Beautifully Barbecued Baby Back Ribs Recipe
I stared at the barbecue contraption and felt a stab of déjà vu. There it was again – that big boxy fire bed topped with a grill the size of a full sheet of plywood and crowned with a funky metal roof. This one was plonked down on the tarmac of the Mount Shasta Supermarket, a good 500 miles north of the one I’d seen only this morning.
In my hazy condition, brought on by too many hours behind the wheel, I wondered: Had all of California gone barbecue crazy?
Scott's barbecue contraption
If you asked big friendly Scott, down in Big Oak Flat out by Groveland, the answer would likely be yes. Throwing a last log of black oak onto his raging fire, Scott described for me competitions in Sacramento, Mariposa, Fresno (Clovis to be exact) and Long Beach. Lines of tents, hundreds of pounds of beef, pork and chicken, too many recipes and concoctions and techniques to count. He told me that his output of 70 pounds of tri-tip beef was so small as to be negligible. And then he laughed.
Supermarket owner Keith in Mount Shasta City was more practical about the whole thing. When I stopped back to see him, his barbecue was full of chicken and ribs, the things his customers wanted for a quick dinner, with a few pieces of beef off to one side. Keith did an amazing balancing act of stoking, turning, basting, and testing, all the while fielding questions from friends and passersby. ‘We’re cooking ‘till 9,’ he told more than a dozen people in the few minutes I watched him in action. The smoke of his grill brought hungry people all the way from I-5.
Now, I’m not even going to pretend to know barbecue from the inside out, but that’s not the point. The 25 or 30 times I’ve done ribs would just about get me out of the starting gate in a competition, I reckon.
However, I do know what I like. Moist, tender, slow-cooked ribs, with a certain amount of smokiness and a flavorful sauce that reaches all the way down to the bone. Since I don’t have a smoker, I use my Weber, which does a fine job of getting them going, and then I finish them off for a couple of hours in the oven.
Can you say ‘tasty’?
- Beautiful Barbecued Baby Back Ribs
- Makes a 3½ pound rack of pork loin or back ribs
- For the sauce and marinade:
- ¾ cup brown sugar
- 1 cup ketchup
- ¼ cup white or cider vinegar
- ¼ cup water
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 cloves pressed garlic (or 1 teaspoon garlic granules)
- 2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Make the barbecue sauce and marinade: In a non-aluminum 1 quart pan with a lid, bring the brown sugar, ketchup, vinegar and water to a simmer over medium heat. Stir to keep the sugar off the bottom and add the spices, garlic and thyme. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes. Put lid in place loosely if the mixture wants to blurt out splotches of sauce. Remove from heat and let cool, uncovered, for 5 minutes or more.
Marinate the ribs: Cut the rack of ribs in half to make it easier to grill. Wash lightly in cold tap water and pat dry with paper towels. Lay ribs meat side up in a glass or ceramic pan large enough to hold both pieces with some overlap.
Pour half of the sauce over the meat, reserving the other half for finishing the meat after grilling. Cover the ribs with plastic and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or for 2 hours or longer in the fridge.
Ribs just ready for smoking
Soak chips for smoking or cut a fresh branch: For good smoked flavor, you need apple, maple or hickory chips. Soak them in water for an hour before using. If you have fruit trees, you can also cut a branch that is as thick as your thumb into 6” lengths to use in place of the smoking chips. A branch of an almond tree that needed pruning was used in this recipe with excellent results.
Fire up the grill: To partially grill and partially smoke the ribs for this recipe (see note below), use only about half the charcoal that the grill can hold. For my little Smokey Joe Weber, this means about 24 briquettes; for a full-sized kettle grill, it’s about 50. Form a stack in the middle of the charcoal grate, light the coals and let burn for 20 minutes.
Once briquettes are glowing, divide the coals in two and place piles at opposite edges against the side of the kettle. Add a few fresh coals to each pile and let burn for another 10 minutes.
Brush the grill to clean, and rub some olive oil onto the middle where the meat will cook.
Smoke the meat: Put a handful of chips or fruit branch cuttings onto each fire, set the grill surface in place, put the ribs meat side down in the middle and clap the top on the kettle. Turn the vents so that they’re open only ¼”. Leave the lid on for 40 minutes without peeking.
After 40 minutes, you will have to get the coals going again. Take the lid off and open the vents. Move the meat off the grill for this. When the coals are hot again, put more chips on, set the grill, turn the ribs meat side up in the center of the grill and clap on the lid again. Mostly close the vents and let ribs smoke for a further half hour.
Grill the meat: Take off the lid, open the vents again and bring the coals back up to heat. Add about 10 briquettes, spreading them evenly when hot. Now grill the meat for 10 minutes on each side, until nicely grilled.
Finish in the oven: By this time, the meat will be cooked through, but for maximum tenderness should be finished in an oven. Put the ribs meat side up in the pan, coat with the rest of the barbecue sauce, and bake for 1½ hours or more at 325º.
Once you bite into these ribs, you’ll know the meaning of true happiness. All that waiting? I think you’ll agree it was worth every minute!
Final Note: In the barbecuing world, the process is broken out into marinate or dry rub, cold or hot smoking, grilling and finishing. Scott uses a dry rub; Keith uses a wet marinade that incorporates smoke flavoring injected in a vacuum chamber. In both cases the final product is grilled, not smoked. Confused? Yes, but it’s all barbecue.
If you happen to be out near Groveland on a Friday, check out the Kwik Mart at the western edge of town, and follow the crowd to the best tri-tip sandwich around. And if you’re near Mt. Shasta, out on I-5 and you smell smoke, do go and check out Keith’s barbecue set-up. It’s the best chicken in town bar none (if there’s any left), and he does pretty darn good ribs as well.
With just a little more time, take Keith’s ribs and slow cook them in foil over a camp fire. They’ll take on a complexity and tenderness you never thought possible.
Now we’re talking barbecue!
Grilled Ribs before finishing