yes, i am that good

Pretty much the whole cage

Photo credit: Alex Barnes

Sometimes I need a nudge (and someone else’s photography) to remind me of it, but there it is.

In honour of Nerd 3’s1 all too brief return to the world, I hosted a little get together this past Friday.  Me being a single-woman living all alone this year, I didn’t want to go too all out, but what I did do, I wanted to do right.  So, a potluck was called for — with me handling the meat. *ahem*

Wanting to challenge myself a little (and feeling somewhat guilty that the side-box on my smoker hasn’t seen action in far too long), I figured that I should perhaps try to improve my grill-fu by learning how to make something that’s always intimidated me — pork ribs.  The plan was to do baby backs, since they are smaller and easier (shorter cooking time to get to that fall-off-the-bones tender perfection) than their spare cousins.  I’d even bought a rack a couple of weeks ago and did a test run (which while not anything to get overly excited over, was still pretty good).  So I headed to Costco to pick up a couple of chuck roasts (more on those another post), and 6 racks of baby-back ribs (I was feeding all of North Dakota, a bunch of Army Nerds, and a fair sized chunk of Brampton, ON).

Except that Costco failed me. Of the 6 racks of baby backs I needed, the Coon Rapids Costco offered up but 4.  And two of them (one of the two packages left at 7pm on a Wednesday evening) were looking mighty dodgy.  Not wanting to deal with venturing to other purveyors of massive quantities of dead animals, I rationalized to myself that spare ribs couldn’t possibly be _that_ much harder.  And variety is good, right? And worst case, I had five pounds of chuck roast that would end up as burgers anyways (plus brats in the freezer).

So, one 10 lb package of spareribs was added to the bill, along with 5 lbs of baby backs. Cooksillustrated.com and I spent some serious quality time together, and a 20 hour cooking odyssey was begun.  The results of which were some very happy bellies, and a crazy ass recipe, which out of sheer magnanimity, I share with you today:

There Is Nothing Prudent At All About These Ribs (TINPAAAT Ribs, for short)

(portions  adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s “Authenic Barbecue Pork Spareribs” and “Barbecued Baby Back Ribs for Charcoal Grill” recipes)

The Meats

  • 2 racks baby back ribs (Costco sized, just under 5lbs total)
  • 2 racks spareribs (also Costco sized, 10 lbs)

The Brine (for the baby backs)

  • 1 cup kosher salt (Morton’s, always Morton’s)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 quarts cold water

The Back Rub

  • 1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp hungarian sweet paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 3/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 tsp dried mexican oregano
  • 3/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 3/4 tsp fresh ground red and white pepper (substitute just red, or just white, or even black if desired)
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

The Spare Rub

(this, is where things get a little shaky — as in, it was late, I was making this up as I went, and not taking any notes.  To be honest, I was a little disappointed in this rub, and if I had to do it again, I’d probably go with the Back Rub, with the addition of Tsar Dust as my “not-so-secret-anymore ingredient”)

The Fire

  • Just under  1 bag Cowboy Brand, or other hardwood, lump-style, Charcoal (seriously — briquettes are nasty and make no sense when you consider that lump charcoal lights faster, burns cleaner (less icky ash to clean up later), and you can add it to the fire at anytime, without having to worry about burning the binder chemicals out first. Both Home Depot and Lowe’s in my area cary Cowboy Brand nowadays so you have no excuse.)
  • 8 or 9 large chunks of your smokin’ wood of choice. Mine is hickory.

The Lazy and Shaming Sauce Cheat

  • Equal parts KC Masterpiece Original and Famous Dave’s Devil’s Spit.

Yes, there are lots of great recipes for from-scratch BBQ sauce out there. I’ve even tried a few. But remember the whole single-woman-widowed-in-some-respects-by-the-army thing? Yeah.  It was a busy frickin’ day.  I’m sorry Nerd 3, but this was the best I could muster.  And you know, this combination of store-bought sauces is actually pretty damn good, and has served me well in the past.

The Method

The evening before — brine and rub

  1. Dissolve sugar and salt in water to make brine.  Rinse baby back ribs and submerge in brine.  Refridgerate for one hour.
  2. Meanwhile, make rubs.  If I need to explain that you combine the ingredients of the rubs in small bowls (one for each rub you are making), then we have a problem already.
  3. Rub ribs (say this 3 times fast). Rinse and pat dry the spareribs before rubbing.  Pat dry but don’t bother rinsing the baby backs. Rub both sides and don’t skimp on the edges. Wrap each rack of ribs tightly in plastic, and transfer the whole pornographic pile of pork product into your pornographically awesome new fridge (if available).

The morning of – Soak

  1. Take smokin’ wood. Put in bucket. Cover with water.

That afternoon – Light’er up.

  1. About 4.5 hours before you want to eat, light up the charcoal in your chimney starter (what… you use lighter fluid? you probably use briquettes too…pathetic).  We want to cook this beast slow’n'low, so plan to use the appropriate coal configuration for your setup:  I have a grill+sidebox deal like this, so I filled the side box with a fairly deep layer of coals (almost filled the starter), if you have a kettle style (like a weber), you’ll want to plan to grill indirectly … this means you’ll probably want fewer coals — and you probably won’t be able to fit this much meat on the grill surface, since some of it will be directly over the coals.
  2. When the coals are hot, dump them in to the appropriate location, close the lid, and let the grill heat up for a bit.
  3. At about 4 hours to, pop a couple hunks of wood onto the coals, then unwrap the spareribs and place them on the grill, as far from the fire as possible, face up. Close the grill up.
  4. For the rest of the cooking time, we want to be doing the following about every half hour:
    • monitor the temp– we want to be cooking at right around 225°F, it’s ok if things start off a little warmer and settle down.  CI’s instructions for a kettle style grill say to start at 350, and head level off at 250, with a shorter cooking time.  Add coals, and adjust the vents on your grill to heat up/cool down as needed.
    • turn the ribs ever 30 minutes.  This means turn them over, and rotate as appropriate to even out proximity to the hottest part of the grill.
    • monitor the smoke.  Smoke is your friend. You want to look at your grill and want to do a Jim Carrey impression from when he was funny (ok, for about 2 seconds. starting at 0:52).  This means you’ll probably have to add a new chunk of wood to the fire every 45 mins or so.
  5. After 90 mins or so, it’s time to add the baby backs.  Just pop them on the grill when you have it open to do your 3rd flip and rotate.
  6. After 3.5 hours cooking time total, the spare ribs should be ready to go.  How can you tell? Well, they will look delicious, and the meat will be separating from (though probably not falling off) the bone.   Cook’s Illustrated also talks about a distinct rosy glow (I want to make jokes here, but won’t).  I also sliced a chunk of one of the meatier portions off and took a taste — which I highly recommend if you ever want to feel like a culinary genius — because good god.
  7. Pull the spareribs off the grill onto a halfsheet pan.  Cover tightly with tin foil, and place the whole deal in a paper shopping bag at room temp for 30mins-1 hour. I HAVE NO IDEA WHY THIS WORKS.
  8. By the time you are done mucking with the spareribs the baby backs should be done too (previous rules of deliciousness apply).  You can move these up to your warmer rack on your grill (or pop them in the oven on warm), while you light more coals and heat the grill for the fast grillables (burgers and brats).
  9. After the spareribs are done resting, sauce as desired (use the cheat above if you want, but I challenge you to do better), and cut into individual servings (1 bone per, in my case), and offer up to your drooling guests.

The Notes

  • Brining the baby back’s was Cook’s Illustrated’s idea, but makes perfect sense when you consider that the worry with baby back’s is their lack of fat causing them to dry out.  And a good brine helps with the dryness, so why the hell not?  Next time, I might try a more interesting brine recipe… but then again, anything too complex might get lost with the rub and the sauce.
  • The most frustrating thing about reading grilling/smoking recipe is the vagueness when it comes to the amount of fuel to use, and the cooking times. It is also one of the most frustrating things about writing these recipes up. It is also part of the magic. You light your grill. You keep it hot, kinda hot, or low. You cook food so it doesn’t burn. It’s done when it’s done.  It’s always good, unless you burn it — so it’s always a good idea to err on the side of not putting the meat directly over the fire.
  • It should be plainly obvious that cooking up 15lbs of ribs is not a reasonable thing to do on a regular basis.  Feel free to do either the baby back ribs or the spare ribs, and/or smaller quantities of each.
  • If you do try this recipe out, I’d love some feedback!


1Title is purely honourary, as to be a true Nerd-with-Number, one must have spent time living in my basement. Contrary to popular belief, being a furry is in fact optional, and is considered a disqualifier for even-numbered-integer status.

4 comments

  1. Matt Jul 27

    I shall indeed be attempting this one of these fine weekends.

  2. tph Jul 27

    I selflessly offer my services to help you eat the products of said attempt, given that you lack a helpful rib-eater in your household.

  3. Gypsybee Jul 27

    I don’t suppose you can freeze, and package your lovely food for shipment quick as possible to your friends here in Kuwait?

  4. tph Jul 27

    Unfortunately Gypsybee, I must defer to USPS APO/FPO restriction H1 on that one.