Spring is Here and I Smoked Some Country Ribs

Country Ribs
On today’s menu…

I’m probably jinxing us to a massive freak April snowstorm, but I’m going to say Spring has finally arrived. Not that it’s all that spring-like out there at this moment. It’s 44℉ and I think it’s only supposed to hit 52℉ today. But the sun is out and the birds are singing and the grass is greening up. The Astros are 2-2 and took two out of three from the Yankees.  They got hammered last night 11-1 by the Angels, but it’s a long season and I feel OK thinking at this point that they won’t lose 1oo games this year.

So of course I’ve fired up The Egg.

Part of the motivation came from texting back and forth with my friend Nate last weekend when we were down in Evansville, IN visiting Carla’s nephew. Nate has writes a blog called Bread & Whiskey that documents his passion for cooking. Before I had the Egg I had an offset New Braunfels Black Diamond that my mom bought Carla and me for our wedding present. When I was turning 50 and decided to step up my game with respect to smoking, I knew I wanted the old smoker to go to a good home. It had always served me well. Long story short, I ran into Nate out at the 50 West Brewing Co. and we talked barbecue. It came up in passing that he was looking for an offset smoker to restore and modify and I told him he could have mine for the price of coming to get it. It was a win-win-win.  He got his smoker and I got it off my back patio and it went to a home where it would be treated with the love it deserves. I haven’t seen the smoker itself, but I’ve seen pictures of the restoration job he did.  It looks awesome. I’m so happy that it all worked out.

Smoker Underway
Aaaaaaand we’re underway

So anyway, Nate was getting a chance to cook on a Big Green Egg for the first time last weekend. He was over at some friends who bought their Egg the same place I bought mine (Wardway Fuels on the West Side. Cannot recommend them highly enough). He was excited, to say the least. He did things a little different than I’ve been doing. He ran his top vent open all the way and just used the bottom to regulate the temp. He was also using a water pan, which I hadn’t done up to this point. The pictures he sent looked great and I’m sure the meat was fantastic. But what it mostly did for me was get me in the mood. Then Tuesday was really nice and Carla and I were able to sit out on the back patio. Looking at the covered Egg I decided that I was going to cook something today.  And here we are.

Thursday I had my “Congratulations!  You’re 50! Let’s shove a camera up your ass!” colonoscopy. It went fine. No problems. Don’t have to worry about another for 10 years. Knowing it was coming, then the joy of the prep on Wednesday, made it a less than fun-filled week. Funny thing about the anesthesia:  I wasn’t knocked out all the way, but its effects really hung on.  I slept for much of the day Thursday and even last night I slept hard. How this all matters to what I’m cooking today is Carla rightly suggested I do something easy. I rushed the last cook. The country ribs were terrible (about half were pitched) and the sliced butt was uninspiring.  Edible. OK, even. But not all that great. I need to nail something to get the season off to a good start, and a good tray of country ribs are the way to go. They only take 4-5 hours and that let me sleep in and take it easy this morning.

Country ribs aren’t ribs, of course. They’re actually chops from the shoulder near the front end of the baby back ribs. I love the damned things. My usual pattern is to do a tray of country ribs in addition to something else — a pork butt or brisket, even — with the intent of eating on the ribs that day to scratch the itch of getting some barbecue and giving the larger hunk of meat the time it deserves. Since I just have a tray of ribs on now I decided to try a couple of things a little differently this time around.

I started the fire the same way I did last time, but it started much easier this time. I may have had too much small lump pieces the last time because I got to the nice blue smoke really fast this time. Last time I let the fire establish itself for 20 minutes with the lid up and the vents all the way open, then went another 20 minutes with the lid down but the vents wide open before the smoke cleaned up. This time?  Once I got the plate setter and the grids placed after the first 20 minutes the fire and the smoke were perfect. I’m thinking I had too many small pieces of lump in a single layer that choked the air flow. This time the lump was piled much looser and I think that’s the difference.

I’m using a water pan this time. That’s straight from Nate’s experience last week and I figured it was time to try it. So far so good.  If nothing else, having another thermal sink between the fire and the grid has kept the temps pretty well planted between 215 and 220. I’ve been writing this post for several hours now and — as I was expecting — using the water pan is inhibiting the formation of a good bark, but the color on the meat is beautiful and I’m really happy with the moisture level inside. I suspect I’ll be using a pan of water when I do my next large cut of meat. I started with just under a gallon of water in a 9 x 17 pan. Three hours about half the water was gone and I put the remainder water from the glass jug so the pan won’t go dry. What I may do when I do a large butt or brisket is just let the pan go dry so bark has a better chance of forming.

I thought about doing what Nate did and trying to control the temperature strictly with the bottom damper, but I wimped out. I did some reading on any number of the Big Green Egg forums and came to the conclusion I’d try it the other way around. So what I’ve done is tried to keep the bottom damper at a single position and tweak the top damper to adjust the temperature (open increases the temperature, while closing lowers it). Following what I was taught by Chef JJ the weekend I got the Egg, I’ve always moved the top and bottom dampers together under the assumption that the input and output should be equal. I don’t think you can ever go wrong doing it that way.

What I’ve seen today, though, is that you can seemingly affect the rate of airflow through the bottom simply by manipulating the top damper. Opening the top allows more air to vent which forces air to be drawn in faster through the bottom damper because the pressure has to remain equal inside and the bottom aperture size remains constant. The only way to account for the increased outflow due to a larger top opening is to draw more air faster through the same sized bottom opening. This sets up more rapid air circulation within the Egg, which encourages a bit hotter fire and the temperature rises. I’m probably screwing up the physics, but that’s what I think is happening. The key thing to remember is never let the top be open less than the bottom. The top isn’t tight enough to shut off all airflow, but you could easily starve the fire and create some nasty smoke.

I’m well over 1300 words and I apologize if at any point I’ve actually had anything useful to say. I don’t write regularly enough and spending the day tending the Egg gives me an excuse to write about something I actually care about. I start and stop as the day goes on and I do other things as needed. My practice up to this point has been to start a post and publish it before things are done, then add to it throughout the day.  Since I’m doing things differently today while cooking, why not blog it differently as well?

That said, this is how the meat pictured above looked 4.5 hours later when I was taking it off. You can assume they taste as good as they look.

Finished Country Ribs
I think these turned out pretty well.

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