A Little Ribbin' .. Now There's the Rub!

I know it's only March. I know that the warm days of summer are a few snow drifts away and that your Weber kettle is probably abandoned in a corner of the garage, amidst the leaves that you never got around to cleaning up last fall. But, this does not impact the importance of the message I bring. Spring is only a short hop away. March 21 will be here in a matter of days. For me, it is the official start of the barbecue season.

As a tradition in my household, I always barbecue on the first days of spring and fall. It serves as a sort of gastronomic barometer, getting me ready to move from the winter seasonal meals of hearty stews, soups and pasta, to the summer of outside cooking, smoking and grilling. And yes, I do use the grill and smoker all year round, but it is a change in emphasis that takes place as the seasons change.

That first (and last) barbecue can't be just burgers, chops or grilled chicken. No, tradition holds that the seasons mark their change in my kitchen with ribs. Spareribs or baby backs, it makes little difference. On the first day of spring, I'll be smothering a slab of ribs with sauce, and licking my lips in anticipation.

Beyond pizza and chili, there is probably no single preparation that garners more intense devotion to cooking method than barbecued ribs. We see a plethora of rib competitions every year, and it's virtually impossible to visit any decent picnic spot without catching the fragrant smell of ribs basting in sauce. Despite issues of cholesterol, we love ribs. We each know exactly how they should be prepared, and any deviation is simply unacceptable. While on some deep metaphysical level I probably would admit that my way is not the only way, I loathe admitting that. There are just certain truths to barbecue, and I am a firm believer that I am the guardian of those truths. You may disagree, but please do so softly. Egos bruise easily.

Ribs require respect and commitment. Proper preparation can not be done on a whim. The ritual is an enjoyable part of the process, leading to the resulting feast. You must accomplish two essential tasks in the proper preparation of truly great ribs: tenderize the meat and reduce the fat. I have found that people tend to ignore the first directive, and take hasty measures to achieve the second.

Tenderizing meat can be accomplished in essentially two ways. You can pound and pierce as you would with a cube steak or piece of veal, or you can marinate, as you would with a flank steak or roast. Since the idea of pounding on a slab of ribs is simply unproductive, let's focus on marinating. A marinade has the ability, usually through the introduction of an acidic element, to break down some of the protein in meat and rendering it tenderer. There is also the element of flavoring which can be added. So, in my mind, before you ever light up the grill, some necessary steps have to be taken. I like to rub the meat generously, massaging in a mixture of herbs and spices. While the exact recipe is classified, I typically use a mixture of garlic, basil, salt, cayenne, and paprika. After rubbing the meat thoroughly with the mixture, I marinate the ribs overnight in a mixture of beer with a touch of balsamic vinegar.

We're now ready for step two of the process: reducing the fat. It is at this point that far too many take a poorly thought out short cut. Reasoning that heat will melt away the unwanted fat, they actually boil their ribs. While certainly poaching your pork will melt some of the fat, what does this pre-cooking do to the taste of the meat? The flavor is released into the water as you create a spare rib soup, and then toss it down the drain. This is not the best way to achieve optimum flavor. A far better option is slow cooking the ribs, allowing the fat to melt away, and basting the ribs as it does. Indirect heat over charcoal works well, as does a rotisserie. But patience is the key. A slow fire will melt the fat leaving the ribs tender and moist. Too much heat and you simply sear the meat and seal in the fat. So, it may take a couple of hours. In the end, it's worth it.

While I certainly have used both the rotisserie and indirect charcoal methods with a good deal of success, I have incorporated what I think is the best option available. Before my ribs hit the grill for the final saucing, they spend a few relaxing hours in my smoker. The smoker accomplishes two goals. First, because it operates at very low heat, it allows the fat to melt away without rendering the ribs dry and tough. Secondly, it allows the savory smoke to fully permeate the meat, adding that additional element of flavor.

After the meat has been SLOWLY cooked through, it is time to add the sauce. Again, sauce ingredients and recipes are a matter requiring the highest security clearance, but typically, the sauce will be tomato based, with additional molasses or brown sugar, vinegar and spices. Many good commercial sauces are available, from the large producer such as Master Piece to small boutique manufactures. Saucing requires a bit higher heat to allow the sugars to caramelize and coat. But, caution is needed as sugars also tend to burn readily. The finishing touch of sauce application is the quickest. Brush on liberally, flip the meat, and reapply. Cook 5-7 minutes, flip again, reapply, cook another 5-7 minutes and those ribs are ready. The pile of bones on the kitchen counter means that spring is here.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 2, Issue 5, Posted 12.18 PM / 08th March 2006.