Early last week, the Czar and the Цесаревич were discussing ribs, and we both agreed that it was time to smoke up some babybacks. Sunday, August 4th, would be a good day as we had nothing scheduled and ribs, done correctly, take a good portion of the day.
Saturday morning, the Czar heard from Ghettoputer that he, too, would be doing ribs on Sunday. What a perfect opportunity to live-Tweet the event. Both of us kept our readers aware of each step along the way. Due to popularity of the stunt, the Czar thought he would provide his step-by-step directions.
We bought three racks of Hormel baby back ribs at a nearby grocery, about $9 a rack. They have meatier, less fatty, and far more expensive ribs but the Czar does not need to waste the money. He can turn these into edible gold. Besides, the fat drips off, leaving more succulent meat than the monster rib racks can provide.
At 9:30am, Sunday morning, the Czar took about six-to-eight chunks of hickory wood and placed them into a deep, aluminum foil pan. He poured water over them until the pan was about filled; we continued to roll the wood pieces around until wet on all sides and let them sit.
Okay, so here is our smoker. It is a 22.5-inch Weber water smoker. It has no digital anything. There are a number of parts to it that may not be obvious: a half-dome lid, a central portion with a door, and a bottom half-dome.
The middle portion contains two grill racks (and upper and lower so you can cook multiple foods at once). Below the bottom rack is a metal bowl that sits above the coals. The coals are piled into the bottom half-dome, like a regular Weber grille. If you lift the middle section, the racks and bowl all come along for the ride.
The Czar took off the smoker lid and placed it on the ground. He then picked the middle portion of the smoker right off the little hemispherical bottom and set it aside.
The Czar needed to light the coals first; we prefer a chimney starter. You begin by spraying some non-stick cooking spray onto some non-colored newspaper. You roll those into paper tubes and coil them inside the bottom of the starter until fairly well stuffed.
Fill the upper part of the chimney starter with charcoal. Never use the kind that has the lighter fluid built in, unless you want to ingest gasoline. Use dry, 100% pure charcoal, please.
Take a match and light the newspaper at 3 or 4 places and put the starter into the bottom half-dome. It will begin smoking right away as the burning newspaper slowly burns away the cooking spray. The Czar waits about 15 minutes until he sees an orange-yellow glow in the middle of the coals.
At about 9:50, the Czar went to prepare the ribs!
Smoke continued to billow out of the starter, so we safely placed the starter upright onto the grate inside the lower half-dome.
We took the ribs out of the refrigerator and sliced each of the three plastic bags, allowing the blood to drain right into the sink. You have to be used to blood when you are a Czar, so this has never been an issue; however, the Czar will spare you that photo.
The drained ribs are placed on a metal sheet pan. With a sharp knife, turn the ribs over and look for the membrane. Rib membranes are thin, sinewy sheets. If you get the corner up, peel it right off the ribs like you were pulling an Obama-Biden bumper sticker off a Prius. Sometimes, though, you need the knife to slice off the stubborn pieces of membrane. Pitch this in the trash where the dog wont steal it.
Now you put on the rub. The Czar uses his left hand to sprinkle barbecue rub on the ribs while spreading the rub on the raw pork with his right hand. This makes sure that the unused rub is never contaminated by pork blood.
Do you have a favorite barbecue rub? The Czar uses one developed by the great Steven Raichlen. Here is his recipe, which makes a full cup of rub (enough to last a long time) and costs pennies to make:
Thats all there is. Store it for a year or more in a plastic, sealable container. We use it on chicken, pork, and even steak. Or you can spend eight bucks on a small-bottle commercial brand that uses the same stuff. Its up to you.
Be sure to get the top, underside, and the side edges of the ribs! When done, let them sit for a couple of minutes.
Meantime, your coals should be ready. Pay attention, because this part goes fast. At 10:00am, the Czar saw the coals were glowing a wonderful orange-cherry-yellow. He picked up the starter and poured them right into the bottom of the half-dome.
Then, we poured another heap of unlit coals on top of the lit ones. As the lit ones burn, they will light the unlit ones for you.
Almost immediately, we took three pieces of soaked hickory woodit has been in the water the entire timeand chucked them onto the unlit coals.
We then placed the middle section of the smoker back onto the lower half-dome. Believe it or not, by this point, the heat from the coals has started the hickory wood smoking. Keep moving! Get three or four pitchers of water and fill the metal bowl in the middle of the smoker about three-quarters full.
Okay: the new coals are lighting, the hickory is smoking, and the bowl has water. Go get your ribs and place them on the smoker racks as shown to the right. You can do more than three racks, of course.
Cover the smoker with the lid. It is now about 10:05am.
Quickly monitor the temperature on the thermostat. It will begin climbing rapidly! At about 200° Fahrenheit, close the three circular vents on the bottom half-dome until they are almost fully closed. Leave a teeny-tiny crescent moon of an opening.
The temperature will continue to climb. At about 250°, close the vent on the top of the lid until just barely open.
For the next two hours, continue to open the vents or close them slightly. Your goal is to keep the temperature between 200° and 250° ideally, as you guessed, you want about 225°. As a result, you want to check about every 15 minutes until the temperature stabilizes.
At 12:30pm, the Czar opened the silvery door on the side of the smoker and chucked in a fistful of unlit charcoal and another chunk of hickory.
He then removed the lid (shown here at that precise moment) and lacquered the ribs.
To do this, take a clean plastic spray bottle and fill it with three-quarters cup of unsweetened apple juice and a quarter-cup of unsweetened apple cider vinegar.
Quickly remove the lid (every second you do costs you a lot of heat) and spray, spray, spray! Nail each of the rib racks with a lot of lacquer, until they glisten. Then, quickly replace the lid.
At 1:30pm, repeat: more charcoal, another chunk of wood, and another salvo of lacquering spray. Yes, you will need to monitor the temperature again because opening the lid will cause temperature fluctuations. Open or close the vents until the temperature stabilizes.
At 2:30pm, repeat that charcoal, hickory wood, lacquering gig. But dont freak out if the temperature is not falling. If you get good at this, you might not need to adjust the vents at all. Just make sure the temperature is holding around 225°
At 3:30p, the ribs are ready for the next step. You can tell because the ends of the rib bones are sticking out about a quarter-inch to half-an-inch.
You get the drill: chuck in some more charcoal, and throw in whatever chunk or two of hickory wood you have left. Lacquer the ribs for the last time.
Then, do not put the lid back on. Instead, carefully (and we do mean carefully) lift each rack off the grille with a long spatula. Place each rib rack on a sheet of foil and neatly wrap it. Return the foil-enclosed envelope of ribby joy back to the smoker and repeat with the next racks as required. The picture shows all three of our racks neatly wrapped in foil.
Now put the lid back on. In all probability, you will see the temperature in the smoker plummet to 150° or lower. When the lid goes back on, you should see the temperature climb back up. Help it by opening the vents a bit on the top of the lid.
Let these ribs cook for another hour or so.
At 4:30pm, the Czar removed the lid.
Using the long spatula, he placed the ribs onto a clean metal sheet pan and carried them into the house. Let them sit: do not open them, no matter how curious you are.
The Czar went out to clean the smoker. Hot! So use gloves. Basically, wash the racks and the water bowl with dish soap and water from the garden hose. The Czar dumps his remaining coals into his fire pit.
He reassembles the smoker and leaves it cool down for at least an hour before closing the vents and covering it back up. So what to do for that hour?
Ribs! Here is the first rack, unwrapped and placed on a serving platter. See the dark skin? Thats called bark and is an indication of doneness. Note also the bones popping out the side: that indicates they are cooked correctly inside as well.
Finally, when you slice into your ribs, you will notice a pink glow to the outer edges of the meat. This is called the smoke ring, and there should be a minimum of 1/16th of an inch of pink on the outer edge. The Czar gets his about 3/8-inches deep, but that doesnt mean they are any better: just that they will have a smokier flavor. The deeper the pink extends from the edge to the center, the smokier the taste.
The point is, the pink is good. We know when you eat pork, the last think you want is juicy pink bits, but in the case of smoked foods, it means you succeeded.
So it takes from 9:30am to 4:30pm to make ribs like this, and you are indeed busy for a portion of that time. Sure, once you get them smoking, you can do other stuff: the Czar weeded a section of the garden, for example, and chatted with some neighbors who eventually stayed and ate one of the racks.
Czar, did you forget to add wood, charcoal, and lacquer at 11:30? No! In fact, one of the many rib smoking controversies is whether you should do it after one hour, or skip the first hour. The Czar, originally not by choice, has learned to skip the first hour. Let the ribs smoke for two full hours to seal in the flavor. The reason he skipped once was because we could find the spray bottle in time, and this caused us to miss the first hour. The result was so much better that we now routinely skip. Wait until 12:30. Or donta lot of folks lacuqer every hour.
Czar, we are having a hard time keeping the temperature below 250°! You need to close the vents almost completely. Never close them 100% of the way or your coals will choke out; but by God, on Sunday at one point the Czar had them closed about 95% of the way to keep the temperature down.
Czar, we are having a hard time keeping the temperature above 200°! First, if you can hold the temperature steady at about 200°, thats okay. You want your ribs cooked low and slow. But if you see the needle dipping below 190°, and your vents on the smoker are completely open, your coals are dying. Quick! Open the metal door on the side and slide in a lot more coals. Maybe even half a bag if your lit coals are the size of almonds: get that temperature up. Note, though, that adding coals may cause the temperature to dip a bit more…but then be careful that they do not skyrocket the temperature as they start to ignite. Be ready to close those wide-open vents.
This question came in from Twitter, and was really interesting:
@Gormogons ACV with the mother or doesn't matter?
— mckalarose (@mckalarose) August 4, 2013
Okay, what @mckalarose is asking here is if we use apple cider vinegar with the mother. The mother refers to raw, organic, unprocessed apple cider vinegar that has visible strands of enzymes in itit looks like goo floating in it, and purports to have unique health effects.
No, indeed, use cheap, processed apple cider vinegar. It is a hell of a lot cheaper, and the mother will almost certainly clog up your spray bottle. Any alleged health benefits will not matter much spraying it onto fatty ribs cooked by smoke. And the heat from the smoker is above boiling: so the mother enzymes are going to dissolve and evaporate in seconds anyway.
Thats a great question, because you might think that making ribs by hand like this, without any modern conveniences except a wristwatch and thermometer, practically beg for a real, honest solution like apple cider vinegar with the mother. In this case, though, you will be pleased to note that cheaper is actually better!
Czar, what sauce do you recommend putting on them? Actually, we recommend none. If you cannot abide ribs without sauce, go ahead; but the ribs described above are so soft, juicy, and smoky that sauce actually detracts. Seriously: eat em just like this off the bone.
There are many other ways to make ribs. We like dry rubs and no sauce on baby backs with hickory wood. The Czar also will do short ribs, spareribs, and beef ribs. And we frequently use mesquite for ribs. Cherry wood is awesome. Each requires its own approach. Speaking of which:
— Bernie Gilbert (@Bernie_Gilbert) August 3, 2013
A little clarification: rib meat should not fall off the bone on its own. What BG means here is that the meat will pluck off the bone as you bite it, and his 1 step firms the meat up. If the meat falls off the bone on its own, it has been overdone. While we have not personally tried the recommended 3-2-1 method, we certainly read the description and it seems completely prudent and perfectly good.
This also seems like a great way to prepare ribs in a gas grille where you can better manage the temperature. The Czar suspects, but has not confirmed, that the 3-2-1 method could require much more temperature management than the already hands-on approach described above.
If you have a simple gas grille, without a smoker box, you can use an aluminum foil pouch. This actually works, and by way of demonstration, the Czar made an entire pork shoulder as well as two or three beer-can chickens using this method. You dont need a water smoker like ours to make incredible ribs like this.
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.