BBQ ribs make the day


I do not have a green lawn of the type that would make a suburban homeowner proud. It is green to the extent that the weeds I have allowed free rein, remain green. And I have never been particularly good or interested in the home beautification projects that sustain an entire outdoor industry and several cable television networks. But I do know how to cook ribs and that is really all a homeowner needs to know to become the envy of the neighborhood.

I owe my success to the cookbook. It is a form of literature that may never be read but still sells and does not rely on the literary tastes of the public for its success.

As long as there are a Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, while the courts allow people to give Christmas presents and individuals live long enough to make finding a birthday gift a chore, cookbooks will continue to sell.

In many homes across America the cookbook is a ubiquitous, dust-collecting shelf ornament. Even if someone’s highest culinary achievement were a microwave cheese and noodle dinner, he or she is sure to own several cookbooks.

Steven Raichlen, a resident of Miami, Fla., and Chappaquiddick, writes cookbooks that people buy for themselves, give as gifts, and actually find time to use about barbecue and grilling.

Several years ago I received a copy of “Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs” (Workman Publishing, New York, 2006. $12.95. 298 pages). It was the latest book in his series of very successful books on the subjects of cooking, grilling and barbecue.

According to the considerable press surrounding Mr. Raichlen’s ascendancy to top of the barbecue food pyramid, his cookbooks, which include the popular “Barbecue! Bible,” have sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages.

My barbecuing credentials at the time were fairly limited. I had charred my share of burgers, chicken, and hot dogs beyond recognition as food items; I had singed all the hair off my hands and arms on more than one occasion; and, thanks to a handy garden hose, I once narrowly avoided a neighborhood conflagration.

What I knew, I had picked up in backyards and restaurants across America. But always willing to learn, one week in late June in the summer of 2006 I took on the assignment of preparing lunch for the entire Times staff, guided step by step by a soon-to-be-barbecue-sauce-smeared copy of Ribs.

Mr. Raichlen’s book contained 99 recipes for cooking baby back pork ribs, beef ribs, and lamb ribs, although most of the focus was on the succulent baby backs. As with most cookbooks, there was a mix of recipes. Some were local staples found in barbecue hotspots like Memphis, and others were certain to satisfy the adventurous culinary explorer.

The first few chapters lead the novice through the basics of the grilling process. There was much handy advice ranging from how to set up a grill to the various tools on the market that will help any backyard pit-master.

Mr. Raichlen favors the indirect method of grilling, in which the meat does not sit directly over the heat. He prefers to use charcoal as opposed to gas grills to bring out the true barbecue flavor in any meat.

I selected the first recipe in the book, “First-Timer’s Ribs,” on the basis of simplicity. The advance prep time was listed as “none” and I liked that.

I suppose that serious barbecue purists are like Trekkies (what’s the Klingon word for pig?). The true barbecue purist has all of the ingredients on hand needed to make a good rub or barbecue sauce from scratch.

I did not, so my prep time included waiting 20 minutes to get out of the check-out line at the Reliable Market with my ribs during the Saturday afternoon rush and the time I spent searching the aisles at the Stop and Shop for stuff like sweet paprika (which I never found) as opposed to plain paprika.

A newspaper office is not a good place to cook ribs over a fire. In fact, I think a cave is preferable.

I set up two borrowed well-used Weber grills, the classic black dome cooking machines found in backyards across America, in a small courtyard behind the newspaper, and loaded both grills with Cowboy Brand “100 % natural lump” hardwood charcoal purchased at Vineyard Cash and Carry.

I soaked the charcoal with lighter fluid and threw in a match. Then I waited for the Tisbury fire department to show up based on a report of volumes of smoke coming from the space between the newspaper and the Gannon and Benjamin boat yard.

I began the whole process of preparing and cooking the ribs about 10 am with the intention of serving them for lunch. I began to sense a disaster in the making about noon when I still had not thrown one bone on the grill.

I had six racks of ribs: three spareribs and three baby back ribs and not enough room even with two grills to use the indirect method. A quick trip to LeRoux produced a rib rack, a product designed for cooking ribs upright.

I prepared the ribs according to the directions. I removed the thin papery membrane (a good tip I hadn’t known) from the backs as instructed, prepared a rub for the meat, a mop sauce for basting the ribs and my knuckles, and a tasty lemon brown sugar barbecue sauce.

The indirect method of cooking is a slow process. The coals are pushed off to the side and the ribs cook in the middle of the grill over a drip pan set in among the coals. The goal is to cook the ribs slowly without burning them. One mistake many amateur barbecue cooks make is to slather barbecue sauce on the ribs too early and end up with a coating of charred sauce. The sauce is only added at the end and there is even some debate among purists whether good ribs need it at all.

“The idea,” writes Mr. Raichlen, “is to use the sauce as a sort of light varnish for the ribs, rather than a thick gloppy coating that camouflages the meat.”

Under normal circumstances, ribs can be left cooking with only brief attention until the end of the process. But it is stressful to cook with the lingering fear of burning down your place of employment.

The entire cooking process took about 90 minutes. I served lunch, which included three large bags of potato chips, about 3 pm and engaged in an experiment of sorts to see if the Times eaters could distinguish among ribs and rubs.

On a table in our kitchen, I set out three large platters of ribs. One platter contained baby back ribs and another spare ribs cooked according to the recipe. The third platter was a placebo. It contained both baby back and spare ribs rubbed with “Emeril’s Rib Rub.”

Times employees were asked to rate the three plates of ribs on a scale of 1-10. They went about the job with relish. They are enthusiastically judgmental.

The overall favorite was the plate of baby back ribs cooked according to the recipe, scoring mostly eights and nines. Ralph Stewart, Times photographer and something of a food critic, decided to add a comment: “Flavor stands on its own. The rub and spices are pungent with a strong onion, garlic smoky flavor.”

The pork ribs did not fare badly, coming in with mostly sixes and sevens and an off-the-chart 12 from Tamar Russell in production. Reporter Aubrey Gibavic wrote: “A bit fatty. Nice smoky flavor.”

The mixed plate of baby backs and spareribs coated with the store rub scored in the five and six range, although editor Doug Cabral thought they rated a 9. As we all know, there is no accounting for taste.