Quarantine Cuisine: Pit Barrel Ribs
How are we lucky enough to have barbecue in our lives?
I do not claim in the least to be a barbecue expert, so don't @ me, BBQ pros (very strong, very vigilant internet presence among those folks). Still, I like to try my hand at the most elusive of culinary prowess from time to time, sometimes with great success, sometimes with limited success.
Back when she lived in Salt Lake City, Mom won a Pit Barrel Cooker (a brand name as well as a unique style of cooker) from some door prize/raffle thing, and it sat virginal for years before being schlepped to Iowa. I decided one day a couple summers back to produce my first brisket in the pit barrel cooker, a device I'd never used before (hell, I'd never smoked a piece of meat before). I was totally out of my league, but the brisket, by severe luck, was actually pretty good.
My second brisket this fall was just dead awful. And this was when I thought I had it figured out. I made some ribs simultaneously, however, and the ribs were outstanding.
It seems ribs are much more forgiving than brisket, which I suppose is unsurprising. When we made our Crowd Cow order, I included a rack of St. Louis-style ribs from a heritage pork farm in rural Georgia, with the intent of breaking out the patina-laden pit barrel cooker when it finally felt like spring outside.
There are numerous ways of approaching BBQ, but the pit barrel cooker is particularly popular among a certain online fan base, and many absolutely swear by it as the best way to do 'cue. It's about as low-tech as you can get––a charcoal basket, a literal barrel, a lid, a stand, a wire rack, and a hole in the side on the bottom which is literally the only control you need to work with. That hole has a sliding cover that regulates how much air gets into the cooker; the more air, the hotter the cooker, since air fuels the embers. Your goal: control the temperature.
Before heading out into the masked world to get the charcoal, I did a quick dry-brine of the pork, rubbing a generous amount of sea salt into the meat side of the ribs. This makes the meat even more flavorful.
When we got back home, I used a chimney starter to get the charcoal going in the PBC. I then added a rub to the ribs––an Austin, Texas acquisition called "Steak Dust," consisting of garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and onion. You can make any number of rubs for your BBQ ribs, and try a new one each time! I added and rubbed the Steak Dusk liberally across all surfaces of the ribs, and went back outside to check on the fire.
The charcoal seemed to be firing nicely, so I added a thin layer of Mesquite wood chips to the coals for some robust, earthy smoke on the ribs. The trick was how damn windy it was that day, and even inside the cooker, the embers only burned toward downwind, which meant I had to rotate the cooker several times to get to 220 degrees inside the barrel!
Once the ribs were all set in the smoker, I quickly assembled the sides. First, cornbread––found a simple and excellent recipe, and even learned to make my own buttermilk, since I didn't have any! Two tablespoons vinegar in a cup of milk, then let sit. The result is exactly like buttermilk.
Twenty minutes later, beautiful, flaky cornbread.
Coleslaw is sort of "the" vegetable dish for BBQ, and since I have been trying to be consistent with including a healthy veggie helping in our dinners, it seemed the ticket for us tonight (mac and cheese isn't a vegetable, sadly for everyone). I happen to really like a good, tangy coleslaw, so I took red and green cabbage and sliced it nice and thin with a mandoline. If you don't have a mandoline, I cannot recommend it more highly––one of the most used things in the Maestro's kitchen. The mandoline produces thin cabbage slices that are perfect for a slaw.
I didn't have any carrots handy, so stuck to cabbage, and added about a half cup of mayo, a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, and a healthy bit of Dijon mustard and combined for the dressing. I always like to let the dressed slaw sit in the fridge for a bit to let the flavors meld––the cabbage has good structure and can hold up to the dressing without wilting. Simple and delicious.
After stashing the sides to await dinner, I made a sort of "improv" Carolina-style BBQ sauce. I love the vinegary tang of a Carolina sauce with pork. I will defend Texas BBQ to the death when it comes to beef and brisket, but the Carolinians have it made in the shade with their pork BBQ. I found a recipe for ribs as the jumping-off point, and I sautéed some garlic and half an onion, added ketchup, cider vinegar, Dijon, Guajillo chili powder, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, molasses, salt, and pepper, and let it them all cook for a while before blending. The result was a thick, tangy quasi-Carolina BBQ sauce.
The inner temperature of the ribs (between the bones) was reaching about 180, just 15 degrees shy of ideal, so I opened the cooker and slathered both sides with a healthy slop of sauce so that the sauce would caramelize around the ribs. About 45 minutes later, we had 195 degrees, and the ribs were ready to rest for a bit and be served.
I cut the rack in half and plated with warmed cornbread and butter and a heap of slaw, adding some extra BBQ sauce to the top of the ribs.
The ribs were absolutely delicious, loaded with smoky goodness from the Mesquite and the spicy tang of the caramelized sauce. My only regret is that they were just about 30 minutes shy of being perfect in terms of fall-off-the-bone tenderness, and I should have left them on a shade longer. Still, each bite was delicious, and we each used quite a few paper towels keeping our hands and faces sauce-free! The slaw was an excellent, tangy "palate cleanser" of sorts for the rich meat, and the cornbread had enough sweetness to round out the palate as a sort of dessert.
I do really enjoy my pit barrel cooker, and would love to become the type of BBQ expert that has their own "secret ingredient" in their sauce and can proudly judge other people for their BBQ choices.
In all seriousness, however, BBQ is perhaps the most difficult style of cooking to absolutely master, and it requires a great deal of patience and a "try, try again" attitude before you get it down. Perhaps this spring and summer, which are looking increasingly like a continuation of this quarantine lifestyle, I can work at perfecting some things with the PBC.
Beer to cook by: A bold red wine is certainly a possibility for BBQ, but we felt beer was a better choice for this meal and for the warm(er) day. I picked up a four-pack of an outstanding Belgian tripel-style ale, Piraat, at the liquor store, along with ingredients for our next Quarantini series drink (stay tuned!). The legend is that tripel-style strong ales were the same type of beer that pirates were rationed at sea––one pint per day. Viscous and spicy, with enough bright yellow and tropical fruit character to speak nicely with the tangy BBQ sauce, this is a great, high-ABV beer for your BBQ afternoons outside this spring.
Hope y'all are cooking/drinking wonderful things during your quarantine! Now that the weather is warmer, a few major projects, including the kitchen repainting and the getting the veggie garden set up, are big priorities around here, and I also have some really fantastic recipes and meals to share in the Quarantine Cuisine series coming up.
Cheers to spring!