Wasn’t the 4th of July, like, a week ago? This summer seems to have blown by faster than any in recent memory, though my globe-trotting lately hasn’t helped. Regardless, with a few more days of near-90’s in the forecast, I will happily use the long weekend ahead as one last excuse for cramming every last bit of summer in, including one last batch of ribs on the grill.
As much as I’ve used my grill over the past two summers, these ribs marked the first time I’ve ever actually slow-smoked meat and I’ve been kicking myself for taking so long to do it. I have my favorite ribs I’ve made for years, since before I even had any outdoor space to grill them, but these…these are my new go-to when I want to show off.
Here’s the thing: Chicago has so many great restaurants, high-end to dive, and a lot that are known for good barbecue, but, to be honest, I’ve never had any barbecue that’s blown me away. Some has been good, but more often than not it’s been a game of too much chew or not enough, drenched in sauce or none at all, tastes like a burnt log or not even smoked.
These ribs are what I’ve been craving, the ones Goldilocks would have picked as “just right” if ribs had been the main course instead of a bowl of porridge. They have just enough pull without being fall-off-the-bone (a quality that’s completely over-rated when it comes to ribs, by the way), a good amount of flavor from the smoke and the rub but you can still actually tell that you’re eating pork, a little sweet and spice and the best little burnt bits from a final brush sauce and a quick blast of heat from a hot grill.
For better or worse, when the end of summer is in sight I inevitably feel like I’m running out of time–time for beach lounging, porch sitting, eating all the peaches and corn and berries and tomatoes, cooking (and grilling) all my summer favorites, time just to be in the sun. I know it would be better to focus on the things I managed to do in the past four months–planted and grew a garden; taught a class; traveled to Barcelona, Paris, London, Boston, Cleveland, New York; stocked my freezer, cupboard, and liquor cabinet.
That said, I’m writing this sitting in the sun on my porch, a pot of tomato sauce with herbs from my garden simmering on my stove (at least some of which is destined for the pizza dough that’s headed for the grill shortly), a big bowl of fresh gazpacho ready for lunch, peaches and plums and fresh corn and tomatoes and watermelon all ready for eating, and a batch of those ribs on the very near horizon. When September starts like this, I really can’t complain.
A planning note–assume this whole process will take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours. As for the recipe, where else would you expect to find a great starting point other than a site called Amazing Ribs run by a guy called Meathead? This is ever so slightly adapted from his best barbecue ribs. Usually I like babyback ribs and tend to find St. Louis style too fatty or greasy, but I think the extra fat is welcome during the long smoke to keep the meat from drying out.
1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 cup sweet paprika
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoons ground black pepper
1 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoons onion powder
1 teaspoons crushed dried rosemary
8 ounces of hardwood chips (I like apple)
1 rack of St. Louis style ribs (my favorite butcher shop sells these with the rib tips on the side; ask your butcher or meat counter to trim and remove the membrane from the ribs for you)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of ribs
1 tablespoon smooth mustard (dijon, yellow, homemade, whatever you have on hand)
1/4 cup spice rub
Your favorite barbecue sauce
Set your grill up for indirect cooking at about 225 degrees; keep the wood chips handy. There are great instructions and details on how to do this in the original recipe here.
1 to 2 hours (or the night before) before you’re ready to cook, sprinkle the salt over both sides of the ribs. Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the rub together in a bowl until thoroughly combined; reserve 1/4 cup and store the rest in an air-tight jar for your next batch or ribs.
Rub the mustard all over the ribs; this will be the glue that gets the spice rub to stick to the meat. Sprinkle a thin coat of the spice rub over the ribs, not so thick you can’t see the meat but enough that all the meat is seasoned (and no, you really don’t need to do this the day, or even several hours, before cooking).
Add half of the wood chips to the fire. Put the ribs on the grill and let them smoke for 20 to 30 minutes or until there is no more smoke coming through the grill vents. Open the grill and add the remaining chips. Let the ribs cook at 225 degrees, rotating them as needed at about the 3 hour mark.
After about 5 hours, check on the ribs. The trick I learned was to grab one slab about halfway through with a pair of tongs and give the ribs a little bounce. If the crust cracks, they’re done. Depending on how many ribs you’re cooking and the size of your grill, this can take 1 to 2 more hours.
When the ribs are ready, take them off the grill and set them aside. Crank the heat up on the grill. Brush the ribs lightly with sauce and put them on the hot grill to get a bit of color and caramelize the sugars in the sauce (this happens fast, so pay attention; yes, I turned my back for a minute too long on the ones in the pictures). Serve immediately with a pile of napkins and more sauce on the side.