It’s fortunate that I have a penchant for perfection, because everyone around me expects it. That includes the victuals for which I am correctly famous. Just the other day, after a swooning response to my BBQ ribs—one I can only fantasize extends to other areas of my fraught existence—the Diva got a request for my recipe for same from her niece.
Well, sure, I warned Linda via e-mail. You can try to recreate Los Angeles backyard magic in the wilds of Manhattan. Just don’t expect perfection until your apprenticeship has extracted its toll. And don’t forget the silicon BBQ mitts.
This quest is no cakewalk. First, one must forswear three wrongheaded cornerstones of contemporary barbecue grilling: the propane grill; manufactured charcoal; and lighter fluid.
The charcoal grill will allow you to impart real smoke flavor and cook slowly with indirect heat. (Fat will drip into a pan, not onto the fire, which can create carcinogens.) You must get one with a grilling area large enough so the fire can be on one side and the ribs on another. (That’s tough with a gas grill.) They’re inexpensive. Mine is a Char-Griller that cost $119 at Lowe’s and has lasted five years so far. It has a high domed lid that allows me to smoke a turkey, something I did yesterday to what I modestly admit were breathtaking raves.
Use real hardwood charcoal, not the best-selling briquettes with the name that begins with a “K”. Word on the street is that these contain coal dust, which is probably why the instructions include allowing the briquettes to completely ash before beginning cooking. I use briquettes from Trader Joes that have no potentially toxic binders or fillers, but I also use chunk mesquite too. And I don’t wait until that white ash forms because I don’t have to. I also use hickory chips that I soak in water for a half hour or so and add from time to time to maximize smoky flavor and to help reduce the temperature if it’s too high.
As for the best way to light the charcoal, use a $10 chimney lighter with crumpled newspaper below and charcoal in the top part. This is much cheaper and easier than the lighter solution, and there’s no kerosene odor to impart to the finished product. Since you’ll also need a water/drip pan to put beneath the ribs (see more below), one of my fast-lighting tricks is to soak newspaper in the left over fatty water from the drip pan. I let the newspaper dry out over a few days and then use it to start the charcoal in the chimney. That eliminates having to dispose of the left over gunk and it makes the ignition fire much more intense, just like the fat wood kindling starter used in fireplaces.
The drip pan is placed underneath where the ribs will be and is filled with an inch or so of water. This helps keep the ribs moist over a long cooking period. As noted above, it also provides the raw material for lighting future charcoal.
Now that you’ve got the hardware, here’s the recipe I gave Linda:
- Buy baby back ribs. They’re smaller, meatier and easier to work with than the big ones. Cut them into pieces of 3-4 ribs each.
- Pat the ribs with a spice rub. I mix brown sugar, tumeric, Chinese five-spice, garlic powder, chili powder and a good multi-spice dried herb (an Italian one works well). Find a mixture you like by experimenting, but my advice is to stay away from too much salt. I don’t use any salt, which is why I recommend garlic powder and not garlic salt. The ribs will taste so good you’ll never miss the salt.
- Do not use BBQ sauce…ever. It ruins the pure meaty taste of the ribs.
- After the flames in the chimney charcoal lighter begin coming out the top, they’re ready to dump into the right or left half of the grill. Don’t bother waiting for the fire to get any hotter. Put the grates over the fire and the prepared ribs, meaty side up, right over that fire. After a minute or two slide the grates with the ribs on them over the water pan. Put a little more charcoal (this is when I use the chunky mesquite) and those soaked hickory chips on the fire. Close the top but make sure the smoke can vent.
- Cook for about 2 hours with the lid on. At first the temperature will be 300+ but it will moderate in a half hour or so. If the temperature stays too high, throw some of those soaked chips on the fire. The last hour should be 225 or so, but even 200 is fine.
- Now the ribs will be smoky, tender, delicious.
See # 3 above.