Thank you for Smoking…

I love birthdays. Especially mine. It’s one of the only times of the year I can usually get away with frivolous purchases, without the follow-up question of “do you really need that?”

This year, I was the grateful recipient of a Hark Electric Digital Smoker and happily ticking the frivolous box with a big fat red marker, the most problematic issue is that where I am living has no private access to an outdoors area… just a public laneway. Obviously, this makes it a tad difficult to crank up the smoker indoors (yes, I foolishly tried) and in the laneway, I’d hate for a panicky neighbour to think that their place was in danger of catching fire.

Fortunately on a recent weekend, I headed up to a friend’s property near Geelong for a few days; a great opportunity to load the smoker into the boot of the car along with several kilograms of ribs and some chicken.

Hark Electronic Digital Smoker

Ribs seemed the most fitting for the maiden trial of my smoker. Get it right and you are rewarded with one of the messiest, most delicious sharing dishes I can think of.

Way back when, there was little thought or effort that went into cooking ribs, other than ‘making’ my own sauce from a blend of commercial sauces, maybe some extra sugar and perhaps a few seasonings and whatever I could find that was on hand. Then it was a case of chucking them in the oven for a couple of hours, in foil, on a slow heat, followed by cranking up the heat as high as possible to caramelise the ribs.

I didn’t know any better or indeed know what better could be until several years ago when Melbourne became slowly indoctrinated to North American Barbecue, largely thanks to people like Burger Mary.

Nowadays, every third or fourth pub has revamped it’s menu to pay homage to the Pit Master and, like all the other food trends that we have embraced over the years, most of us are aware of what makes good Barbecue; meat, rubs, smoke, heat and lots of love, time and care… and perhaps a lick of BBQ sauce.

I’ve learned a lot about Barbecue over the last few weeks. Much more than I thought I would from just watching episodes of BBQ Pitmasters on Foxtel. For starters, there was a lot more to know about ribs than I thought I already knew. From a little piggy’s fourteen rib bones, there are two common cuts; Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs. Further to this, there are also St Louis-cut ribs, which are Spare Ribs that have been trimmed up (removing the sternum and flap of meat at the bottom), effectively squaring up the ribs to make them neat and more uniform (I found a really great post the Serious Eats website on how to trim ribs). Then there are also Country-style cut ribs, which are extremely meaty and cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin. Rib porn.

Far Left: Spare Ribs, in their entirety. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs
Far Left: Spare Ribs. Top: St Louis Ribs. Centre: Baby Back Ribs. Bottom: Country-Style Ribs

The common Baby Backs are the from the ribs found closest to the backbone of the pig and connected to the loin. They bones are smaller, curved and pretty close together and most of the meat is on top of the bones. When I was a kid, Mum would buy these ribs for maybe no more than a dollar or two for a couple of racks. Back then, they were tantamount to dog bones and were most likely sold as such. Today, they command around $20 per kg, which is a lot given that there is more bone than meat.

As you move further from the spine, you find the Spare Ribs, where the bones get larger, flatter, straighter and wider apart with more meat between the bones. Also, the further you get from the spine, there is a greater amount of marbling because it’s closer to the belly. In fact, because of their affiliation with the pork belly, the belly itself can be sometimes sold as ‘boneless spare ribs’. It’s kinda technically true, but it’s just pork belly.

Credit Photo: TMBBQ (http://www.tmbbq.com)
Baby Back Ribs on the left, Spare Ribs on the right… with respective loin and belly attached

Sadly, most ribs in Australia are butchered to be devoid of very little meat, which is largely due to the demand of other pork cuts that would otherwise be compromised if ‘proper’ rib cuts were made available in Australia. The vast majority of Australian butchers and retailers purchase specific cuts through a commercial boning room. Therefore the proposition of buying and breaking down an entire pig for awesome ribs would be to the detriment of leaving cuts that are not too popular in the Australian market, so unfortunately, it’s uneconomical.

Perhaps with an emerging demand for other not-so popular cuts of meat, we may find better ribs in the near future. For now, I’ve found the best quality spare ribs are from Costco at around $16 per kg. They’re meaty and require very little trimming up, unless you want to make them St Louis-style. One rack (around 1.6-1.8kg) will set you back about $28-$30, which is enough for two moderately hungry people. However, smoking just one rack seems pointless, so stock up and get your friends over.

BBQ sauces are fairly subjective as far as flavours go. As you move through the BBQ belt in the United States, flavour profiles are tweaked from region to region. A Kansas-style BBQ sauce is your typical tomato-based sauce. It’s unctuously sticky, dark and sweet from molasses and it’s the sauce that most people will duly recognise; albeit a far cry from the overly sweet sauces that most of us are subjected to, thanks to the mass-produced brown muck you find in squeezey bottles.

Sauces from North Carolina are all about tang that is driven from a big dose of vinegar. Pork in its many forms (but think pulled pork) is the most popular meat in this part of the world, so the preference of a vinegar-driven BBQ sauce that cuts through the richness of the meat makes perfect sense.

Tennessee sauces contain the ubiquitous slosh of whiskey, whereas Texan sauces tend to be on the spicier side and Louisiana sauces are even hotter.

With all this in mind, I started to trawl various BBQ forums and recipes to look at the more common ingredients so I could build a sauce of my own at this is what I came up with.

Paul’s BBQ Sauce (makes 1.5 litres)

200g Celery, very finely diced
200g, Onion, very finely diced
50g Butter
50g fresh Ginger, finely grated
500ml Tomato Ketchup (I used Heinz)
125ml Molasses
100g Brown Sugar
125ml good quality Bourbon
1 tbsp Habanero Tabasco Sauce (Note: start with a ½ tbsp and if you feel you need more heat, add another ½ tbsp.)
2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
4 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Mustard Powder (I used Keens)
125ml Orange Juice
60ml Maple Syrup
125ml fresh Espresso

Quite a number of rubs and sauces contain celery seed or salt. I opted for fresh celery and onion (as opposed to powder) to use as my aromatics, as well as to thicken the sauce after blending. I sweated this mixture down slowly with some butter (lid on, but stirring frequently) for 10 minutes, then added the ginger, leaving a soft, fragrant and translucent base to continue adding the rest of the ingredients.

Once the ketchup had been added and incorporated into the softened aromatics, the remainder of the ingredients were added judiciously, in the order of ingredients listed above. I tasted the sauce as each ingredient was added to understand how each ingredient contributed to the overall flavour. Over the slowest heat possible on my biggest burner, the process took around 40 minutes of simmering and adjusting until I was happy with the consistency and flavour. The espresso was a last minute addition and I’m glad I used it. The coffee notes really brought out the bourbon and the acidity helped to further balance some of the sweetness.

Once I’d blended the sauce to make it nice and smooth, I stored it in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to develop. When I tried it the next day, it was good, but not great and perhaps a little too spicy to be universally kid-friendly.

With some corrective action, I poured the sauce back into a saucepan over a low heat and added another 125ml of molasses. It was nearly there, but not quite. Rather than add more molasses or brown sugar, I added 125ml of kecap mains (ABC Sweet Soy) for a little more depth and colour. Finally, to further balance the sweetness with a little more acidity, another 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar was stirred in. At this point, the sauce was only back to blood temperature; enough heat to allow the new ingredients to emulsify.

The end result encapsulates all of the key elements of the various regional BBQ sauces from all over the US; the tempered heat from tabasco, the sweetness from the molasses and brown sugar, the twang from the apple cider vinegar and a cheers to the folk in Tennessee with a generous splash of Bourbon.

Another key step to smoking is the process of marinating the meat with a dry rub.

Ribs after a rub
Ribs after a good rub

Dry rubs are exactly as their name describes; a mix of dried herbs and seasonings that are rubbed onto the meat to impart flavour. Meat, obviously being moist, will make the rub tacky when left for several hours or overnight, meaning most of it will remain on the meat before and during cooking (although some rib recipes call for a thin layer of mustard on the ribs, which, additional flavour aside, also allows the rub to stick to the meat). Sugar also features as a key ingredient as it allows the meat to caramelise.

Like BBQ sauces, dry rubs are also very personal in flavour. Most recipes are a combination of sugar, salt, paprika, chilli or cayenne, pepper, powdered garlic, onion and ginger and dried herbs, like oregano, rosemary and thyme. From there you can then play with the combinations of the above or add your own personal touches. I’ve got an idea of maybe trying some freeze dried pineapple powder, but for my first rub, I stuck to a fairly generic recipe.

Generic Rib Rub (makes 2 cups)

3/4 cup Brown Sugar
3/4 cup White Sugar
1/2 cup Paprika
1/4 cup Garlic Powder
2 tbsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 tbsp Ginger Powder
2 tbsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Oregano, dried

On the day prior to smoking, I trimmed the ribs up, removing the flap of skirt meat that runs diagonally on the backside of the ribs. I ended up cooking the flaps separately, but in the same manner as the ribs, which became a tasty and fuss-free meal for my 4 year old. I also removed the thin, papery membrane from the back of the ribs. I’d never done this before, but many sites and forums advocated this for the sake of allowing better smoke penetration (also conversely refuted by other sites and forums). Another apparent and more practical advantage was better texture once the ribs are cooked. This made more sense. It’s quite a tricky and laborious step. The membrane is a slippery little sucker, but after a couple of little knife nicks to the fingers and some quality swearing, it was job done.

Once the ribs are trimmed, they’re given a generous coating of rib rub, then left to marinate in the fridge overnight until you’re ready to fire up the smoker.

Ribs at the ready
Ribs at the ready

The Hark Electric Smoker works well. My only gripe was that initially the door wasn’t flush with the body of the unit, which meant that smoke billowed out where the door seal wasn’t sealing adequately. Sadly, Hark did not respond to my photos, which was disappointing. I fixed the problem with some self-adhesive fibreglass tape I picked up at a BBQ store for around $25. A cheap, effective fix, but unnecessary when you’ve forked out $600 for a brand new smoker. Gripes aside, it’s also pretty economical, only requiring a scant 1/4 cup of (apple) wood pellets, so that 10kg bag I purchased might take a little while to use.

The cooking method I used for the ribs was the popular 3-2-1 method. This method consists of placing your rubbed ribs in the smoker for 3 hours with your wood chips or pellets, uncovered and untouched. This is followed by a further 2 hours in the smoker, wrapped in alfoil. Finally, the ribs are unwrapped and placed back in the smoker for another hour, lacquering every fifteen minutes or so with BBQ sauce and a trusty sauce mop. The temperature of the smoker remains at a constant 110 degrees Celsius throughout the entire process. I also threw in some bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and a couple of chicken marylands, adding them to the smoker after the ribs had endured their first three hours (I added some more wood pellets at this point to give them a chance to smoke).

The end result
The end result… with some delectable chicken thighs for the no-pork peeps

The whole process is most definitely a labour of love and time. But by God is it worth it. There are so many other things to try next… brisket, pork butt (neck) or shoulder. Maybe all at once. All I need is a backyard. If you can provide me this, I’ll promise you a meal you’ll never forget.