There’s a world of difference between grilling and barbecuing. The first is all about the sizzling sear while the latter takes it slow and low. Barbecue is a noun, not a verb.
That’s one of the first things I learned when I moved from Spokane to Memphis, Tenn., nearly seven years ago. In the South, barbecue isn’t just something people eat; it’s a lifestyle, often defined by long discussions about the best wood to fire up, the most delicious rub recipe and whether to inject or to let the flavor of the meat speak for itself.
In the South, you never barbecue burgers. You grill them. You’d never have a barbecue. It’s a cookout. And most people don’t bother with barbecue because in Memphis, there’s something like 70 restaurants where you can buy some amazingly succulent meat drizzled in sauce and topped with slaw or a rack of “dry” ribs.
You can even eat barbecue for breakfast, if you’re so inclined, which was one reason I always rolled down my window while driving into work each morning. To catch a whiff of the fragrant smoke spewing from Tops Barbecue, a place that began serving at 8:30 each morning.
When I moved back to the Northwest a few years ago, I searched high and low, looking for good barbecue. (When I’m in Spokane, it’s easy because there’s always Chkn-n-Mo.) Sadly, it became clear that if I wanted good ’cue, it was going to have to be DIY.
So began my smoky attempt at becoming a pitmaster, a journey marked by many missteps. It’s the most primitive, straightforward method of cooking, but it’s challenging to get it just right.
I studied the barbecue bibles from Steven Raichlen, Elizabeth Karmel and Myron Mixon, tomes with titles like “Holy Smoke” and “Born to Grill.” My favorite reference became “Peace, Love and Barbecue,” because not only do Mike Mills and his daughter Amy know their hot stuff, they tell great stories about the country’s most famous pitmasters. The book’s subtitle is “Recipes, Secrets, Tall Tales and Outright Lies From Barbecue Legends.”
My mission to teach myself to cook ’cue got me back in touch with the fine folks who sleep, eat and breathe barbecue. I quizzed Memphis barbecue cooks about the best way to build a fire and keep it going at a low, steady temperature, aiming for the low 200s.
It’s not like setting the oven and walking away. If you cook over fire, it’s like tending a living thing. It needs care and feeding – and a hose nearby, just in case.
In a series of rib-cooking misfires, I learned that it’s nearly impossible to get it right when it’s rainy and cold. Or when you’re really hungry? Forget about it. Ribs done right takes at least four hours, even more if you plan to marinate them.
My greatest hit so far happened when the chips were down. And by chips, I mean charcoal.
But, let’s back up for a minute. Let’s start at the butcher shop, where you’re going to ask a seasoned pro to help you select the best rack of ribs.
The tradition of cooking barbecue actually began as a way to turn tough meat tender. Cuts that were destined for the trim bin became toothsome when cooked for a long time over indirect heat.
Ask your butcher to trim the ribs. (I prefer the St. Louis cut, which is trimmed-up spareribs. See how to do this trim job on this You Tube video: www.youtube.com/watch ?v=H_MGM_RRTUQ). It might seem like there’s more meat if you leave the flap on, but it’s mostly fat and it adds to the cooking time.
When you get the ribs home, give them a spritz. I fill a spray bottle with apple cider vinegar and a few dashes of hot pepper sauce like Tabasco. (My go-to pepper sauces are Crystal and Texas Pete’s.)
The vinegar works to give the meat some snap. It also gives the dry rub seasoning something to cling to.
Now, there are hundreds of variations of dry rub. (A couple of recipes follow.) But you can go as simple as salt and pepper.
So, now that the ribs are ready, let’s light that fire. Yes, of course, you can make ribs on a gas grill, setting them on a low temp with just one side of the grill lit. But if you’re going to do it Memphis-style, then it’s got to be charcoal.
Invest in a chimney starter. They’re only about $10 and you can find them at big-box hardware or housewares stores. A starter gets charcoal fired up much more quickly than lighter fluid and it doesn’t have that strong, gassy smell.
My natural inclination is to load up the starter with briquettes, but recently I was running low on charcoal, so went with one that was about two-thirds full. It turned out to be the perfect amount.
I piled the glowing coals up on one side of my kettle cooker and put the seasoned ribs on the other side, meaty side up. Then, about every 30 minutes, I would add hickory chips that I had soaked in wine (the last dredges of some leftover reds).
After three hours, I took the ribs off the grill, wrapped them in foil and finished them in a 225-degree oven for another hour. Purists would burn me at the stake for suggesting that final step, but I find that it makes the ribs even more tender. Not falling off the bone tender; that’s not the goal. You want a bit of bite, not mushy meat.
Actually, the oven wasn’t quite the last step during my latest barbecue outing. I was fooling around, recipe testing for a rib cooking contest I was entering. So, for the heck of it, I stuck one cooked rack of ribs in the freezer for 20 minutes, cooling them down to make them easier to carve into individual bones.
Once I had a few ribs ready, I wrapped them in par-cooked bacon (nuked between a few paper towels in the microwave for 2 minutes) and seared the bacon-wrapped ribs over a hot fire until the bacon was crispy.
Mmm, double porky.
While those ribs were a fun experiment, I don’t think I’ll do them that way again. The racks are wonderful on their own.
Before we dig into the pile of ribs, though, there’s the matter of sauce. Again, there are endless recipes, most with regional distinctions.
The Carolinas are famous for vinegar-y sauce. Kansas City leans toward sticky sweet and Texas, which is brisket country, is big, bold and sometimes spicy. Memphis barbecue sauce is tomato-based, sweetened with molasses. Chili powder adds heat.
True barbecue is served with sauce on the side. Meat drowning in sauce is derided as “crockpot barbecue.”
The classic Southern barbecue plate wouldn’t be complete without slaw and baked beans. And, on the side, don’t forget to serve a whole lot of napkins.
These ribs are finger food of the first order. If you were going to make like the veteran judges at barbecue cooking contests, you’ll take a rack of ribs and gently pull them apart. One bite of a well-done bone – don’t freak when you see pink, that’s the highly desirable smoke ring – and you’ll be hooked.
Oh, did I forget to mention? Barbecue is highly addictive.
From “Peace, Love and Barbecue” by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe.
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons mustard powder
1/4 cup chili powder
1/4 cup ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne
Mix all ingredients and store in a tightly covered container. You’ll want to keep a container near the grill or your stove. Keeps indefinitely but won’t last long.
Yield: About 2 1/2 cups
From Leslie Kelly.
2 tablespoons sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Mix and massage into two racks of ribs that have been spritzed with apple cider vinegar.
Yield: About 3 ½ tablespoons
Sweet Heat Sauce
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1/4 cup sorghum or molasses
4 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons Rendezvous seasoning (see note)
2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, such as Crystal or Tabasco
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon liquid smoke, optional
Mix ingredients in a saucepan and warm. Taste and correct seasonings. Serve warm.
Note: Rendezvous seasoning can be ordered online at www.hogsfly.com/ Shipping.php
Yield: About 2 cups