Some food, some drink.
Real BBQ, Not-so-real Ribs: Country Style Ribs for the Barbeque Grill.
I love me some county style pork ribs; and what's not to love? It's a relatively cheap cut of meat that's high on flavor and forgiving to cook. However most recipes for country style ribs depend on the crock pot, or only see the grill for a finishing step after spending time in a pot of simmering water. I say why boil when you can barbeque? By taking country style ribs to the charcoal, and treating them like the roast they are, this economical piece of pork is able to achieve that rich, smoky, pull-apart tender BBQ status.
Most of the time when you think of true barbeque, it's a subprimal extravaganza. Fifteen pound Boston butts, twelve pound beef briskets and the like. However, I'm just one dude, and my little family doesn't eat that much at a go. Even when I tell the butcher to cut my roasts at three and four pounds, we still end up eating on them for the better part of a week. I've always had a thing for country-style pork ribs, but now as I'm the proud owner of a Big Steel Keg, my pride just won't let me handle this cut in the crock pot any more. I'm looking for that pink tinged periphery that liquid smoke can't give you. I'm looking for that chocolate-brown bark that never comes to fruition in a slow cooker. I want real barbeque country style ribs.
After a few trials, I think I've got something that I can share. As I've mentioned before I'm no barbeque expert, but I can follow the science. Back in the day when I did real research, I adopted a mindset where the best research was the stuff that put it all out there. If your methods were sound and someone didn't agree with your conclusions, then you were likely doing it right. Likewise, there is a voodoo associated with barbeque that needs to be demystified; and while I'm not saying this write-up is a piece of sage-caliber cookout wisdom, I'd like to think that if a recipe can draw out a few BBQ pundits, then I'm doing my job.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Bundle the ribs with butcher's twine with the fat all facing up. Reserve rub needed for the mop and evenly coat the rib bundle with what you didn't reserve. Set up your grill for 250F of indirect heat with hickory and apple wood smoke per your grill manufacturer's recommendations, allowing room for a drip pan. When the grill is ready, fill the drip pan with 16 oz of Coke, stick a probe thermometer in the meat and put it all on the grill over the drip pan.
To prepare the mop, melt the bacon fat in the microwave with the 2 tsp of reserved rub, then whisk in the remaining 8 oz of Coke. When the meat reaches 140F, brush on the mop. Repeat mopping when the meat reaches 150F and 160F. When the meat reaches 170F, wrap that puppy in foil, and pour about a third cup of the mop over the top before sealing the foil. Return to the grill and continue to cook until the internal temperature reaches 200F. Remove from the grill and immediately get to pulling and serving.
As I've covered barbeque before, all I really wanna talk about here is temperature and how it affects the meat. In my copy of On Food and Cooking there's a nifty little table on or about page 152 that really tells you what's going on with your 'que. I use it like an astronaut uses cue cards for a mission: Don't ever let anyone tell you that good barbeque isn't scripted. Anyhow, with the help of Mr. McGee and a probe thermometer, I broke it down thusly -
- 140F - As the myoglobin in meat begins to break down at 140F, you'll now be be hard pressed to get any more smoke ring penetration. Past this point, the protein responsible no longer has binding sites available for the smoke to attach to. You're done adding smoke at this point. I begin mopping at this temperature because smoke penetration is now a non-issue.
- 150F - 160F - The muscle fibers in the meat are continuing to shrink, and collagen is just now beginning to turn to gelatin. For this to happen the collagen needs some water to hydrolyze, so we're on with another generous mopping. It's a bit of an uphill battle as at the same time, the muscle is trying to put the squeeze on what's left of the water in the meat.
- 170F - We're as tough and as dry as it'll get. It's difficult at this point to get the temperature of the meat to rise because of the water loss coupled with the high surface to mass ratio of this smaller cut. We need to rehydrate, and that's why we wrap it all in foil with a generous pour of mop. It's not a hard and fast rule, but usually, about 1 fluid ounce of mop per pound of meat should do ya.
- 180F - 200F - Honestly this is where the least care needs to be taken; and if you wanted to even bring your grill all the way up to 325F to put the hurry on the finish (BBQ blasphemy to be certain), you'd be ok. In this doneness range, the muscle fibers will begin to separate and the ribs/roast will soak up that mop like a sponge, providing needed water for any remaining connective tissue to gelatinize. I also think that the bacon fat in the mop helps to lube the muscle fibers; making for better succulence, and an easier pull. As agonizing as it may be to watch your thermometer hit the second century mark, resist the temptation to pull your pork (other pull). Your meat will indeed be done and tasty at 190F, but it'll be a bitch to separate those fibers effectively with anything but a knife.
The trick with pulled meats really lies in the reheat. You've essentially destroyed all of your meat's potential to hold water at this point, so all you can really hope to do is give that battered muscle matrix enough moisture to cling to so as to give the illusion of moist. Anyone that says a pulled meat doesn't need some sort of sauce is a fool. For the unfoolish, there are options:
- You could simply add a bit of your favorite bottled sauce to the meat, but if you do I would do so sparingly. Otherwise, the rich smokiness you worked so hard for gets lost in a sea of sauce; and for all that, you might as well just use a slow cooker.
- If you really want to reinforce the flavor of the bark, make up another batch of mop, reduce the volume by half by boiling over high heat, and toss with your pulled pork. If you're serving for a crowd, this is how you dress your pig to impress.
- At a fundamental level, even water could be considered a sauce (albeit a totally benign one). A heavy splash of H2O in your warm crock pot cum serving vessel kept covered ensures that the white lie of succulence persists.
Although it was my pride that insisted that I deny my slow cooker, my taste buds told me all was forgiven. The result here is quintessential barbeque in the succinctness of a small-batch for those of us who might be too busy to devote an entire weekend to our grill. The finished meat is tender, and the smoke ring and bark that folks expect to see from a good barbeque are present and accounted for. Grab a roll and pile it high for a pulled pork sandwich to remember; it's time to eat!