. And the fact is, most rib restaurants can serve you fall-off-the-bone ribs because they have been parboiled. This boiling releases the meat from the bone and, not surprisingly, adds moisture to the meat. However, they do this in large part because it reduces the cooking time of the ribs from what should be anywhere between 3-6 hours to a mere hour. The only thing left for them to do is brown the meat and slather it in sauce and/or spices.
Here’s the kicker: the parboiling reduces the taste.
As such, restaurants have to slather them with sauce to compensate for the loss of flavour that they boiled out of the ribs in preparing them. So if you want to spend top dollar for sticky sugar on tasteless meat, you now know the secret.
Real ribs, and by that I mean the ones that are loaded with flavour and still more or less fall of the bone, can be achieved quite simply and are about as synonymous with “slow food” as any dish you’ll find. We’re talking true “Southern barbecue” … and by Southern, I don’t mean Windsor, Ontario (no offense to those in Windsor).
I’ll confess that I’ve never been to the Southern US. I’ve never been to Italy or France or Thailand either … but I know good food. All to say, making great ribs is actually much easier than you’d think and when you figure that you can feed 8 people on two racks of ribs at the same cost a “rack” will cost you at a good restaurant, you’ll also start to ask: why would I order that out?
To accomplish the task, all you need is a decent quality grill and a “smoker” (that is unless your grill doesn’t have one or if you’re not cooking on a Kamado grill like the Big Green Egg … but that’s another story). You can buy standalone “smoke boxes” for $20 easily at most barbecue stores or big-box outlets like Home Depot. Otherwise, all you need is a grill that is big enough where you can control the heat on one side (the hot side) and cook the ribs on another side (the cool, indirect side). Oh, and you’ll need plenty of patience, but that’s why you’ll buy some beer.
Now that my whole philosophy of ribs is now behind you, the instructions are simple and the keys are simple as well. The first key to creating moist ribs that will be moist and more-or-less fall off the bone is that you need to brine them (I know you’re saying, what? am I making pickles or ribs?) and the second key, as already alluded, is that you need to cook them slow and low which means “indirect heat.” To do the latter without the former may still produce fall-off-the-bone ribs, but you run the real risk that they’ll be dry. Personally, I think flavour, followed by moistness, is more important than falling of the bone, so if you have to err on one side, err on the side of “my god, these taste amazing and are so juicy.”
To make things easier, prepare in advance the the blackening spice rub and root beer barbecue sauce following the recipes provided. And while you could use any dry spice rub and sauce that you want, I prefer the cajun flavours of the spice rub mixed with the sweetness of the sauce. As well, I like to serve my ribs with coleslaw and baked apples, both of which can easily be prepared while the ribs are cooking … and while you drink your beer.
Fundamentally, somethings in life are worth slowing down to enjoy. So plan an easy, low-key afternoon sitting in your backyard or on your deck with a good book friends, or your dog and get ready to relax and do some slow cooking … and prepare to have the best ribs you’ve ever made.
Prep time: 10 minutes + 2 hours for brine
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 5½ hours
Barbecued Ribs with Root Beer Sauce and Baked Apples
- 2 racks of baby back pork ribs
→ not too large (i.e. thick) and look for even ‘marbling’ throughout
- 2 litres of water
- ¼ cup kosher sea salt
- ¼ cup white sugar
- Smoker and enough wood chips (e.g. hickory, applewood, or mesquite) to fill it
- 4 heaping tablespoons root beer barbecue sauce (see recipe here)
- To prepare the brine, pour 2 litres of warm (not hot) water into a large pot or bowl and whisk in the salt and sugar until dissolved.
- Prepare the ribs by using your fingers, the tines of a fork, or, as I do, a special kitchen-safe (never used elsewhere) pair of needle-nosed pliers to pull the membrane (fascia) from the underside of the ribs. Simply grab a corner at one end, and pull towards the other end.
→ While the membrane poses no problem, it is an impenetrable barrier to the spices from penetrating from the underside of the ribs.
- Cut racks, if necessary, just so that they fit, fully submerged, into the brine.
→ In considering the length of your ‘racks’ and where you cut them, also consider how wide your grill is since they have to fit there comfortably.
- Cover and refrigerate for roughly 2 hours.
- Soak the wood chips for 1-2 hours before grilling as well.
- After 2 hours, preheat the grill to 400ºF by turning on only half the grill — just enough to provide heat to the grill.
- Remove water from wood chips. Also, remove ribs from brine and, with paper towels, pat them dry and place them on a platter. (Removing the water is essential to promoting ‘browning’). Rub the olive oil over each rack, top and bottom, and then sprinkle each rib with the blackening spices, top and bottom and rub the spices into the meat with your fingers.
- Place wood chips in smoker and/or place the wood-chip-filled smoker on the grill.
- Sear the ribs to lock in their flavour and juices by placing ribs on hot-side (direct heat) of the grill, meat-side down, and grilling for 5 minutes. Turn ribs 90º and grill for 3 minutes more.
- Move ribs to the ‘cool-side’ of your grill and reduce the temperature of the 275ºF.
They will spend the rest of their cooking time on this side at this temperature. Cook for approximately 3 hours, rotating the ribs on the cool side (but not turning) every 30 minutes or so.
- Ribs will be done when the meat on the ribs as ‘shrunk’ back from the edges of the bone about ½ inch (1cm).
- Prepare the directions for the baked-barbecued apples recipe and at about the 2.5 hour mark (30 minutes before completion), put the apples on the direct-heat side of the grill and bake.
- At the same time, and when ribs are almost done (about 15-30 minutes before they’re done), spoon 2 tablespoons of root beer barbeque sauce over each rack and brush it evenly to cover the ribs. The sauce is there for a flavour and to seal in remaining juices.
- Remove ribs to a platter and ‘tent’ them by covering them completely with foil. Let them sit, tented, for 15 minutes. This resting period will ensure the juices of the ribs are reabsorbed and this will promote optimal tenderness and moistness.
- Remove apples from grill when they’re done and slice following the recipe.
- Slice the ribs individually or serve partial racks on each plate. Pair with baked apples and coleslaw (or whatever side you prefer).
Serve with plenty of serviettes and prepare to get messy and go “ooh-ahh.”
Beer Pairing: Spearhead Brewery’s “Moroccan Brown Ale.”