« February 2011 | Main | December 2015 »

October 2014 Archives

October 24, 2014

New love: BBQ

Hijacking my long neglected blog for notes on BBQing.

My father-in-law helped me build a large steel smoker of his design, and modified by me, a few years ago. Ever since then, I've been working on a method of making ribs that I really enjoy. I've smoked ribs for many people and, either everyone is just being very polite, or they really like my ribs. I know I do.

One of the public-ish events I smoke for is our company BBQ, called OktoberFest, which is tomorrow. This will be my third year smoking for it. Historically, a couple coworkers also smoke ribs and we have a little friendly competition. They're both also very good at ribs, though they are different. I think we all win. :-)

Anyway. This year, the other two guys can't smoke because life. So I'm picking up some slack. I can only fit about 6 racks of ribs in my smoker at a time, so instead I'm trying pulled pork shoulder. This blog post is to write up my custom smoker, how I smoke ribs, and my experience with the shoulders I'm doing for tomorrow, the process, and the results.

My Smoker
The smoker is basically two metal boxes, each about 2ft square, one on top of the other, with a chimney connecting the two on the back. The bottom box has a couple inches of sand in the bottom on which you build a fire. Hot air goes out a large hole cut in the back of the fire box, up a 2 inch deep by 10 inch wide channel on the back of the BBQ, then in through another large hole cut in the back of the meat box. The holes are large so the airflow is slow and diffuse. We made smaller chimneys on earlier smokers and the fast moving hot air burnt whatever was in its way to a charcoal. Anyway. The hot air escapes out a 6 inch pipe in the front top of the meat box.

The front door on the fire box has a sliding vent you can open to allow more air, or close off to allow less. This is the primary temperature control mechanism.

There are two racks in the meat box. Thermodynamics being what it is, the bottom shelf stays cool, around 180 perfect for slow and low smoking, while the top gets nice and hot, above 225 perfect for moist braising.

The bottom shelf can comfortably fit 4 racks of ribs side by side, or up to 8 racks with racks to hold them vertically. However, I rarely do more than 6 at a time for reasons I'll go into more when I talk about the process below.

The whole thing leaks heat like a sive. It is horribly inefficient. It takes a fair bit of wood to keep at the right temp for ribs for 6 to 7 hours, nevermind a shoulder for 10 to 12 hours. And you have to keep your eye on it and adjust the vent on the firebox door and keep it fed with wood. You really can't leave it for more than about 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

This can be a good thing, if you want A Day Of Smoking(tm). It can also be a bad thing if you have to do something else while the smoker is going. For example, I can't just load it with wood and let it go over night with a shoulder or two while I sleep.

Beef vs Pork
First thing's first: For me, "ribs" means "pork ribs." I don't believe in beef ribs. Sorry Texans. I have never had a beef rib that was worth the effort. I'm willing to accept the possibility that I've never had a "good" beef rib, but I've had beef ribs that beef rib lovers have claimed were great ribs and I just couldn't get into them. So for the rest of this post, when I say "ribs" I mean either baby-back ribs or St. Louis cut ribs, but in both cases, I mean pork.

In defense of Texas BBQ, there are few things in this world more satisfying than a good beef brisket. I haven't found many, but a good beef brisket is a thing of beauty. I recommend Armadillo Willy's in the Bay Area.

BBQ Sauce
BBQ sauce is often used as a crutch. If your BBQ requires sauce, you're doing it wrong. If you serve your BBQ with sauce already on it, you're doing it wrong. If you cook your BBQ with sauce slathered on it, you're doing it wrong.

This is not to say that there is no place for a good sauce with BBQ, but not the sugary crap in the bottle you get at the store. Leave the bottles on the shelf and read below for how I make my own sauce from the rib drippings. You can thank me later.

Smoking Ribs
I hate connective tissue. With a firey passion, I hate connective tissue. Gets stuck in your teeth, it's chewy, tries to crack your teeth, and is NOT good eats. It has but one redeeming value: When you cook it slow and moist, the collagen in the connective tissue dissolves into gelatin leaving the meat juicy, tender, and lip smacking good.

Ribs are aproximately 97% connective tissue by weight... Ok, maybe not by weight, but by apparent edible meat on a rib that has not been properly cooked. So one of my main goals with ribs is to cook slow and moist for long enough that all the collagen in the connective tissue breaks down into gelatin. When I say "all," I do mean "all." The phrase "fall off the bone" is not figurative with my ribs.

If you're one of those (IMHO wrong) people who believe ribs should still have enough structural integrety that you have to work a little to get them off the bone, you can still have damn tasty ribs by just braising for half as long.

Rubs are a matter of taste. I happen to like the garlic/onion/salt/pepper mix from my local butcher shop. If you can get Santa Maria Style Seasoning (often made by a company called Suzie-Q's, but I think there are other brands), that's very similar to what I get. Many other BBQers will get very in-depth with the flavors in their rubs, and that's all very good. But I like keeping mine simple. The quantity of rub is a hard one. Too much, and things just get too salty and you pucker more than anything else. Too little, and it tastes flat. And everyone has different tastes here too, so you're on your own to figure out what works for you.

Smoking ribs is a three step process:

  • Step 1: Smoke at around 180 to 190 for 3 to 4 hours. (More time at a lower temp is better, but don't over cook the ribs.)

  • Step 2: Braise at around 230 to 250 for 2 to 2.5 hours.

  • Step 3: Caramelize at around 200 for 30 minutes, less if the ribs are looking done and tasty on the outside already.

  • Step 4 (of a 3 step process?): Boil down the rib drippings into a sauce.

Step 1: Smoke
Apply the dry rub to your ribs and give it a few minutes to .. well, it's not really soaking in, but I guess it's adhearing to the surface of the meat.

Lay the ribs out in the smoker in such a way that they get plenty of airflow. If your smoker has a hot and cold zone (like mine does), keep the ribs in the colder zone. 180 to 190 is ideal, but try to keep it below 200.

Every 15 to 30 minutes, give them a spritz from a spray bottle of apple juice. Get the good stuff, not from concentrate. I like the unfiltered organic juice. The chunky bits leave a nice glaze on the ribs. Anyway, the water in the juice evaporates and leaves all the tasty compounds behind. But more importantly, the evaporation process keeps the ribs cooler and prevents them from over cooking, while still exposing them to gobs and gobs of tasty tasty smoke.

Speaking of tasty smoke, use hard woods for this: oak, nut trees: walnut, maple, pecan, or fruit trees: apple, cherry, etc. They burn as coals for a long time with little soot. Perfect for what we're doing. The good stuff in smoke is clear, so don't worry if you don't see white billowing plumes of "smoke" coming from the chimney, you're still getting tastiness.

Do NOT use softer woods like mesquite (great for a grill, terrible for a smoker), pine or douglass fir (no construction scraps!), etc. These burn way too fast and hot, with a lot of solid compounds in the smoke that just leave your meat over-cooked and tasting like ash.

Step 2: Braise
This is the controversial step: Braise the ribs in apple juice for a couple hours. I put the ribs in disposable aluminum chaffing pans (no more than 2 or 3 racks per pan; try to over-lap them as little as possible), pour in about 1/4 inch of apple juice in the pan, cover the pan with foil, and put back into the smoker for another 2 to 2.5 hours. Crank the heat up to 230-ish for this. Make sure it's above boiling, you need the apple juice to create steam.

In my smoker, I can fit one pan on the top shelf and one on the bottom, which means have to keep rotating them from top to bottom during this process. I swap them about every 30 minutes to make sure they get roughly even heat.

This is where the magic happens. Before this, the ribs still had structural integrity. After this, you will have a hard time getting them out of the pan as a whole rack.

Don't bother using the good wood here; none of the smoke is getting to the meat anyway. Don't go to doug fir or pine, but leave the fancy fruit woods behind and go for the bulk oak or whatever you've got. Heck, even charcoal briquetes would do the trick, if you can get them hot enough.

Strictly speaking, you could take them inside to the oven. I haven't done this, but it might be easier.

Step 3: Caramelize
If you kept the temp low enough during step 1, they may not have looked "Done" after that. The braise will be moist enough that, even though the temp is higher, they won't caramelize anymore. If you want, take off the foil from the pan and leave in the smoker for another 30 minutes while the fire dies down, but is still warm, and let the outside of the ribs caramelize up some. This step is optional.

During this step, whatever apple juice is left over in the bottom of the pan will be boiling down, starting the sauce making process.

You COULD take the ribs out of the pan and put them back on the rack, but I don't recommend it. You'll have a hard time keeping them together.

Step 4: Sauce
After taking the ribs out of the pans and cutting up in pairs to serve, pour the dripping and left-over apple juice into a sauce pan and start boiling to reduce the apple juice down. Add lots of black pepper (because I'm me and I LOVES the black pepper), and, for every 2 cups of juice and drippings, add 1 Tbsp butter, and 2 Tbsp mustard (spicy if you like it, otherwise yellow will do). Whisk this together until it homogonizes. It will probably take a lot of whisking, and possibly more mustard (which acts here as an emulsifier). Honestly, I never measure this step, so these quantities are estimates.

Remember the collagen turned gelatin we discussed earlier? A bunch of it is here now. The goal is to reduce the apple juice into what effectively amounts to a syrup, and mix it in with the tasty tasty gelatiny drippings. The butter makes it a little smoother, the mustard gives it some spice and helps things homogenize.

Boil this and reduce until it gets thick. I've sometimes had to reduce it for over an hour to get the thickness I really like. But even as a looser "runny" sauce, it's still quite tasty.

Those are my ribs. I've done them probably 10 or more times now and always get great compliments. Today, I'm doing something new to me. It's getting late, and others have already documented it, so I'm just going to provide you with links.

Pork Shoulders, Snake Method
I'm cooking a couple pork shoulders for my company BBQ tomorrow using the snake method for slow and low smoking. I did one earlier today for 8.5 hours to get to an internal temp of 150, which is not quite done yet. I started the second at 9pm tonight, expecting to pull it off the grill tomorrow morning around 5 or 6am when I get up to start the ribs. I plan to put both in a chaffing dish on the top shelf of the smoker to braise for a few hours while the ribs are on the bottom shelf smoking. After about 8 to 9 hours in the smoke, followed by another 2 to 3 hours in an apple juice braise, these shoulders should be falling apart tomorrow late morning.

At least, that's the hope. I'll my results tomorrow. :-)

Thanks for reading!

About October 2014

This page contains all entries posted to Mark's Blog in October 2014. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2011 is the previous archive.

December 2015 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.