It's rib time. For the last 2 years now I've participated in a friend's rib cook off. Each year the field becomes more difficult and the contest more sophisticated. Last year I bowled over the judges with my presentation- nice leafy greens, sauce in a green pepper in the center of the take-out container, and slices of star fruit. However, I turned in ribs that weren't quite done yet. No dice there. Eww. I am working on reducing the cook time so that I can be more certain that the ribs will be thoroughly cooked when presented for judging.
Sunday afternoon I gave two cooking methods a shot. The first was to "brine" the a rack of ribs in 7-Up with a small quantity of salt prior to application of my rub. The second was a plain method- just rub. I did not remove the membrane on the backside of either rack of ribs. I skipped this just to keep it simple for the trial run.
My grill set up is pretty simple and hasn't changed at all for bbq cooking. I cook with a 22" Weber kettle. No "El Cheapo Brinkman", no fabo 55 Gallon drum set up. I use an aluminum roasting pan to hold steaming fluid for the meat, to catch drippings, and help regulate heat. The pan sits under the meat and takes up about 2/3rds of the coal grate. I had used foil or part of another roasting pan to help hold coals in place on the other 1/3rd of the coal grate. There are fancy methods to do this including the BBQ Baffle (not an endorsement from me- a nice site and interesting product that I cannot vouch for). The "How it Works" link on the site has a fairly accurate depiction of my standard set up. I clip a candy thermometer in the vent on the cover, leaving the vent completely open. I hold the vent at the bottom of the grill just barely open to regulate air flow into the grill. I'll have to take some photos the next time I do this.
I had been placing the racks in a rib holder with the membrane side facing the coals for a long time, several hours. I'd spritz cider vinegar and apple cider on the ribs every so often to "baste" them. Flip places of the racks and flop them 180 so that the membrane faced away from the coals and continue to spritz. Last year I used this method until the last hour of cooking when I'd wrap each rack in aluminum foil (from now on I'm using element symbols instead of full names) and place a cup of beer in each packet of foil. I believe my mistake is that so much of the heat that hits the packet goes into warming the cup of fluid that none really went into cooking the ribs. That is how I ended up blowing so much time and came out with undercooked meat.
This time around I placed each rack directly over the coals for about 10 minutes a side before placing them in the rack. Only when the ribs were placed in the rack did I place Hickory on the fire for smoke. The last hour or so of cooking I went to the foil packet method. I used more 7-Up with O.J. (I didn't have cider on hand at the time) and some cider vinegar as the steaming fluid. (I only just came to the conclusion that the packet method wasted time and energy). I had to leave the rib on longer than I anticipated to bring them to 160F.
Each rack turned out quite nicely. The meat had chew to it, not fall of the bone, some work had to be done to get to the protein. I like that. It can be impressive when the meat just slides off the rib, but I like texture, something in my mouth that feels like meat. I do not believe there was enough of a smoke ring on either rack. I will have to place the Hickory on the fire earlier. So there is more work to be done.
Next time my goal is to have the Hickory on on the fire as I "sear" off each rack and then to work towards a better smoke ring. I will warm the steaming fluid in grill prior to placing the racks into packets, and will further evaluate the whole 7-Up vs. Cider Vinegar idea. I may also try two fires- the first for smoking and the second without the Al roasting pan and more coals in the center of the grill to improve the braising? step.
7-Up vs. Cider Vinegar:
Cider vinegar is acidic, acetic acid, which helps to break down the protein. This is the same thing that goes on in a ceviche. If left too long the acid will "cook" the meat. I was also hoping that it would help impart an apple cider flavor to the meat. 7-Up is also acidic and has a lot of sugar to help sweeten up the meat. Somehow I have in my mind that because it is carbonated that it would better penetrate the meat. I've not looked this up or tried to prove or disprove that it works. I had heard about boiling ribs in 7-Up before grilling, for many of the same reasons.
I have another rack in the fridge and was hoping to have tried this earlier this evening, but other duties called. I had to mow the front yard. We'll try Friday as the cook off is Saturday. Cutting it close!