By Daryle Thomas
May is National Barbecue Month. There are places in this country where it’s warm enough to be outside burning food without having to wear a parka. Vermont is not one of those places until Memorial Day, when our barbecue season officially starts. In honor of the event, you may have loaded up on hot dogs, hamburgers, rolls, chips, maybe even some cole slaw. Good for you. There is, however, a technical error. Cooking hot dogs and hamburgers is grilling, not barbecue.
This Memorial Day, let’s cook some ribs. There are three basic types, but we will barbecue a Saint Louis cut. It is basically the center cut of the spare ribs. Most of the good, very little of the bad. It is also the competitors’ choice in the Kansas City Barbeque Society’s sanctioned barbecue cook-offs. One St. Louis rack can serve a couple of people, but cook an extra rack or two.
Step one is to peel the membrane off the concave side of the ribs. Contrary to rumor, this membrane is permeable; dry rub and smoke will penetrate it. However, heat causes the fibers in the membrane to tighten up like a wad of those USPS red rubber bands. Can you say chewy?
Step two is to locate a flap of muscle on the back side of the ribs, towards one end of the section. This is actually part of the diaphragm. Some chefs leave it on, which is fine. It only covers about one third of the ribs, but I snip it off. It can be slowly grilled separately or stir-fried. Locate an edge of the membrane with the tip of a knife. Using a paper towel for traction, grab the edge and s-l-o-w-l-y pull the membrane skin off.
Apply a dry rub, which you can buy, or just make your own with one part white cane sugar, one part Kosher salt, and one part paprika, plus one-half part each of granulated onion and granulated garlic. Optionally, one-half part total of anything else your heart desires. Mix well. Rub on the ribs and cover them in plastic wrap. Let them marinate at least an hour in the refrigerator, not over eight. Keep them cold! Go right from the fridge to the cooker. Do not bring the ribs up to room temperature, as some wags suggest. Can you say Montezuma’s Revenge?
Gas or wood? I don’t care, use whatever you prefer. There is no flavor in gas and there is no flavor in charcoal. Surprised? Don’t be. Either choice is only a heat source. The flavor comes from something known as the Maillard (my-are) Reaction. It’s when a chemical reaction takes place between the protein’s amino acids and reducing sugars. Brown tastes better. The brown crust on a loaf of bread tastes better than the white insides, roasted coffee is much better than green, and roasted corn tastes better than boiled, any day!
Another major flavor source is smoke. The stuff that makes your eyes water and your breathing somewhat wheezy. Of course a government type is trying to tell you about the dangers of POMs, polycyclic organic materials, that may cause cancer and will deprive good barbecue of all its flavor. So wear a respirator. A chunk of greenish apple wood, pruned recently from any one of hundreds of trees in the area, is one of the best smoke sources. Wrap it loosely in tinfoil for a gas grill, or toss it right on the fire in a charcoal grill.
The key to cooking the best barbecue is low and slow temperatures. At an ideal 225 degrees F., ribs should take four, five or possibly even six hours to reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. The ribs will be juicy, succulent and maybe just a bit pink. Not to worry, the Trichina worm dies at 137 degrees F. Use your instant read thermometer to determine the internal temperature. Pork is perfectly safe above 140 degrees internal. If you can keep it below 155 degrees internal, it’s also perfectly edible. If pink bothers you, make it a candlelight dinner.
Summer barbecuing is a time-honored tradition for many families and the fun often starts with the unofficial start to summer: Memorial Day! There are many classic barbecue favorites to grill up (and most families have their own special recipes). Daryle Thomas has offered this step-by-step guide to one of the Memorial Day favorites: ribs!