A Day for Ribs

It’s hotter than hell out there, which I suppose is appropriate since there’s plenty of evidence that’s where we live There’s way too much depressing shit that I’ll probably pontificate about some other day, but for today I’m trying to look on the bright side. The Astros have been in a funk that — of course — started when they came to town and we had tickets. I’ll admit it. It hurt to see the Reds sweep. But they played better, so no excuses. We’ve had to go 10 innings and call on Yuri Gurriel’s hair to win it for us the last two games, but wins are wins. As I write this we’re up 2-1 in the 1st, and we’ve already won the series. I’m not going to say I don’t want a win today, but sweeping is always hard, our recent experiences excepted, of course.

We bought a couple racks of ribs for this weekend, but after getting the first rack prepped yesterday (a little fat trimming and the silverskin membrane removed on the back, then a rub I threw together) I decided to just do the one and save the other for the 4th. When it comes down to it I don’t really do ribs that often. They aren’t a ton of work, but they’re enough. I’ve gotten pretty good at country ribs (which, of course, aren’t ribs), and they usually scratch the itch.

I’ve had a hankering for real ribs, though, and it’s probably because every time I open the small fridge we have in the basement I see a bottle of sauce from L’il Porgy’s in Champaign & Urbana, Il (the one in Urbana is the one we usually wound up at, but both are good). Since we’re not driving up there to see my father-in-law (since he’s here in town) we’ve not had any reason to go. I love their ribs. The sauce is really good. I tend to be a dry-rub guy by nature, but these will get blessed with L’il Porgy’s sauce in their last hour. Because I want to.

Overview of cooking temperatures

Of course I’m using my Smobot. Those probes you see in the photo are the two food probes . I’m trying out a new (to me) brand of lump (B&B) and I’ve been happy with it. I’d been using GFS, but the last couple of bags I’d used had been abused pretty badly. Small chunks, which isn’t the point of the stuff. This bag has been handled more gently, and I like the size. Nothing ginormous, but good sized lump. That, combined with the brand-spanking-new gasket you can see in the big photo, led to that little overshoot. The Smobot is supposed to compensate for an open lid (and I’m sure it did), but a lot of lump lit when I had the lid up and it appears it was a little generous with the damper when I closed the lid. There is a way to turn off the open-lid compensation, and there’s always a chance I might have done that. I’ll check the next time I go out. (Spoiler from the future: I didn’t turn it off). You can see, though, that it was settled down in about half and hour and there was no damage done.

I know a lot of people swear by what’s called the 3-2-1 method, but I have an aversion to wrapping anything I’m smoking. I know why people do it, and I’d never give anyone doing it the side-eye. It’s just not my thing. Like I said earlier, I don’t do real ribs all that often, so when I do I want the whole experience. To me (and it’s only a personal opinion) part of the experience is not knowing for sure how long it’s going to take. A typical rack of St. Louis-style spareribs will take between four and six hours to be finished. Beyond that, it’s up to the ribs. I’m not working blind, though. With some data and an understanding of what’s going on inside the smoker, they’re perfectly happy to tell you when they’re done.

The bottom line on ribs is that you want to keep them between 165º F (~74ºC) and 195ºF (~91ºC) for as long as possible. That’s when the collagen melts and the ribs turn into, well, ribs. But you have to balance that with the meat drying out. Once you get much above 200ºF (~93ºC) you start running that risk. Pulling them off at 195ºF lets carryover happen without (much) danger of drying out. The wildcard in the equation is our old friend the stall. I obsess about the stall, but to my way of thinking, the stall is what separates real barbecue from just grilling (a noble pursuit, just something different).

Detail of cook

Check out this screenshot. It covers about 40 minutes about an hour after the screenshot above.

  • Food 1 (pink) is the probe on the right in the big picture at the top of this post. The meat there is a bit thicker.
  • Probe 2 (shown in yellow and on the left in the picture) is a bit shallower and the meat isn’t as thick there.

When our story opens (on the far left of the graph) the relative positions of Food 1 and Food 2 are about to switch positions, which is significant. Why? Remember there is less meat surrounding the probe on the left, yet the temperature is cooler. Why? Evaporative cooling. The cause of the stall. The thinner end is throwing off moisture, and the shallow depth of the probe is more susceptible to showing the cooling effect. The deeper Food 1 probe is also throwing off moisture, but the depth of the probe masks the cooling. Think of being at the entrance of a cave versus being deeper in. The deeper you go, the harder it is to change the inside temperature, so it never happens fast.

Notice, though, that there’s a point where Food 2 starts rising faster and overtakes Food 1. That means the thinner end doesn’t have the moisture content to cool the surface at that point. The meat on that end is starting to dry out faster than the thicker end. That’s my cue (my ‘que cue?) to slather some sauce on it to add some moisture. Note that I’m not adding moisture to the meat. No matter what you’ve been told or what you believe, you can’t do that. Moisture moves one direction when heated inside food: out. The moisture in the sauce is acting as a vapor barrier. The liquid in the sauce is evaporating and leaving behind a thin layer of particulates that makes if more difficult — but not impossible — for the moisture in the meat to escape. You can’t stop the evaporation, all you can do is slow it down. You can see from the graph that the added moisture kicked the evaporative cooling effect again, but it’s relatively short-lived. About 30 minutes after I added the sauce, Food 2 has overtaken Food 1 again. I plan to let it go.

We’ll see what happens. At this point it’s just a matter of waiting. When Food 2 hits 195 I’ll pull and wrap them in foil. I’ll let them sulk for about half an hour to distribute the heat. And if I need to tweak anything in my technique, I can try again on Thursday.

Oh, and the Astros won. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

Final product
Postscript: they turned out fine.

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