Baby Back Ribs,  easy and fast (sort of)

 

We have sub-zero temperatures here in the northeast.  A perfect time to talk about something that reminds us of summer... like barbecued ribs.

When I started this blog not long ago, I really didn't know what would happen.  I’ll start by saying that the response has been overwhelming, and I’m very grateful.  One of the most frequent recipe requests I’ve received from friends is for barbecued ribs.  Many of you who know me know how much I like to barbecue; in fact several of you have shared a chair, some wine, and maybe a cigar while we tended a smoker for hours. 

Barbecue is a very broad subject.  Generally it involves slow cooking with indirect heat from a wood fueled fire.  This involves some level of dedication.  If you’re a BBQ aficionado, you’ve already studied barbecue, have a dedicated smoker, a secret rub, a source for your wood, some friends with lawn chairs, and a loyal following. We’re talking about ribs here, and good barbecue ribs are sublime.

Yet the question comes from casual friends…’How do you make great ribs’?  As soon as the answer involves overnight brine and 4-5 hours in a smoker, I’ve lost them…’OK never mind….I don’t have that kind of time or the right gear.’  I’ll admit, the best ribs, or any barbecue for that matter, come from long, slow cooking.  In fact ribs, along with chicken, are the fast cooking meats.  Pulled pork and brisket take considerably more time.  But, I’ll tell you how to make great ribs in less than 3 hours.

The type of ribs that win championships, like the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championship, involve many steps and a good amount of time.  Usually a wet brine or brine injection overnight, then a dry rub, then 4 hours of smoking, a wet mop or marinade, more smoking, basting with barbecue sauce, resting, etc. Understandably, not everyone wants to spend 6 plus hours to do all that.  How about great ribs in 2 ½ to 3 hours?  I want to smell and taste smoke, but I can live without the deep bark and smoke ring.  It’s by definition a hybrid recipe.  I try to combine essential elements, like dry rub and wood smoke, with modern shortcuts, like the oven and grill.

There are two other essential components:  the rub and the BBQ sauce.  I’ll start by saying that I often vary these considerably, though the rub I've listed here is fairly standard.  BBQ sauce is a world of its own, with great debates over which regional style is best for which meats.  The one I have here is closest to a Kansas City style, though I've added a considerable amount of apple flavor.  Feel free to use whatever sauce you like best.  In my opinion, ribs should be lightly basted, rather than slathered in heavy sauce.  Finally, neither my rub nor my sauce are very spicy.  I found that while I might please a few with some fiery heat, most people prefer ribs to be on the sweet side.  Of course you can easily increase the heat level of either to your own preference.

 

For the dry rub

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup white sugar

½ cup salt

4 tablespoons paprika

4 tablespoons cumin

4 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons onion powder

2 tablespoons white pepper

2 tablespoons dried oregano

 

For the barbecue sauce

4 tablespoons butter

1 onion, finely diced

2 apples, peeled, cored and finely grated

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup apple cider

1 cup ketchup

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup molasses

4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons mustard powder

2 tablespoons cumin

2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon ground pepper

 

For the ribs

2 racks baby back ribs

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup apple cider

Barbecue sauce for basting

 

For the rub

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and reserve.

  

For the sauce

1. Heat the butter in a stockpot over medium heat and add the onion, apples and garlic.

2. Sauté until soft, about 10 minutes.

3. Add the rest of the ingredients, and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.

4. Remove from the heat and let cool.  Puree the sauce in a blender and reserve.

 

For the ribs

1. Prep a smoker for indirect smoking at about 225F (see note below).

2. Place ribs on a cutting board meat side down.  Using a paring knife, make a slit in the milky white membrane along the back of one of the rib bones.  Using a paper towel or rubber glove for grip, pull the entire membrane off the back of the rack.  Repeat with the other rack.

3. Place the ribs on a sheet tray and pat them dry with paper towels. Spread an even layer of dry rub over the entire surface of each rack and rub lightly with your hands. (If you have the time, let the meat sit for 45 minutes to an hour with the rub.  However, since this is a ‘shortcut method’, we’ll skip this step).

4. Place ribs in your smoker and smoke at 225F for one hour, without opening the smoker.  Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 325F.

5. Prepare two sheets of aluminum foil, each twice the length of the rib rack.  Sprinkle each piece of foil lengthwise with the some of the brown sugar, vinegar and apple cider.

6. Remove the ribs from the smoker and place each on a length of aluminum foil, on top of the sugar and liquids.  Sprinkle the back side of the ribs with the remaining sugar, vinegar and cider.  Wrap the ribs tightly in the foil and place on a sheet tray in the oven.

7. Cook in the oven for 1 to 1 ½ hours.  Ribs that are done will show visible signs of the meat pulling away from the bone and give the impression that the rack would break apart if picked up from the center.  Meanwhile, light your grill.

8. When the ribs feel done, remove from the oven and rest for 15 minutes.  Open the foil pouches carefully as the liquids will be hot.    Let the ribs drain and place on a sheet tray.

9. Baste the ribs with some of the barbecue sauce, and grill over a medium high flame about 5 minutes per side.  We’re not cooking the ribs at this point, but instead caramelizing some of the fat and barbecue sauce.  We saved time by wrapping the ribs in foil and cooking in the oven, but lost texture.  The grill brings it back.

10. Remove the ribs from the grill, and rest for 5 minutes.  Slice carefully between each rib bone, meat side down, and serve.

 

About smoking food:

There are many great ways to barbecue, which essentially involves smoking food at medium low temps (say 215 to 250F) with indirect heat from wood (or charcoal).  Smoking can be done with old fashioned barrel cookers, vertical smokers, offset smokers and even the smoking box (wood chip box) of your gas grill.  If you have any of these rigs, I assume you know how to use them.  If you’re completely new to smoking food, a great way to get started is with an old fashioned kettle grill (IE a Weber).

To smoke with a kettle grill, build a small charcoal fire against one side of the kettle.  Once the coals are glowing, place some woods chunks on the charcoal.  Next to the fire, place a disposal aluminum pan to catch drippings, and replace the grill grate.  Smoke the food over the drip pan on the side of the grill away from the heat.  Place the lid on the grill with the vent holes on the side away from the fire, so the smoke is drawn across the food as it vents.  Experiment with the bottom and top dampers…they should be fairly closed as you want a low temp of around 225F.  On longer cooks you’ll want to add charcoal and wood every hour or so.  As for woods, my favorites are hickory and apple.  Maple, pear and cherry are other good choices.

If a gas grill is your only option, you can smoke using small wood chips and aluminum foil.  Soak about 1 ½ cups of wood chips in water, then drain and wrap them in a pouch of aluminum foil.  Use a knife or fork to poke several holes in the top of the pouch.  Light one side of your gas grill, and place the wood chip pouch on the lit side.  Smoke the meat on the unlit side of the grill.  Adjust the grill to produce a slow steady stream of smoke.