Nothing like travel to teach you to appreciate home. My Weber Smokey Mountain smoker is one of those things I've "had" to live without the past six months, as well as any kind of proper America BBQ.
Chances are that friends and family out there have tried my cooking, and equally as likely that they've had my ribs. Those closest to me know that I'll gladly wake up at 6am, hungover or not, to fire up my Weber and load it full of USDA choice pork spare ribs. I can't say much else in this world will get me out of bed at that hour. It's a passion. A passion of the pork.
This past week in El Salvador we hit a grocery store - a very nicely stocked grocery store - and when Kobus presented the idea of grilling up some ribs, I was all over it, regardless of the $14 price tag. What follows is the tale of one afternoon spent in a campsite in the mountains of El Salvador attempting to recreate my porky masterpiece.
I've never cooked ribs on an open charcoal grill. I've done countless racks in ovens, gas grills and of course my charcoal smoker. Coupled with our lack of traditional ingredients and hardware, this is more of a learning experience than a definitive how-to.
Step 1: Assemble the goods. We have one very prettily (St. Louis) trimmed rack of pork spare ribs, and a variety of spices to combine into a dry rub.
Step 2: Make the rub. This is a big hodgepodge of spices, some premixed and some unidentifiable like pork chop seasoning from South Africa. I typically go with a ratio of 2 parts red (paprika/chili powder/spicy stuff) 1 part sugar, 1/2 part salt and a dash of garlic powder and pepper. In this case I just threw some crap into a bowl until it looked about right.
Step 3: Remove the skin. Most ribs sold in the US still have this attached, although I've found Costco usually sells de-skinned spare ribs. This will help with the flavor penetration, and keep the rack from curling as the skin heats and shrinks. Pro tip: use a bit of paper towel to grip the skin.
Step 4: Apply the rub. Down and dirty, really work it in there. Normally I'd do this step the night before, but normally I have a full sized fridge and an actual counter top to work with. I settle for an hour wait while I get the fire going.
Step 5: Start the fire. We were lucky enough to have loads of decent dry wood, so I made a small wood fire and added charcoal once it was suitably hot. I prefer this method to using other fire starters like gas or a big wad of paper or pine needles. Not sure why, I just do.
It's worth noting that I'm using lump (natural) hardwood charcoal. That's about all you can get down here. I saw a small bag of Kingsford blue last week for the first time in 4 countries at the price of $10. No thanks. If I was doing this in the US I'd use un-adulterated briquettes because they don't burn as fast or as hot as lump charcoal. In my smoker I normally use lump charcoal because it's cleaner-burning, and heat regulation isn't as difficult as a normal grill.
Step 6: Once your coals are lit, spread em out and throw down those ribs. Your goal is to sear both sides for 5 or 10 minutes. I'm not entirely sure what my rational behind this step is, it's not like you can (or want to) "lock in the juices" with ribs, but it sure made a great smell and the ribs looked awesome.
Step 7: Flip once, and let the top side cook sizzle for a few minutes.
Step 8: Cover in foil. Normally at this stage of the game I'd be throwing these bad boys in an oven at 280 degrees for a few hours. Why cover in foil you ask? Two reasons - one is the lump charcoal, it's hot, even in small doses, these ribs would be black (and not the good kind of black) by the time they were cooked tender. And the other reason - it was windy, and our gigantic fire ring was filled with 6 inches of ash. Given the 4+ hour cook time I expected, I didn't want a dirt patina on my riblets.
If I had a grill with a lid, like a weber or any random gas grill, I'd just do the offset method. Low fire on one side and ribs, uncovered, on the other. But we're out in the elements here, camping with nothing but a folding grill rack and a pair of tongs. Like I said, learning experience.
Step 9: Back on the heat. I shoved the coals over to one side, leaving the bare minimum under the ribs. I have a feeling it was still too much given the amount of sizzling I heard coming from inside the foil for the first half hour or so.
Step 10: Cook the bastards. Low and slow is the goal. Every 20 minutes or so I'd stick a few more coals under the foil, and ever hour I'd flip them. No real rocket science to this since I'm not entirely sure what to expect. All I know is that fatty pork is the most forgiving of meats, so I'm hoping it will survive my abuse.
I started a proper wood fire next to the ribs, not to keep them warm but to keep myself warm, also it was a good way to constantly supply coals for under the ribs.
Step 11: Unwrap the ribs. All told it was about 5 hours in the foil. I probably would have been better off with 4 hours.
Step 12: Behold. They are beautifully cooked, for the most part. The ribs in the middle were too crispy, a result of cooking too long at high temperatures. The ribs on both ends were damn near perfect. If I had to do again I'd go with 4 hours and try to keep the heat lower. I'd also cook the ribs bone-down most of the time, to keep the meat on top from frying in the juices overly much.
Step 13: Sauce dem ribs. I think this is Hunts brand. I'd use Sweet Baby Rays if I had my pick, but when you're buying BBQ sauce from the "import" aisle of the supermarket, options are limited.
Step 14: Back on the grill super quick to caramelize a bit of that sugary sauce.
Step 15: Slice. Here you can see some of the middle ribs are overdone. The four big fat end pieces up top were beautiful, falling off the bone delicious.
Step 16: Serve it up with a few sides. In this case canned corn and Campbell's pork and beans. Worst baked beans I've ever had (Bush's or home made all the way), but again, buying from the import aisle - choices are refried red beans in a plastic bag, refried black beans in a plastic bag, or a can of Campbell's pork and beans.
I will definitely have to give this a go again in the near future. As with smoking it comes down to proper heat control, and as with charcoal smoking, that's not always an easy thing to do without a thermometer or a proper grill. Regardless, it was one delicious learning experience.