Saturday, December 19, 2009

Further Food Adventures: Ribs!

Since my last time firing up the grill, I’ve done some research. I wasn’t entirely pleased with how my brisket turned out (though I have been told repeatedly by my wife that I doth protest too much), so I was looking for ways to better control the temps in my grill. Through my many Google searches, I ran across the Minion Method. This single, simple process is probably the greatest thing a charcoal smoker has ever had happen to it.

But the Minion Method was created for a Weber Smoker Mountain, not for a barrel-style grill like I have. So I had to come up with an idea of how to apply the method in my situation. I also had to have an excuse to cook. While I wanted to tackle another brisket, I was also craving some ribs. In a somewhat funny coincidence, I was asked by some friends if I wanted to cook some ribs for a going away dinner last night. I had my excuse! I just needed to focus on execution. I took Friday off to prepare them.

Now, on to the preparation:

Baby backs were the menu item this time. I have no preference when it comes to the cut of ribs, but I do prefer pork over beef. However, our friends did the shopping and I didn’t specify which kind. This is what she bought. I was quite pleased.

I looked at a lot of different sites about a lot of different styles of meat preparation. A common theme seemed to be to rub the meat with a light coat of mustard (though there were variations aplenty). I used regular old yellow mustard and glopped it on rather thick. One note here, if you’re going to rub your meat with mustard USE GLOVES! My hands were yellow for hours.

The mustard’s primary mission is to provide a nice sticky substance for the rub to adhere to the meat. Now, I’ve used rubs for many years and have done plenty of ribs and shoulders doing nothing other than applying the rub directly to the meat. I find that the mustard does let the rub stick the meat much better. However, when you use a rub directly on the meat, there is a little penetration. Here, the rub forms more of a bark. I guess it has a lot to do with preference. Having done both now, I will always be using this method. I liked it that much.

I did stub my toe a little when putting certain spices in the mix. I was a bit heavy handed adding some Tony Chachere’s and chili powder. It was too spicy for some palates though it was by no means what I would call a spicy rub. It was just over the edge of mild but well below what I think of as spicy.

After getting the racks rubs, I wrapped them in plastic wrap and foil and let them sit in the fridge overnight.

Bing, mentioned in the comments of my brisket post that he wasn’t too familiar with the innards of my style grill. So here’s a crappy pic of the inside. The coal grate below can be raised and lowered by a crank, there are vents in the coal area on both sides and on both sides of the lid. You can see from the indentation in the coal grate I always build a fire on the right-hand side. I never fill the coal grate entirely, I can cook directly over the coals on that side, then pull the meat to the far left for indirect cooking. It’s a good system for grilling, but most often too hot or too uncontrollable for long smoking. Until now, that is!

The Minion Method was created for the Weber Smokey Mountain vertical smoker and has been adopted by many to use in a lot of situations, but I didn’t find anything by anyone who’d used one in a barrel grill kind of environment. I knew that my main problem was airflow. There’s just too much of it in the grill and I had to find a way to cut it down. My first thought was to use my cast iron Dutch oven as the coal pan. The problem here is that it would cut down on the air flow too much. I thought that maybe I would just build my fire as normal, directly on the grate, and hope that the Minion Method would compensate. Eventually I figured that I would create a foil “basket” for the coals, with some air holes punched in the bottom. That way I still got my air flow, but it was choked back a bit. As normal, I used my Dutch oven as a water pan/fire break.

I also deviated from my normal style of wood use. I have been using chips in a cast-iron wood box for a long time but switched to chunks for this burn. I chose three fist-sized chunks (using hickory only because I couldn’t find anything else at Walmart) and I did put some apple chips in there as well.

The biggest thing I added to my grill for this cook was to buy a rib rack. I can’t believe I hadn’t done this before now. I was able to cook these six racks of ribs in the space two-and-a-half would normally take. I also decided to smoke a chuck roast just to have some beef on hand as well. Notice how close that beef is to the fire. I had concerns, but everything turned out fine.

It took a while for the temp to get above 200 (the temp at which I put the ribs on the grill). Eventually it hit the 225 area (probably about 45 minutes after putting the ribs on the grill) and sat at 250 for a good long time. The highest the fire ever climbed was 275 and it sat there for about an hour. Closing down some vents helped control the temp. I watched this gauge neurotically – probably checking it every 15 minutes or so.

To be honest, I never expected to have such good temperature control. It shocked me, in a good way. The best thing was that I got a good, long burn out of this. I put the ribs on around 9 a.m. and pulled them around 3:30 p.m. I added about 15 unlit coals about 1 p.m. I also basted them every 30-45 min. with apple juice and water. I sauced the ribs about 45 min before I pulled them off the grill. When they were done, I wrapped them in foil and put them in a towel-lined cooler for about an hour.

When I cook without the foil using the “normal” way of lighting coals, I start with half a bag or more and wind up adding coals about every two hours. I used less than half a bag and got six-and-a-half hours of cook. Just amazing. I’m anxiously waiting getting a Weber Smoker and getting the 12-to-15 cooking times I’ve read about.

The final result was quite good – tender, smoky and flavorful. Of course there are always things to learn. Here’s what I got out this cook:

1. Use a simpler rub. More paprika, less cumin, low to no Chachere’s or chili powder.
2. Make a sauce entirely at home. I started with a base of Kraft Original and came up with a good sauce adding apple juice and Worcestershire, but I’m pretty sure an entirely home-made sauce would have come out better.
3. Less hickory. Three fist-sized chunks was too much. I personally like the flavor, but I understand that it’s considered too smoky by many people. I need to locate apple chunks and do two apple and one hickory next time.
4. Not a rib note, but don’t use a chuck roast. The chuck roast just wasn’t a good one for the smoker. It required a good, sweet sauce after the smoke to be really good. Without the sauce, the beef’s flavor just wasn’t all that good. It was plenty tender – texture-wise it was where I wanted my brisket to be at my last cook.

Good cooking, everyone!


Mr. Bingley said...

Absolutely fantastic looking (and tasting, I bet!)!

In my book, rib racks beat out sliced bread; you just can't imagine why you put up with out them before.

That tinfoil boat was ingenious; and I'm glad the temps came up slowly, as the problem is usually they come up too fast on you and you can't get them back down.

Once you get a WSM you'll find the temp control amazing. My first over-nighter I got up and nervously checked the temp every 15 minutes like you were...and the sucker just held steady as could be; Mine runs a little hot, as the door hasn't got a great seal, so it just sits at 260 or so. For 14 hours. With no refueling.

I just adore when you get a good crusty bark like that! And you won't really if you foil, as that goos it up some. I never foil while cooking, mostly because, well solely really, because I'm too dang lazy to go through the effort. And I don't have a table anywhere near my cooker, which makes it doubly much of a pain.

Great job again!

Cullen said...

Thanks, Bing.

I am really looking forward to being able to cook unattended for many hours. I am a water pan user, so I'll still be adding water every 2.5 to 3 hours. That's a heck of an improvement!

I was reading up on Alton Brown's homemade flower-pot smoker. To get a better seal between the two pots, one guy used an oven seals/gasket. I bet something like that could be used to get a better seal on the door to your WSM. I Googled "oven seal" and came up with a bunch of good returns.

Mr. Bingley said...

You know, I thought about sealing the door some (it's pretty easy to do with tin foil) but I figured why bother? I never use the door, since I don't use any water in the pan (i just foil it) and on my over night cooks I never add coals anyway and I'm used to how my smoker cooks, so why mess with it? Once i get it going I go to sleep and don't check it for 6-7 hours; i have that much faith in it just sitting there at the temp.

WV: "lacquis" a French follower

Cullen said...

Oh, thanks for the complements too! I appreciate all the advice in the earlier post also. It really got me to think about how to best choke down the airflow without cutting it off completely.

I'm with you on the essentialness of ribs. In fact, I have some more ribs in the freezer; so there's a good chance we'll have some holiday ribs Wednesday or Thursday.