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On Labor Day, Make "Last Meal Ribs," The Best Barbecue Ribs You've Ever Tasted

09/03/2009 04:22 pm 16:22:30 | Updated May 25, 2011

Here's how to make low and slow smoke roasted "Last Meal Ribs" on just about any covered grill and make slabs better than they do in restaurants. You'll never boil ribs again. That's because water is a solvent and it pulls much of the flavor out of the meat. When you boil meat you make soup. You wouldn't boil a steak would you? If you boil ribs, the terrorists win.

There's nothing revolutionary in this method. Envision a proto-human tribe padding warily through the fragrant ashes of a forest fire as they follow a particularly seductive scent. When they stumble upon the charred carcass of a wild boar they squat and poke their fingers into its side. They sniff their hands, then lick their greasy digits. The magical blend of warm protein, molten fat, and unctuous collagen in the roasted meat is a narcotic elixir and it addicts them on first bite. They become focused, obsessed with tugging out the rib bones and scraping them clean between their teeth, moaning and shaking their heads. The aromas make their nostrils smile and the flavors cause their mouths to weep. They sing praises to their gods.

2009-08-26-best_ribs_ever.jpgNow imagine your tribe, your family and friends, moaning in ecstasy and praising your name in your own backyard. You can make it happen if you follow my step-by-step guide below. I share this with you after years of studying at the feet of the masters, judging at barbecue competitions including the Jack Daniel's World Championship International Barbecue, and sucking on a lot of bones.

We're talking Southern ribs here, a style created by African slaves and as uniquely American as their other great contributions to our culture: Jazz and the blues. The ribs that win championships are a melange of flavors: Spice rub, hardwood smoke, tangy sweet sauce, all underpinned by the distinct flavor of pork. They are juicy and tender and they tug cleanly off the bone. They do not fall off the bone. They have the texture of other properly cooked meats, like steaks. Click here to see what I look for when I judge rib cookoff, what I consider to be Amazing Ribs.

There may be a few more steps in this process than you like, but it's not hard and we're talking blue ribbon competition grade meat here. If you love ribs, follow these steps and you will thank me as so many others have.

Serves. 2 adults.

Preparation time. Overnight dry rub marinating is optional.

Cooking time. We will be cooking low and slow, so allow 5 hours for St. Louis Cut ribs (my faves) and 3 hours for baby back ribs.

Hardware


1 grill with a cover. You can use a dedicated smoker or any charcoal grill or gas grill as long as it has a cover. A tight fitting cover with adjustable vents like those on the Weber Kettle is best.

2009-08-26-chimney3.jpg1 (18 pound) bag of charcoal for charcoal grills or smokers. You won't use all that charcoal, but because you will need more on cold, windy, or wet days than on sunny and warm days, have a full bag on hand. Hardwood lump is best, but regular briquets will do fine. Absolutely do not use the instant igniting stuff that has solvent in it. Chimney starters are by far the best way to start charcoal, especially for long slow cooking where the smell of the solvent in charcoal starter fluid can ruin the taste of the meat.

1 tank of propane for gas cookers. You won't need it all, but, until you get the hang of this technique, don't risk running out by starting with a partial tank.

2009-08-26-charcoal_types.jpg8 ounces by weight of hardwood chunks, chips, or pellets. It doesn't matter how many slabs you are cooking, 8 ounces should be enough. I prefer chunks of apple, oak, or hickory for pork. Never use any kind of pine unless you want meat that tastes like turpentine. Never use construction lumber because it is often treated with poisonous chemicals to discourage rot and termites. You do not need to soak the wood. Wood does not absorb much water. That's why they make boats with it.

1 sauce brush, preferably one of those newfangled silicon brushes

12 feet of heavy duty aluminum foil, not the lightweight stuff

1 good instant read thermometer, preferably digital

1 six pack of beer (for the cook, not the meat)

Software

2009-09-03-cuts.gif1 slab of fresh St. Louis Cut (SLC) ribs. That's 1/2 slab per adult. If you use baby back ribs, get a whole slab per person. You may have leftovers, but what's wrong with that? SLCs are the meatiest and most flavorful ribs. They are spare ribs with the tips removed so they form a nice rectangular rack. You can use baby back ribs if you prefer. They are smaller and cook faster. Country ribs come from the shoulder and are not really ribs, so don't use them for this recipe. Get fresh, not frozen meat if possible. Fresh meat has the best pork flavor and the most moisture. Ever notice the pink liquid when you defrost meat? You can't get that back into the meat, so buy fresh meat whenever possible. Ask the butcher to remove the membrane on the back side.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 tablespoons of Meathead's Memphis Dust or a similar spice rub

1 cup apple juice

Do this


1) Rinse. Rinse the ribs in cool water to remove any bone bits from the butchering and any bacterial film that grew in the package (don't worry, cooking will sterilize the meat). Pat dry with paper towels.

2009-08-31-membrane5.jpg2) Skin 'n' trim. If the butcher has not removed the membrane from the back side, do it yourself. Insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers (shown at right), work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides. Click here to see more photos of how to skin 'n' trim.

3) Rub. Coat the meat with a thin layer of cooking oil. Sprinkle enough Meathead's Memphis Dust to coat all surfaces but not so much that the meat doesn't show through. That is about 2 tablespoons per side depending on the size of the slab. Many of the herbs and spices in the rub are oil soluble, so the cooking oil will help them penetrate a little better. Spread the Memphis Dust on the meat and rub it in. Wash your hands. Wrap the meat in half the foil and let it sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours on a platter or pan to catch leaks. In addition to flavoring the meat, the salt in the rub pulls the juices to the surface and that will help form a crust during the cooking. If you don't have time to let the meat marinate in the dry rub, it's not the end of the world. Put on the oil and rub anyway and start cooking.

2009-08-31-correctindirect3.jpg4) Setup for indirect 2-zone cooking. That means that one side is hot and the other is not. If you have a gas grill, use only one burner as described in my article setup for a gas grill. Put a disposable aluminum pan with water on top of the hot burner. Moisture and combustion gasses in a propane grill combine to create a seductive, baconlike flavor in the meat. If it has only one burner, put the water pan between the meat and the burner. If you have a charcoal grill, push the coals to one side as in the photo at right and as described in best setup for a charcoal grill. You can use a water pan, but it is not necessary. If you have an offset firebox smoker, follow my instructions for an setting up an offset smoker. If you have a bullet smoker like the Weber Smokey Mountain, read my article bullet smoker setup.

5) Adjust the temp. Preheat your cooker to about 225F and try to keep it there throughout the cook. Adjust the air intake dampers at the bottom to control heat on charcoal grills. Intake dampers are more effective than exhaust dampers for controlling the temp because they reduce the supply of oxygen to the coals. Take your time getting the temp right. Cooking at 225F will allow the meat to roast low and slow, liquefying the collagen in connective tissues and melting fats without getting the proteins knotted in a bunch. It's a magic temp that creates silky texture, adds moisture, and keeps the meat tender. If you can't hit 225F, get as close as you can. Don't go under 200F and try not to go over 250F. Click here for more about meat science and the thermodynamics of cooking.

2009-08-31-wood3.jpg6) Smoke. For charcoal or gas cookers, add 4 ounces of wood at this time. Put the wood right on top of the flame of a gas grill or on the hot coals.

Resist the temptation to add more wood. Nothing will ruin a meal faster and waste money better than oversmoked meat. You can always add more the next time you cook, but you cannot take it away if you oversmoke.

7) Relax. Put the slabs in the cooker on the cooler side of the grill, meaty side up. Close the lid and go drink a beer and read a book.

8) More smoke. When the smoke disappears after 20-30 minutes, add another 2 ounces of wood. After the first hour, stop adding wood. Adding wood at the beginning of the cook allows better penetration before the meat surface seals itself. If you have more than one slab on, halfway through the cook you will need to move the ribs closest to the fire away from the heat, and the slabs far from the flame in closer. Leave the meat side up. There is no need to flip the slabs. Otherwise, keep your lid on. Opening the lid just upsets the delicate balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen inside your cooker. It can also significantly lengthen the cooking time. No peeking. If you're lookin', you ain't cookin'.

9) The Texas Crutch. Now we employ another secret of the champions, The Texas Crutch. After 3 hours of cooking St. Louis Cut ribs at 225F (1 1/2 hours for baby backs), take 6' of heavy duty foil and fold it into a 3' length. Lay the slab on the foil meaty side up. Fold up the sides making a boat and pour 1 cup of apple juice into the boat. Don't pour it on the meat or you'll wash off the rub. Now carefully fold the foil around the meat, sealing it tight and trying hard not to puncture the foil. Be careful, those bones can poke through. Put the packet back on the grill for 30-60 minutes. No more than 60 minutes. By creating a little steam, The Texas Crutch adds flavor, moisture, tenderness, and finishes cooking the meat. If you want to skip this step, feel free, you'll still have killer ribs.

2009-08-31-finishing2.jpg10) Sauce. Now take the meat out of the foil, being careful not to curl your eyebrows with the steam when you open the packet, and place the ribs back on at 225F for another hour to firm up the surface. Then paint both sides with your favorite home made barbecue sauce or storebought sauce and move them directly over the hottest part of the grill in order to caramelize and crisp the sauce. On a charcoal grill, just move the slab over the coals. On a gas grill, crank up all the burners. On a water smoker, remove the water pan and move the meat close to the coals. On an offset smoker, put a grate over the coals in the firebox and put the meat there. With the lid open so you don't roast the meat from above, sizzle the sauce on one side and then the other. One coat of a thick sauce should be enough, but if you need two, go ahead, but no more! Don't hide all the fabulous flavors under too much sauce. If you think you'll want more sauce, put some in a bowl on the table.

2009-08-31-anatomy4.jpgIf you've done all this right, you will notice that there is a thin pink layer beneath the surface of the meat. This does not mean it is undercooked! It is the highly prized smoke ring caused by the combustion gases and the smoke. It is a sign of Amazing Ribs. Now be ready to take a bow when the applause swells from the audience.

Optional. Instead of using barbecue sauce, make Vermont Pig Candy (shown at the top of this page). This is always a huge hit. Here's a summary of the process. Pour the apple juice from the foil into a sauce pan and mix it with 1/4 cup of real maple syrup (not artificially flavored pancake syrup) and cook it about 15 minutes on medium high heat or until it starts to foam. Watch it carefully and take it off the moment it foams. Then add 2 pinches of salt and 2 teaspoons of hot sauce more or less. Paint this wonderful glaze on the meat and put it back on the grill over high heat with the lid open and watch it carefully because it can burn easily. The moment it begins to sizzle and bubble, turn it and sizzle it on the other side. Serve it and wait for the compliments.

Serve with

2009-08-31-beans2.jpgBourbon Baked Beans

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Unless otherwise noted, all text and photos are Copyright (c) 2009 By Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing and recipes, please visit AmazingRibs.com. Click here for information on reprint rights.