The Virtual Gourmand Number 11: Ribs Redux

In my previous article on barbecued ribs, I tried to simplify the process so anyone with a grill could produce slow-smoked, tasty ribs. I re-read that article recently. And while I still think the piece conveyed a successful method, I've learned a lot more since then and have upgraded my equipment and technique accordingly. This newer article isn't going to be for everybody. For one, it requires equipment that - unless you're a hardcore enthusiast like me - won't be of much practical use to the weekend griller. Instead, it will be more of a tribute to the art of being a pitmaster - an art that demands patience, knowledge and a certain level of precision requiring a degree of devotion many people simply can't relate to. For those of us who like - "adore" might be a better word  - authentic, slow-smoked barbecue, it is a ritual of almost religious devotion.


Barbecue is a tradition of cooking that involves a lot of experimentation, as well as trial-and-error, in order to achieve the desired results. Because of the variables and personal preferences involved, there is simply no way I can synthesize the method into a series of easy-to-follow steps. I am not going to attempt to do so. What I am presenting to you represents the culmination of years of experience, as well as a method and technique that works for me and produces the kind of barbecue that I and my family enjoy eating. Everyone's equipment and experience varies. Do not treat the content of this article too literally. Rather, take it as a tutorial that invites the individual barbecuer to deviate from it based on his or her individual equipment and tastes. In this case, you won't reach the finish line at the end of the article. Instead, you'll only be prepared to mount the starting blocks.


I joined another bulletin board a year or so back called The Smoke Ring. The Smoke Ring is a community of 'true believers' in barbecue. Many of these individuals compete in barbecue competitions all over the country (some even around the world), and they're always willing to share a recipe or technique, answer a question, or diagnose a pit session gone horribly wrong. These people help to make The Smoke Ring a warm, inviting environment characterized by a genuine love of barbecue. I've learned a tremendous amount in the time I've been there. How much? I've been making barbecue for many years now (my wife tells me that barbecue sauce must be my blood type), some of which I once thought quite good. But what I used to make and call barbecue is a far cry from the barbecue I am now turning out on a regular basis. There is a huge difference. To me, they seem worlds apart.


The first necessity is a smoker. That seems fairly basic, but it needs to be constructed and designed for this purpose and this purpose only. There are a lot of lower-end models on the market that try to perform both smoking and grilling functions. In my experience, instead of doing both jobs, they do neither of them very well. There are many designs for smokers available, and they range from upright models (such as the Weber Smoky Mountain and the Pro-BBQ) to the off-set (too many models to mention by name). A lot of people use upright smokers with spectacular results. They are easy to maintain a consistent temperature in, and can be made to work well with a minimum of attention during a cook session. They also can be affordable (around $200), and have proven to be quite durable if properly cared for.


The other major design is called an offset smoker. This implies that the firebox is on one side of the cooking chamber (which can be vertical, horizontal or a combination of both) and is set at a lower level. The smokestack is located at the other end of the cooking chamber. Such a design allows the heat and smoke to form a natural draft through the cooking chamber. To me, this is more representative of the true barbecue tradition, and is the avenue I chose to pursue. When buying an offset smoker, you should look for one with the thickest sheet metal you can find and afford. Why? Because the thicker the metal, the better it will retain heat and the easier it will be to maintain an even, consistent temperature in the cooking chamber. In 1999, I purchased a New Braunfels 'Hondo' smoker. It was constructed of 3/16” sheet metal, had an ample firebox and was purchased for about $200. New Braunfels has since been absorbed by the Char-Broil brand. Char-Broil have kept the New Braunfels name and design intact for their current models, but are making them from much thinner sheet metal to keep costs down. I am of the opinion that these smokers are usable but of an inferior quality compared to the earlier models manufactured in Texas. There are still other models that are powered by propane or electricity. Like a gas grill, these simplify the task of maintaining a steady temperature. To me, they take the mystery (and sense of accomplishment) out of the process, and I won't address them here.
My smoker in action.  The cylinder closest to the camera is the firebox, which is offset from the other cylinder, which is the cooking chamber.  Note the color of the smoke coming from the smokestack.
One of the key lessons I learned from The Smoke Ring was that modifying the smoker is essential to getting peak performance, regardless of which brand one chooses to buy. Some common modifications include extending the smokestack inside the cooking chamber to grill level, building a wire charcoal basket to attain maximum combustion, and adding 'tuning plates' of sheet metal extending from the firebox back towards the smokestack. These plates absorb and radiate heat from the firebox, making it easier to keep a consistent and even temperature throughout the cooking chamber - otherwise, the chamber will be hottest closer to the firebox and cooler near the smokestack. I've never had a problem with attaining maximum combustion in the firebox (although I have had problems getting the temperature down to optimum levels), so a charcoal box wasn't really necessary. Tuning plates didn't seem to be necessary either, as my problem was not even temperatures, but rather lower ones. I did buy a flexible metal dryer duct hose and extend my smokestack down to the cooking grate. It has made a great deal of difference. Another modification I am considering would be to install a baffle on the opening between the firebox and the cooking chamber, thereby allowing the amount of heat and smoke created in the firebox to be expanded or limited. Once the baffle is installed, I should be better able to control the heat level entering the cooking chamber, and not have to regulate it with the actual fire itself.
The cooking chamber, prepped and ready for use.  Note the smokestack extension to the right.  The aluminum pans are to catch any drippings that come out of the meat and make cleanup much easier.
Once you have obtained your smoker and appropriately modified it, the next thing you will have to master is the fire itself. All new smokers should be liberally coated with vegetable shortening (vegetable oil or no-stick sprays won't do, as they tend to become gummy under heat), and then a hot (400 degree) fire built in the firebox. This method is much like the seasoning done with cast iron cookware. It is an important step, as it will keep the solids in the smoke from adhering to the inside of the cooking chamber. Trust me, this is not something you want to have happen - when I retrieved my smoker after Katrina, I had to scrape all of that accumulated gunk out of the smoker, smear it with shortening and start over as if it were a new cooker. It was a job worthy of Mike Rowe on his series Dirty Jobs.
I always start a bed of coals in the firebox with a load of hardwood (lump) charcoal.  In my smoker, the best place to build and maintain a fire is up next to the cooking chamber.  Your results may vary.
How do you learn to build the right fire in your smoker? I can't teach you. This is the part where real trial-and-error is the only way to learn. Take your probe thermometer and push the probe through a small potato or apple so that the end is exposed, yet it can be stabilized to record temperatures at near grill level. Place the probe near the smokestack and make sure it touches nothing metal. Make a pile of charcoal, light it, and then monitor the temperatures at different stages of the burn (a notepad would be useful here). Note particularly what happens to the temperature when you add wood to your fire. Try to build a small, hot fire in your firebox. Try different locations (either closer to the air intake or closer to the cooking chamber). Leave the smokestack wide open and adjust the airflow on the firebox baffle to raise or lower the temperature. Your target temperature is between 225 and 250 degrees with full combustion (meaning flames in the firebox and thin blue smoke exiting the smokestack). Until you can reach and hold that temperature and under those conditions (blue smoke), there's no sense in putting meat on your grill.
The weed burner in action.  Not only is it helpful in quickly lighting a load of charcoal, it can help you rebuild your fire if you let the coals burn down too far.
So why are these fire conditions so important that you should 'waste' charcoal and wood to achieve them? To begin with, ribs are by nature full of small pockets of fat and contain lots of connective tissue. If they aren't cooked at a low temperature and slowly, the connective tissue tightens up rather than melting and rendering out. The result is tough, chewy meat that is hard to pull away from the bone. Total combustion is important because the smoke itself is adding flavor to the meat as it 'dry-braises' it. Lots of grey or white smoke is the result of smoldering wood - meaning that it isn't fully burning and is releasing all sorts of chemicals that you don't want on your meat. Many of these compounds can actually borderline as hazardous, and many are in the cyanide family. You also don't want to 'oversmoke' the meat. You are cooking with heat and flavoring with smoke. Too much of either one is going to adversely affect your finished product. I cringe when I see TV chefs advocate that you soak your wood or your wood chips before adding them to the fire. I can think of no easier way to ensure that your wood is not going to fully combust than to soak it in water and remove any chance of it.
A small, hot fire with constant flame will insure that you are getting maximum combustion.  This piece of wood being added to the fire has been pre-heated on top of the firebox and should burst into flame about thirty seconds after it is added.
I like to start my fire with a few cups of hardwood (also known as lump) charcoal. This is made of pieces of hardwood that have been burned, and then the fire smothered before all of the wood is burnt. I prefer this to briquettes for several reasons. For one, it burns hotter than briquettes. Secondly, it leaves less ash to build up in the smoker and potentially choke airflow to the fire. Last but not least, most briquette brands contain binders and additives that I believe add 'off' flavors to the finished product (be it ribs, shoulder or even beef and chicken). I use a weed burner to get the charcoal started. Not only is the weed burner a cool toy (it's basically a propane-powered flamethrower), but it will quickly (in about three minutes) light a pile of coals without any additives as might be found in starter fluid or other charcoal starters. It is also handy to have if you let your fire dwindle too far down and need to re-light wood directly. Once the charcoal is lit, close your firebox and place a few pieces of wood on top of the firebox. This procedure will permit the wood to warm from the radiant heat the fire in the box emits. Warmed wood will catch fire more quickly when it is added to the fire (it usually doesn't even take 30 seconds for newly-added wood to burst into flame).
Split pieces of hickory warming on top of the firebox.  Pre-heating the wood helps it to fully combust quickly.
Additionally, each fire is different. Adjust the intake on your firebox each time you light a fire, tweaking it slightly during the cooking process. Again, you are trying to maintain a constant 225 to 250 degrees inside the cooking chamber. It is acceptable to have a slight, twenty-five degree or so spike in temps when you first add more wood to the fire. And it is also OK to allow the temps to dip down to 200 degrees before you add more wood. Don't let the temperature go too far above or below this range for a long period of time. In a short time, you'll find out how often you need to check on the smoker, and approximately how long you need to go between wood additions. A kitchen timer can help to remind you of these intervals if you have other things to do than just tending a smoker (although tending the fire makes for a wonderful excuse to spend an afternoon outdoors with cigars and adult beverages).
Thin, blue smoke like this is what you are striving for.  Blue smoke means maximum combustion.  Thick, grey smoke means smoldering wood and bad flavor.
The night before you are going to smoke, you need to prep your ribs for smoking. Whether you choose to use baby backs or spare ribs, you are going to want to remove the membrane that runs along the back side of the rack. This membrane is not only tough; it will also prevent any spices or flavorings (including smoke) from penetrating that side of the meat. Fortunately, the membrane is easy to remove. Feel along a rib bone and scrape along the edge until the membrane reveals itself. Work a finger, spoon handle or other dull object you find useful under the membrane until you reach the opposite end. Grip it and pull it from one side and then the other. Discard the membrane. If you are using baby back ribs, you are ready to season and refrigerate your rack. We will discuss these steps in a moment.
Removing the membrane from the backside of the ribs.
If you are using the cheaper (and meatier) spare ribs, there are a few more steps you will want to take to prepare your racks for the smoker. You can ask your butcher to trim your rack 'St. Louis style', or you can do the work yourself. There is a flap of meat that runs along the lower center of the rib rack. If left in place, it will cook more quickly than the rib itself and will be tough and chewy. Trim it off and reserve it. You'll want to cook it in the smoker as well and - as the chef - the flap is your reward, allowing you to taste what the ribs are going to be like before anyone else gets a chance to. At the base of the rib rack, there is a chine bone that you will want to remove, as well as the sinewy flesh at the bottom of the rack. Reserve these as well for smoking during the cook. While they aren't very appealing on the rib rack, they do contain a lot of well-marbled meat that is relatively easy to remove and shred for inclusion in a pot of beans (which will, conveniently, go well with barbecue).
The ribs fresh on the smoker.  Smoke the trimmings (except the membrane) both for an early taste for the chef, but also for a yummy addition to baked beans.
At this point, you need to decide if you are going to to serve your ribs 'dry' (coated with a spice rub and no sauce) or 'wet' (with a sauce but no spice rub). You certainly could do a combination of both, but keep in mind the flavors of the rub and the flavors of the sauce you plan to use. There are many flavors used in each of them - salt being the chief offender - that aren't necessarily going to mesh well on the finished product. If you are going to serve the ribs 'wet', I would strongly suggest you season the ribs only with Kosher salt and black pepper. You need some salt on the meat to draw out excess moisture before the cook, but you can better control how salty the final product will be. Commercial barbecue sauce is notoriously high in sodium, so be sure to check the label before you cake on the spice rub. Recipes for rubs and sauces can be easily found in the previous article I wrote on ribs. Regardless of what you decide, wrap the racks tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil and place them back into the refrigerator to marinate overnight. This is also an ideal time to fill a clean, food-safe sprayer bottle with your spritz mixture. I like a combination of apple juice, apple cider and bourbon, but experiment and make a spritz that you like. Remove the ribs from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature before smoking them.
The ribs a couple hours into the cook.  The baby backs should be ready to foil about now.
OK... The fire is ready, you've allowed the racks to come up to room temperature and you are ready to begin cooking. Place the ribs on the grill grate at the end closest to the smokestack. If you are doing multiple racks (in the photo shoot for this article, I did a rack of spares and a rack of baby backs), don't be afraid to use a rib rack. It allows you to cook four racks of ribs in the same space you would normally require for a single rack. Close the cooking chamber and continually maintain the fire. Try to keep your peeking into the cooking chamber as infrequent as possible. But each time you do peek, spritz the ribs with the sprayer bottle to keep them moist and to add a little extra touch of flavor.
Both racks in foil on the smoker.  The baby backs should be about ready to sauce, while the spare ribs need another thirty minutes in the foil before saucing.
We have now come to the second-most important point in the smoke-cooking technique (the first being building the right fire) - timing. Baby back ribs aren't as large or meaty as spare ribs, so it naturally follows that they would cook faster than their larger counterparts. The rule of thumb for spare ribs is three hours on the smoker, one hour wrapped in foil with some of your spritz to gently steam the meat and one extra hour on the smoker to set your sauce, your glaze, or to add more rub to your dry ribs. This method assumes a constant cooking temperature of approximately 225 degrees. If your smoker is running hotter, you'll want to adjust this ratio down to a shorter interval. You'll also need to decide how much 'chew' or 'tug' you want your meat to have coming off the bone. At barbecue competitions, the goal is to cook the meat so that a gentle tug of the teeth will pull the meat cleanly from the bone. The ideal 'tug' is located somewhere between having to gnaw the meat off the bones (indicating they are underdone) and having the meat literally fall off of the bone (indicating they are overdone). Clearly, this is going to not only be difficult, but also a matter of personal preference. I have only gotten what is perceived to be the perfect 'tug' a few times since I began using this method. For me personally, I'd rather err toward the overdone side than the underdone. This means I tend to leave the ribs in the foil longer than I ideally should. There's no hard-and-fast rule that says that you have to foil them at all. Adjust the time you spend on each interval until you come up with a combination that suits you. For baby backs, the rule-of-thumb is two hours on the smoker, one hour in the foil and a final hour to set the sauce or rub. Four hours - even at 225 degrees - seems, to me, too much time on the smoker for baby back ribs. I usually reduce the ratio to 2-1/2-1/2 with good results. There really are as many ways to prepare ribs as there are persons to prepare them. The method outlined here is offered only as one that has been very successful. The more experienced you become in using your equipment and controlling your fire, the more you'll adapt your technique to produce ribs that are to your own particular liking.
Both racks ready for saucing.  Sauce them on the back side first, then flip them over to sauce on the top side.
The next obvious question is: "How will you know when they are done?" There are a lot of answers to that question - and all of them are completely subjective! Just as what constitutes 'done' is a personal preference in the perfect 'tug', figuring out when the racks get to that point is equally subjective. A consensus view at The Smoke Ring is to take a pair of tongs and grasp the rack from the end of the rack halfway up the rack. If it bends to about a forty-five degree angle without breaking, it's done. If the rack breaks at that point, it's overdone. If it doesn't bend forty-five degrees, it isn't done enough. Now, don't you feel educated? Again, figure out how 'done' you like the racks, and then cook them until they get to that degree of doneness. The 'forty-five rule' is just a starting point in your barbecue odyssey.
The finished ribs, ready to be cut into individual ribs and devoured.
There are many, many recipes for just about every kind of meat, sauce, rub and side dish you could want over at The Smoke Ring. Don't hesitate to browse and/or use them. If you like what you see, join, introduce yourself and don't be afraid to ask questions! In many ways, The Smoke Ring is to barbecue what Cigar Weekly is for cigars.
A lovely pink 'smoke ring' around the perimeter of the meat.  Pretty darned perfect.
For me, barbecue, beans and potato salad are an unbeatable combination. What follows are my favorite recipes for potato salad and baked beans. The potato salad recipe is adapted from my mom's recipe (the potato salad I grew up eating). One of the highlights of my adult life was getting a call from my mom asking me for my potato salad recipe!
A big old plate of love.  Spareribs, Creole potato salad and BigO's Best Baked Beans on the side.
Creole Potato Salad:


6 large russet potatoes, boiled, peeled, and cut unto cubes

8 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and cut into cubes

1 C. minced shallots (about 3 large shallots)

3 C. Miracle Whip salad dressing (mayonnaise may be substituted)

¾ C. Creole mustard (Zatarain's is widely available, but you may substitute any stone-ground variety)

1 C. sweet pickle relish


Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix them thoroughly to combine. Transfer everything to a serving bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate the ingredients overnight to allow the flavors to marry.

TUTORIAL: Mincing Shallots
1. Slice the stem end off and split the shallot lengthwise. Peel the skin and first layer of shallot back to the root end. This will form a handle to make the task easier.
2. With your paring knife, slice the shallot from root to stem in 1/8" intervals. 
3.  Holding the knife flat, make several cuts back to the root, trying to space them as close to 1/8" apart as you can manage. 

4.  Slice the shallot across the cuts you have already made. When you get to the root, discard the skin and root. You should have pieces of shallot that are about 1/8" square. 


BigO's Best Beans:


2, 28 oz. Cans baked beans, drained and rinsed

8 slices of thick-cut bacon, diced

1 large sweet onion, diced

2 C. bottled barbecue sauce

1 C. Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce

½ C. prepared yellow mustard

1 C. molasses

½ C. coffee liqueur

1 T. chopped garlic

1 t. ground cinnamon

Shredded meat smoked and reserved from rib trimmings


In a small skillet, fry the diced bacon until it's crispy. Remove the bacon and drain it on paper towels, reserving the fat left in the skillet. Add onions and sautee them until translucent - about five minutes. Add garlic and sautee it and the onions for another minute or two. In a medium baking dish, combine all of the ingredients and stir them until combined. Bake the mixture in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the liquid has thickened.



CW Editor-at-large and Executive Chef Jason Clabaugh (BigO) hailed from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and has settled in a suburb of Atlanta. With the addition of a new baby to his family, he's refocused his energies on fatherhood and a new project bringing his famous mango-habanero salsa and unique barbecue sauces into commercial production.