I’ve been taking on Charcutepalooza with a twist. For every monthly challenge, I add a smoked meat exercise on the side, partly for the love of the game, partly to amuse and sustain myself during the deadly long waits of curing. In an earlier post, I made Spawn-of-Satan chicken wings on the Big Green Egg while prepping my pancetta. For this post, I moved the latter from the fridge to the gallows and smoked six racks of pork ribs.
First part was easy, and I am resigned to the fact that I may lose points for not following Charcutepalooza procedure. My pieces of pork belly had beautiful fat caps, but they were small squares from the Ossabaw Island hogs I butchered and processed in December. I wasn’t going to be able to roll them, so I followed Michael Ruhlman’s “quick kitchen” pancetta recipe.
The belly was rubbed with standard cure and a robust mix of spices driven by garlic, whole juniper berries, toasted peppercorns, and coriander seed, before being packed in Ziploc bags in the fridge for a week. On the seventh day, the doors of promise swung open and offered two firmed-up pieces of belly ready to be hung.
There are moments in the mania when the beauty of what you are handcrafting clarifies. The bellies came out of the curing bags studded with whole spices and beautifully pink (thanks to the pink salt). I almost didn’t want to rinse them at all. But after a good bath and an aggressive pat down with paper towel, I threaded double pieces of butcher’s twine through the fattest corner of each piece and tied them off into loops.
I hung the pieces from hooks I’d anchored into the top of the window box in my kitchen. Then I tweeted: “Think my fiance will notice?” She did, and in her usual saintly manner, she gave me a pass to try this out. However, if a whiff of bad smell escapes, I may not have a chance to save my experiment, nor will I be able to blame her. The beautiful house she has made for us hides a darker underbelly, no pun intended, and I’m thankful she is supportive of my experimentation. I”m a lucky man. As for the pancetta, I will report back on the final results.
Enter ribs. This whole side of the project made sense because it was Super Bowl weekend, and I had to do something. And that something needed to be ambitious, because I have a blog that hungers for content. I got up early on Saturday morning and went to Whole Foods to find out the cost of a rack of spares. After discovering it was around $20, I headed for Costco, arriving breathlessly at 830am and hoping to beat the Super Bowl rush. Then I sat in the car twiddling my thumbs until the store opened at 930.
I bought six racks of ribs at the warehouse. I won’t lie; this was a moment of internal conflict. So much of the reason why I got into weekend warrior butchery was about sustainable, local meat. In this case, though, the other pressures of cost won out. I have a wedding to plan for the end of the year. I got six racks at Costco for the price of three at Whole Foods. I know there are going to be similar tradeoffs down the line.
On Saturday, I did a test run and missed the mark. The Cajun hot rub was good, but the ribs were too fatty, in my view because the flap of belly on one of the long sides of the spare rack hadn’t been trimmed. Add that to the fact that I had trouble controlling my fire that day and the end product was frankly greasy. My best and most trusted critic, my fiancé, was pretty honest with me on that point.
Wizened after the test run, I prepped a second try. First, I trimmed the belly flap and other excess fat from the ribs (the belly will be saved for sausage making in the future). Instead of a pre-mix, I made a rub of my own with light and dark brown sugar, sweet and hot smoked paprika, smoked salt, kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, cumin, and dried mint. I rubbed the racks and put them in the fridge overnight.
The next morning, I rose early and got the ribs out of the fridge to let them get to room temperature before cooking. I prepped a careful fire, dropped on a handful of soaked applewood chips and a large chunk of hickory, and put the racks on the smoker before running out to have brunch with friends. The temperature gauge read 165 degrees, something of a danger zone given that I was leaving and needed it to stabilize at 250 for three hours of cooking. But saintly fiancé watched the temp and adjusted the vents, eventually hitting the sweet spot of 235-250, where it stayed without even budging for the next six hours. As far as the Big Green Egg goes, that’s being “in the zone.”
At brunch, a colleague mentioned that she’d seen this blog, which forced me into a full accounting of my new hobby. One person in the group wore a look of disgust. Another friend had on the “have you lost your mind?” face. They were all supportive of my adventures, but the atmosphere of incredulity was thick.
When I got home from brunch, I checked the ribs. Perfect. I wrapped them in foil packets with a mixture of beer and apple cider. They went back on the smoker indirect for another hour at the same temperature, before I unwrapped them and let them cook over direct fire for about another 45 minutes.
My heart sank when I saw the ribs after that last step. They seemed burnt beyond recognition. I slathered them in barbecue sauce and wrapped them again in foil, hoping to bring some moisture back into the mix. And then the doorbell rang and my fiancé came home with her best friend from growing up, her friend’s husband, and his parents who were visiting from Leeds, England. I was completely frazzled and running around trying to pull things together for the party we were going to. They walk into a house in the middle of Washington, DC, and the nutjob who owns it has pork everywhere. The freezer full of vac sealed sausage. The wine fridge with struggling chorizo. The pancetta in the rafters. The hams hanging in the shed. And the pork ribs.
I had the most burnt-looking rack out on the counter and I felt compelled to offer one to her friend’s husband and his father. I chopped a couple off. A little puff of steam escaped. Good sign that moisture was trapped inside that black bark.
The reactions I got then, and later in the night at the Super Bowl party, were positive. After all that work, I was relieved. And I know what needs to change next time. Higher quality meat and leaner ribs. More salt and spice in the rub. And a bigger Big Green Egg. That’s it and that’s all.