Just when I thought I knew everything about barbecuing ribs, a different treatment rocked my world. The cooking technique violated several premises of my once rock-solid rules of ribs. First of all, it called for cooking the ribs without any rub or sauce. Much of my time on this planet has been devoted to making rubs and mop sauces for ribs. Yet this rack went on the fire carrying only salt and pepper.
Secondly, the ribs were wrapped in aluminum foil as they cooked. Again this was against my nature.
Finally the sauce, a homemade winner, was applied to the ribs after they had cooked. This, too, ran counter to my instincts and my muscle memory. For years I have kept myself occupied, and allegedly in charge of the barbecuing process, by applying a series of marinades and mop sauces to the ribs as they cook.
Most distressing of all, these ribs, which looked a little gray to me, and seemed a bit porky, were an absolute hit with the folks I fed them to. This crowd of friends and family were experienced rib eaters. Yet most of them preferred the foil-wrapped, nearly naked, sauce-soaked ribs to the rack of well-rubbed, gently smoked ribs that I also served.
This experience knocked me off my moorings. I was adrift, like Magellan without the stars, Kevin Millar without his stylishly high baseball socks, Britney Spears without an exposed navel.
Seeking guidance, I called Keith Allen, a pit master who presides over Allen & Son, a barbecue emporium outside Chapel Hill, N.C. It was his rib-cooking technique and his sauce recipe that I thought I was following. They were outlined in Killer Ribs, a 2006 spiral-bound book of rib recipes from around America written by Nancy Davidson.
Allen pulled himself away from his pit to take the call and offer reassurance.
It is true, he said, that he does not apply sauce to his ribs until they are cooked. "I am not trying to cook sauce, I am cooking meat," he said. "I am chasing flavor, exposing meat to the heat of hickory wood."
In his view, putting sauce on ribs as they cook "looks cute, but it is busywork ... something cooks like to play with."
He denied however, that he wraps his ribs in foil as they cook. The cookbook got that part wrong, he said. He said he places racks of uncovered ribs atop the pork shoulders that cook in his 200-degree pit for several hours. The large shoulders insulate the smaller ribs and prevent them from drying out, he said.
Allen said he has seen other barbecue masters -- "boys from Kansas City and Oklahoma" -- wrap ribs and beef brisket in foil. "It would act as a self-basting process," he said, helping to keep the meat moist. But he doesn't use foil because it cuts down on the "smoke exchange," the period that the pork is exposed to the perfume of hickory wood.
Allen also told me he parboiled his ribs, cooking them for about 20 minutes in boiling water, before he put them in the pit. Parboiling is regarded as heresy by many rib cooks. But Allen says the quick water bath removes a thin membrane that covers the ribs and tenderizes them. If ribs are so chewy that "it takes two pocket knives" to eat them, he said, "well you're not at my place."
As Allen explained it, parboiling sounded intriguing. But I couldn't bring myself to try it. For years, I have professed the belief that the only reason to put pork in boiling water is to make soup. Moreover, accepting parboiling would require another drastic change in my rib-cooking philosophy.
Already I am reeling from the notion that I don't have to occupy myself by slapping sauce on the ribs as they cook. I am also struggling with an aluminum-foil conundrum. The foil-wrapped rack I cooked was exceptionally tender, even if the procedure contradicted every wood-smoked tenet I thought I stood for. But if I embrace foil-wrapped ribs, what could be next -- cooking them in the oven? What could these mean for my backyard, kettle-cooking lifestyle? What would I do with my Sunday afternoons?
I suppose that like so much of modern life, a compromise is required. The next time I cook ribs, I will start them off wrapped in foil, then halfway through the cooking process, rip off the foil. The ribs should be tender, yet still have "smoke" flavor. Besides, the foil-ripping routine could give me a role to play, a feeling that I matter -- a belief, perhaps mistaken, that the ribs aren't just cooking themselves.
Allen & Son's Sweet and Tangy Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 cups
1 cup high-quality apple-cider vinegar (it should smell like apples)
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons hot red-pepper flakes
2 tablespoons garlic salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 tablespoons oil
Mix all ingredients together well in a 2-quart pan. Heat until just bubbling, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm with 4 to 6 racks of ribs.
From "Killer Ribs," by Nancy Davidson
Per tablespoon: 38 calories, 0 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 8 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 215 milligrams sodium