By Jan Norris
Here’s an easy Father’s Day gift: Clip this article and slip it inside a nice new charcoal grill.
Sure: He’s got a gas one already, but a real wood-and-charcoal fire is the fuel of choice for making great ribs, at least according to three pro ribbers we talked to.
Their tips parallel with only a few differences. Key words are know, low and slow.
First, you have to know your meats, said Rufus Allen, of Rufus’s Ribs. He sells his from a white trailer set up on First Street in Boynton Beach off Federal Highway. Find him there on the weekends.
“Choose your meats. Don’t go with just what’s on sale or in the supermarket. I buy IBM ribs from Sam’s Club.” They’re consistent and he knows what he’s getting, he said. He uses a pork tenderloin for shredded pork. “It shreds better.”
Clean them and then marinate them. “I have a special marinade — it’s a secret. But I don’t use any water. That’s very important: no water! Water is what creates those flare-ups and that burns the meat.”
Then it’s on to the low fire. Building the fire is a crucial element. “I use red oak and charcoal. Don’t use any lighter fluid, because you can taste it in the meat. Just use lighter wood or crumpled paper to start it under the wood. The object is to get the heat and smoke to come from the bottom of the cooker — not the top of the fire,” he said. “You don’t want to burn them or cook so fast they’re not done on the inside.” The rack should be set well above the smoldering wood.
Finally, take it slow. “Meat should cook at around 220 degrees — that’s a slow fire — for about two and a half hours. I turn them maybe once. None of this 20 to 30 minutes stuff. I guarantee they’ll fall off the bone.
Marcus Carver is an aspiring barbecue chef. He sells at the Boynton Beach Green Market during season, at the Greenmarket Café on weekends, and does functions through the cooperative kitchen at the Community Caring Center. He caters complete barbecue dinners, but doesn’t cook on site yet.
He agrees with much of what Allen said. “You want good quality meats to start. Inspect them and clean them up well — get rid of tiny bits of bones, and trim up any fatty parts.”
The next big thing is the fire. “I use real wood charcoal. You don’t want the fire too hot. It’s actually dangerous because the outside of the meat will cook and the inside won’t be done. And you want a hot and cold side, so you can move the meat to the colder side if it’s cooking too fast.”
He uses the hand test: If he holds his hand over the grill rack but can’t hold it there a few seconds, the fire is still too hot. “You get to know what’s right,” he explains. And there should be no flame, just hot coals. There should be air circulating in and around the coals and bottom of the grill, too. It can’t be closed off completely, he said. “This keeps the fire even and keeps it from flaring up, too.”
He said the key to marinade is no sugar.
“Sugar burns on the grill and will burn the outside of the meat.” His tips for chicken include making sure the heat source is not too hot; chicken must be cooked through and it’s easy to burn if you don’t watch it. “The breast and thighs are thick pieces and take longer to cook. Split the chicken or cook them individually, but move them so the breast and thigh are cooked the longest.”
Troy Davis, the pit-boss and owner of Troy’s BBQ in Boynton Beach, has definite ideas about proper barbecue.
“First, get the fire just right. You don’t want a flame — no flames, just smoke.”
But meat choice matters. “Get good ribs. I use three-and-a-half-down spareribs,” he said, referring to a butcher’s designation of size. “They go up to five- and six-down. You don’t want them that big — the bone is too big in them.”
These are most recognizable as a St. Louis-style sparerib, he said, much preferred to baby backs for long and slow cooking. He cleans the ribs by soaking them in a combination of cider vinegar and water. This tenderizes them and cleans the fat in the pork, he said. For cooking, he’s in line with the others: “I use a combination of charcoal and oak. I don’t have a thermometer on the big smoker outside. You do it a while and you know the heat’s right. I keep it at around 350, 375; a normal heat, with vents in the smoker — you have to have vents. And I cook with the hood down to keep the smoke in and keep the meat tender and falling off the bone.”
There’s another element, he said. “You’ve got to have TLC: tender, loving care. You’ve got to watch them while they cook; you can’t walk off and leave them. I turn them consistently — I cook 25 to 40 slabs at a time — and baste them every 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a long, slow process, but that’s the only way to get tender ribs. You got to use yourself as the rotisserie.”
The result is great texture and flavor. A tender, smoky flavored rib that’s moist and needs no other flavor is the goal. It’s telling that none of them serve a sauce on the rib, but wait for the customer to ask for it. “A good rib doesn’t need anything on it,” Davis said.
Allen agrees. “Mine are so good, I promise you: You can’t eat just one.”
Grill cleaning tips:
One of the biggest problems home grillers have is cooking on a dirty grill. Whether gas or charcoal, the residue from previous dinners shouldn’t be on the grates. Buildup of grease on gas jets can mean uneven and unsafe cooking.
Clean the grates:
The best time to do it, Troy Davis of Troy’s BBQ said, is when the grill is still hot after cooking. Use a wire brush to scrub the grates clean, and crumpled newspaper to wipe them off. If they’re so charred with grease and sugar buildup, an oven cleaner can work, but use it on cold grates and never over a flame.
Clean gas jets
by disconnecting the gas, and disassembling down to the actual jets. Use a scrubber to clean grease debris and the fittings.
Burn off residue
on lava rocks by placing them on top of the grate and heating them till coal-hot. Allow to cool and wipe off any ash. Replace the rocks if buildup is severe.
Burn a fire
in the grill for 30 minutes before adding foods after cleaning, so that any residue from cleaning products is burned off.
Clean the grill
after every use to make cleanup easier.