Monday, September 3, 2012

Ribs for Labor Day

For our ribs for Labor Day, I decided to do something totally off the wall and do my own version of an Asian barbeque. I don't have a lot of experience with ribs. Ribs and fine dining are not exactly synonymous, are they? And I don't have any equipment either. But then I can MacGyver a smoker out of just about anything and who said they had to be smoked anyway?

I started with six St. Louis racks of commodity pork. Time got away from me and I forgot to order Berkshire racks from my supplier. I prefer the St. Louis racks (squared off spareribs) to the back ribs (the so-called baby backs) because the spareribs are larger and meatier. Spareribs are the lower half of the rib cage that wraps around and protects the chest cavity. The back ribs are the upper half that attach to the spine. Anatomy lesson over.

Peeling the Silverskin

On Wednesday afternoon, I started prepping the ribs and getting them in a marinade. First thing, I pulled the silverskin off the back side of the ribs. While not necessary, it is what the pros do and as a professional chef, I aim to be professional about my food. Then I trimmed any excess fat and silverskin from the front of the racks.

Herbs: Anise Hyssop, Cilantro, Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime, Thai Basil

From there it was into the marinade which I assembled from a bunch of stuff from the walk-in, mostly from herbs that were on their way out. There's no point in throwing out herbs just because they are unsightly, especially when they still taste good. I made a half gallon of slurry from Thai basil, cilantro stems, lemongrass, some really beat kaffir lime leaves, a huge bunch of blooming anise hyssop, garlic, ginger, star anise, black pepper, cinnamon, fish sauce, brown sugar, oil, and water. The slurry was primarily oil-based on the theory that oil extracts more flavoring compounds from the seasonings than does water. I kept the salt and sugar to a minimum because I wanted the ribs to take on flavor over several days without becoming jerky-like.

Straining the Marinade over the Racks

Saturday morning dawny hot, sticky, and rainy. Not a good day to contemplate firing up the smoker outside. Good thing. I don't have a smoker outside. Right off, I headed into the kitchen to concoct my dry rub, a rub that I have been thinking about on and off for a couple of days. I mixed up the rub that I had been working out in my mind, tasted it, and then tweaked the salt. I'm pretty happy with it and I think I have the long, mild white pepper burn just right.

The formula that I arrived at is:

   4 parts five-spice mix
   4 parts white sugar
   2 parts kosher salt
   1 part onion powder
   1 part garlic powder
   1 part ground white pepper

My five-spice mix is a bunch of things and certainly more than five spices, but as its creator, I am allowed, no? The mix is heavy on ground ginger, allspice, and star anise. It contains lesser amounts of cloves, cinnamon, anise seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, and white pepper.

Initial Dry Rub on top of Marinade

After taking the ribs out of the marinade, I rubbed them to get a nice even coat of the marinade and then dusted them with dry rub on both sides. They then went on sheet trays in a very slow oven for about 3-1/2 hours. Once out of the oven and while still hot, both sides of the racks got a coat of a wet rub of hoisin sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and cayenne pepper. I then covered them in foil to let them cool slowly in the wet rub.

Wet Rub on Warm Racks
After a night in the walk-in in the wet rub, I put a final dry rub on the racks. In retrospect, it was too much. One dry rub application was plenty. Then it was on to the "smoker."

Racks Just out of "Smoker"
After trying several approaches that were just not going to work, I finally partially disassembled our gas grill and sat a foil packet of soaked applewood chips on the rightmost burner. Fortunately, our grill is big enough to hold three racks off to the left of the one lighted burner, plus another rack up on the warming shelf. After about 10 minutes of the burner on low, there was no smoke and the temperature in the grill was just about 100 degrees—too low. So I cranked the righthand burner and the temp went to about 215 after 10 minutes, with a modest amount of smoke. I smoked the ribs for 45 minutes and they turned out as you see above.

Hot off the Grill! My Biggest Fan!

The ribs were pretty good overall. The texture was spot on: not falling off the bone, but tender to the tooth. The amount of smoke was just right. But the final dry rub was too much. Next time I finish with the wet rub and let it caramelize without the final dry rub. Live and learn.

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