Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 30, 2009
08:15 PMSmall Dishes
I wish I could say I’ve eaten and cooked ribs for as long as I can remember but it wouldn’t be true. I did grow up with hickory pit barbecue but for the most part it was pork, mutton or occasionally beef sandwiches. Barbecued pork ribs, though universally popular now, seem to have evolved west of the Mississippi rather than in the South.
My first encounter with this American culinary icon was in someone’s backyard. It was more bones than meat (and meat that was dry and stringy at best), drowned in ketchupy sauce and charred black over charcoal. I’m afraid I wasn’t anxious to try them again for sometime. The occasion would be at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis. Their baby back ribs were grilled over charcoal but perfectly cooked and seasoned with a dry rub rather than sauced. I progressed to spareribs, slowly smoked, sampling them at legendary BBQ havens like Arthur Bryant’s and Gate’s in Kansas City and Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas.
As with most things I develop a taste for, I decided that I can make it myself. After much bone sucking, so
me research and a hell of a lot of experimentation, I’ve come up with what are for me the perfect spareribs—until I come up with something better.
It didn’t take me long to figure out I much preferred barbecued—slow smoking over a hardwood fire—as opposed to grilled—quickly broiled over high heat—ribs. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the space or resources to build a genuine pit in my backyard. Fortunately, about the same time I became a serious fan of Q, the home smoker came along. I’ve owned three to date and all have been the bullet-shaped type with a charcoal fire source and water pan. Chucks of water-soaked hardwood are place directly on the fire to produce smoke. The food placed on racks in the upper portion of the smoker cooks at a temperature range of 200-250 degrees. Today, you can buy several different types of smokers that range in price from about $100 to $3,500. Locally, The Bruce Company, Menards and Home Depot all sell smokers. An accessory I would consider is rib racks which allow you to maximize space in the smoker. Smokers come with basic instructions but I wouldn’t rely too much on the recipes included. A good reference book is Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue which will tell you everything you need to know about smoking or grilling just about anything, plus hundreds of interesting recipes and tips. But, I’ll be honest. It takes a lot of trial and error to get it right.
You can use any hardwood for smoking; hickory and mesquite are the most readily available. Many professional barbecue chefs swear by oak because of its exceptionally slow burn. Fruitwoods like apple and cherry are also popular but don’t impart fruit flavor to the barbecue.
All ribs are not created equal. Spareribs come from the belly of the pig, and are usually between 11 and 13 inches long. St. Louis-style spareribs are trimmed and have the brisket bone removed, forming a nice rectangular shape. Kansas City-style ribs are trimmed even further, down to a square. Baby back ribs come from the loin and are leaner and meatier than spareribs. “Country-style ribs” are not ribs at all but a blade cut from the end of the loin, a sort of fatty pork chop.
Both spareribs and baby back ribs have their attributes but I gravitate toward the later. Like most red meat prior to smoking, ribs benefit from a rub. This blend of spices, sugar and salt is actually sprinkled over the surface of the meat but not rubbed in per se. After shaking off the excess the rib racks are sealed in 2-gallon plastic bags and refrigerated overnight. This actually functions as a kind of cure, similar to the original process for making ham. I personally think a rub works much better on ribs than a marinade.
The ribs should be cooked over smoke at 225 degrees for about 4 hours—smoking too long will result in an unpleasant tasting, creosote layer on the meat. Then each rack should be wrapped and sealed first in plastic wrap and then in heavy duty foil. The wrapped racks are returned to the smoker—200 degrees is ideal—for another 2 hours. No the plastic wrap won’t melt! When you serve the ribs, the meat will be fall-off-the-bone tender.
I like my ribs dry with sauce served on the side. If you prefer them wet, they’ll be much more successful if you sauce them at the end. After 4 hours of smoke, wrap and return the racks to the smoker for 1 more hour. Remove the foil and plastic wrap, cut the racks in half and brush the surface of the meat with barbecue sauce. Glaze the half racks over a hot charcoal fire, turning frequently and brushing with sauce, for 10 minutes or so.
If you want to cut corners, my advice is go out for ribs instead. Here are my Best of Madison places to enjoy barbecued ribs.
Eldorado Grill. The restaurant added barbecue to the menu a while back and the dry-rubbed and smoked baby back ribs are exemplary, served with their homemade molasses-based sauce.
Smoky Jon’s #1 BBQ. This is the closest Madison has to a genuine BBQ joint and lays claim to Wisconsin’s largest wood-burning rotisserie pit. For more than 27 years Smoky Jon has piled up awards for his ribs, seasonings and sauce, earning him the title as “Madison's All-Time BBQ King.”
Fat Jack’s Barbecue. Madison’s longest running venue for smoky meat treats, they feature both tender spareribs and baby back ribs served with their own unique spicy sauce. All-you-can-eat sparerib special on Wednesday night.
Papa Bear’s Barbecue. St. Louis style ribs and rib tips along with traditional sides to carry-out.
Famous Dave’s BBQ. It’s a chain to be sure and (one that began in Minneapolis no less) but consistently earns praise and awards for its hickory-smoked spareribs that are finished with their Rich & Sassy® BBQ sauce over an open flame.
Arthur Bryant’s Rib Rub
1 cup salt
2/3 cup paprika
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground celery seed
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
Mix all the ingredients. Generously sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the rub and massage it in. Let ribs sit at least 12 hours, refrigerated, before cooking. This recipe flavors 12 slabs of ribs.
Posted by Madison Magazine at 3:19 PM
Labels: Arthur Bryant's, baby back ribs, El Dorado Grill, Fat Jack's, Gates, Papa Bear's, Smoky Jon's, Sonny Bryan's, spareribs