Article, recipe and main photo by Sean Galt, additional photography, Glen Synoground, voiceover by Lew Williams.
On alternate Fridays I load myself up in the car and begin the anywhere from 2 o 3 ½ hour drive toLondon where my 10 year old daughter lives with her mother.
One Friday, about 4 years ago the weather was terrible – cold, snowing and windy. On days like that I have a backup plan, which is to stay in London in a hotel where my daughter and I spend the weekend going to movies, eating out, attending concerts or sporting events.
That Saturday, we had dinner out at a mom and pop restaurant downtown. The special that night was BBQ baby back ribs. I ordered those with a salad and a pint of their house draft. My daughter ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and fries. I offered her a rib when the plate arrived. She looked at me with that quizzical expression a child gives you when they know you’re trying to give them medicine but you’re telling them it’s a gummy bear.
“I don’t think I’ll like those,” she said, taking a bite of her sandwich.
“Try one,” I said, “You won’t know till you taste it.”
“But just one. If I give it back, will that be ok?”
She took one bite and her eyes opened like she had tasted the food of the gods.
She ate the rack of ribs. I got the grilled cheese sandwich.
“Daddy, can you make those?” I honestly had no idea. Up to that point I was not a big fan of ribs, but for $9.99 with a salad, it was a good deal. I blame my mother. Her idea was to cut the racks into single pieces and boil them for at least 3 hours before covering them in spaghetti sauce and cooking them in the oven for another hour. I’m sure there was flavour there somewhere.
So when my daughter asked if I could do something, as a good dad, I took up the challenge, if only to see what I could do for my little girl and if i could cook more than burgers and chicken for her.
Given my past experiences with ribs, namely boiling and baking, it seemed to make sense to add flavour right to the meat and cook it into the flesh. Checking the grocery store, there were a variety of pre-made rib rubs and sauces, all seemed to have the same ingredients, and I thought about making my own rubs and marinades and testing what flavours complimented the meats well.
Some worked: curry/pineapple/apple was a hit; some didn’t: lemon/honey mustard. But it was fun every two weeks to drop two racks of ribs at dinner and ask, “Which is better, a or b?”
Usually we could tell by which rack was done first, but sometimes the runner up was deemed more creative and original. Then at the end of that summer, we went to the Oshawa Ribfest and we were introduced to a whole new beast: the smoked rib.
Flavors, layers, textures; I tried my best to decode everything I was tasting, only to ponder, “How on earth can I do this at home?”
I managed to catch the ear of a Pitmaster to compliment him on his product. When I asked him how I could do this, he said the four words I’ve since lived my life by when it comes to the BBQ:
I began pricing various BBQ’s and realized I didn’t have the money in the budget to purchase one of those gigantic smokers the Pitmaster used; nor did we have the space on the deck for one of those giant oil drum smokers. For a while we experimented with the gas grill, they were cooked. But gas vs wood is kind of like water vs wine. Sure, it’ll hydrate you, but the end result is just not the same.
Then one day my (then) partner said, “I think I found a smoker for you.” We headed over the next day. It was small, maybe room for 5 trimmed racks of ribs, or 3 whole chickens. It didn’t have an offset smoker box, so it meant only being able to utilize half the cooking space. But it would do the job. We plunked down the $150 and brought it You know that expression ‘you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette’? I had my own. ‘You gotta ruin some ribs to make a masterpiece.’
Rack after rack came off the grill dried out and flavorless. Shreds of pork peeled away like strips of jerkey. Everyone was polite. But I didn’t like them. Then one Saturday, I found the right combination of spices, water, smoke and temperature, and I discovered the secret ingredient.
Forget they’re there.
The problem was that I kept looking at them every few minutes, asking myself, “Is there enough smoke? Is there enough water? Are the coals burning in the right direction?” Every time I opened the lid, all that magic was being undone. Imagine biking up a hill, and you stop peddling every 20 seconds or so. remember how hard it was to get the bike going again. It was the same with the BBQ. The process had to start all over again.
So now I close the lid, go play with the kid, read a book, watch a movie, take the dog for a walk. Do anything but check on the food. It’s doing just fine on its own. That night at dinner, we had a hit.
Now that I had winner smoked ribs, it was time to fine tune the recipe. We’ve cooked dozens of ribs and countless other meals on this little smoker over the last three years. My daughter is more an active part of cooking now. We’ll go to the bulk store and she will pick out spices and mix them to see what the best flavour combinations will be.
Daddy/daughter time used to be in a movie theatre or restaurant. Now, it’s in our restaurant. And I think we’re ok with that.
The recipe is here.
- 2 Tsp Paprika
- 1 Tsp Pepper Freshly Ground
- 1 Tsp Cumin Ground
- 1 Tsp Garlic Powder
- 1 Tsp Onion Powder
- 1 Tbsp Chili Powder
- 1/4 Tsp Nutmeg Ground
- 1/4 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
- 1/4 Tsp Sea Salt
- The first step is to remove the membrane at the back of the ribs. Get under it with a fork, and pull; use a paper towel if need be. (After 6 hours of cooking it does nothing except get tough and prevents the flavor from getting into the meat.) Rinse the ribs with cold water and pat dry. Coat the ribs generously with the rub, and wrap, place in the fridge overnight. (Some people use yellow mustard or peanut oil to help the rub stick better. I usually don't.)
- The next day, take the ribs out of the fridge and let them come up to room temperature while you are prepping the BBQ. Any BBQ will do for indirect heat, as long as you have enough space to lay out a coil of coals in an S or U shape. the best way to shape them is by rows of 2, and a single coal on top, a bit off to the side so the wood chips have somewhere to sit but the heat isn't completely blocked. Put a tin can of water filled with water in the curve, this will boil during the process and will add more moisture into the air.
- Soak about 2 cups of apple, hickory, or mesquite wood chips in water for a half hour before you begin laying out the coals. Apple is my personal fave as it emits a nice mellow smoke, which is perfect for a long cook like this.
- You can use a chimney, a paper stuffed tin can or lighter fluid to start about six coals. (If you use lighter fluid, the coals are white ash when you move them over to the end of the coil.)
- The coals will ignite a few at a time, and will give you a steady, even temperature between 200/240. Depending on the outside temperature and wind, this should give you between 4 and 6 hours of heat.
- Front end load the chips along the coil and wait for things to start smoking. Put the ribs on the grill. The BBQ should have a vent to allow smoke to escape from the top. Leave this open a bit to allow for airflow and make sure the ribs, not the coals are under this. (guess who made this mistake day one?)
- Now, close the lid and GO AWAY!!!
- Mix up 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of apple juice. Every 90 min, quickly rotate the ribs 180 degrees, to ensure even heat distribution. A quick brush or spray (if you have a bottle) of the apple juice mixture on the ribs will help add additional liquid to the meat.
- At about the 4.5 hour mark, you should notice the meat is pulling back from the bones nicely. This is a good sign you're well on your way. You have two options: continue on the grill or utilize the 'Texas cheat' which is wrapping the ribs in tin foil for approximately 2 hours and place them back on the grill and keep the lid closed. It will speed the cook, but you do run the risk of losing some of the smoke flavor and in my experience the ribs are more mushy than tender.) Still, it's an option for first timers, but not a prerequesite.
- At approximately the 6 hour mark, your ribs are pretty much done. At this point I do take them off the grill (the rack should have a nice bend to them but shouldn't break), and loosely wrap them in tin foil for 20 min to allow the juices on the outside of the meat to return to the center.
- The ribs should not fall apart when you cut into them. You will notice a pink ring around the outside edge of the meat. That's the smoke ring. When we talk about layers of flavor, that's the ring everyone looks for.
- Some people like to slather their ribs in barbecue sauce at this point. With this technique, you will have all the flavour you need. Sometimes less is more.
- This past winter I cooked a few racks inside, no smoke, same recipe and everyone agreed. “They’re not bad, but boy, were we spoiled with the BBQ.”
- With this recipe and a little practice, you'll be spoiling everyone