I think I’m getting closer to the perfect rib. A while back Harold McGee wrote an article for his Curious Cook column called “The Secret to Ribs is Already in the Kitchen: The Oven,” where he described the limitations of making true slow cooked (and/or smoked) ribs on a grill. His point relates to typical home grill surface area and proximity of rib to heat source, explaining that most of the ribs (or part of them) are going to be too close to the heat, and those will dry out because the temp is too high. He suggests truly slow cooking them first in the oven (spiced and wrapped in foil) to break down collagen and connective tissue, and then finishing on the smoke or broiler. Sacrilege! to barbecue purists, I know, but I’m okay with that. Another key part to his method involves using spices in the dry rub that give off similar aromatics to hardwood smoke: chipotle, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. So here are a few stages in my home experimentation with McGee’s method:
1st trial: thick cut pork ribs. These were huge. In retrospect, I think that they were actually ribs with the belly still on, individually cut, and they were almost a pound apiece. I like to call this the bacon-on-a-stick trial, and I’ll definitely buy them again when I see them. These got the basic spice rub treatment overnight, wrapped in foil and cooked for 3 hours at 200, then turned down to 180 for another 2 hours. When company came over, I smoke-roasted them in the Weber over charcoal and hickory chips. These were surprisingly good. I think they could have used a little more time in the oven though (maybe another hour at 180?). A big success from a flavor standpoint, with room for improvement in tenderness.
2nd trial: not ribs, but a small boneless pork butt. I used the same spice rub combo overnight (which I’m enjoying) and then took the slow approach in a dutch oven. About the same cooking time as the first rib trial because I got a late start in the day. Tender and good flavor, but not the melting pulled pork I was going for. And since I was short on time, I didn’t end up smoking the roast. No significant advances here in technique or flavor, so perhaps this gets filed as a side note.
3rd trial: regular rack of ribs (St. Louis style). Now we’re getting somewhere. A friend was in town on business and was coming over for dinner last Thursday. Slow cooked ribs for me are usually a weekend thing, but this was for company, so I had to plan ahead. These got the spice rub overnight, then went into foil and a 180 oven before I left for work at 7:00. They got a full 10 hours. No hassle, no changing oven temps, no fuss. And I wasn’t worried about them drying out. Because of bad weather, I didn’t smoke these outside either, but finished them under the broiler with a quick sauce of apple cider, Worcestershire sauce, and some homemade BBQ sauce that was still kicking around in the fridge. Not too thick, just a quick glaze really. These were terrific. And on a weeknight! Next time they’ll get the smoke.