It’s good to have people in your life who push you out of your comfort zone. My lovely friend Nicola pushes me way past my comfortable depth (in positive ways), and leads by example. Thanks to Nicola, in early May, I found myself in a car with four people driving to a smallish unpretty town about an hour south of London, where, along with three other friends, we would cook overnight in the British Barbecue Society’s Grassroots Shake and Sauce competition.
Before you snigger and say, “British Barbecue? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” let me tell you that Toby, the founder and director of the British Barbecue Society, preaches some serious barbecue. Toby admits that once upon a time, Brits weren’t exactly pitmasters. Tired of seeing the English place dead last time and again in barbecue competitions, Toby founded the British Barbecue Society, with the mission of spreading the gospel of barbecue throughout fair Britannia. Now people in the UK are serious about barbecue, and not just about eating it. Barbecue aficionados travel to Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas to apprentice themselves for months at time. True barbecue joints are opening all over England, not just in London.
Competition barbecue, in some ways, is about uniformity. Barbecue rubs follow a formula; barbecue sauces are supposed to taste a certain way. If you stray too far from “wet”-style American barbecue, although you may be cooking good food, you’re not cooking to win. You’re judged not just on taste, but on texture and appearance. If you’re cooking ribs, all the pieces need to come from the same rack. The meat should be tender, but not so well-cooked that it’s falling off the bone. The finished product is arrayed on dense, fluffy beds of parsley in Styrofoam boxes. As for the rest, it’s what you think: low and slow, and plenty of smoke. In some ways, we were the dream team. There was Nicola, successful founder of www.souschef.co.uk. There was wonderful Milli, of Milli’s Kitchen, and talented Victoria Glass, author of Boutique Wedding Cakes (as well as another upcoming book) and enthusiastic carnivore. And there was me, who had barbecue cred just by virtue of being American and bossy, and four other avowed drinkers foodies. I won’t belabor the details, but suffice it to say that Milli and I did stay up until the wee hours to do the Texas Crutch, aided by a fortifying shot of tequila, at least one of our group found love on the other side of the field, and we won second place brisket, tied third place for ribs, and won Best Newcomer! I should add: we wouldn’t have won anything if it had been up to me. I was all about rebellion, and cooking food that was a departure from the norm. My Yucatecan-style pulled pork was tasty, but it didn’t win any prizes. Of course, once they started announcing the winners I wanted to win MORE THAN ANYTHING and was kicking myself for thinking a barbecue competition was the time to start asserting my individuality.
In July, my father celebrated his 75th 39th birthday. I swear, if Toby could have tried the ribs I cooked, he would shed a proud tear. I am now ecstatic to share them with you. A smoker is of course key. Ideally, you have one with a built-in thermostat; if not, use a heat proof thermometer to keep the heat temperature even. Fruit wood produces the most delicious smoke, in my opinion; I like to keep a lot of smoke going throughout by soaking the wood first in water. You can also probably do this on a standard Weber grill or even a gas grill with indirect heat, but regulating the temperature will be more challenging. You could also try these ribs in an oven. It won’t be barbecue, but it’ll be tasty.
There were 15 guests at my father’s birthday party. The quantities are for 15 people, but you can reduce the recipe, or you can make the recipe as written, store the extra sauce, and use it on other meats. To save yourself heartache and stress, make your sauces and rubs the night before, and give yourself all day to smoke the meat in case you encounter temperature regulation difficulties.
You will need:
Ideally, a hot smoker
A heat-proof thermometer or reliable thermostat
Lots of heavy-duty aluminium foil
Fruit wood (I used cherry wood from my parents’ sour cherry tree that was torn apart by a bear)
A barbecue brush or a pastry brush
An immersion blender
*** Measurements here appear in American cups because I didn’t have a scale at my parents’ house. British measurements will keep the proportions basically the same, or you can find a converter to UK and metric here.
For the kick-ass, all-purpose barbecue rub
½ cup kosher salt
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
For the maple-garlic barbecue sauce
½ large yellow onion, sliced
¼ cup olive oil
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup molasses
½ cup ketchup
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup Dijon or spicy brown mustard
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 small head garlic
For the ribs
Buy about a pound of ribs per person: you can use St. Louis style or baby back ribs
For the crutch, for each rack of ribs, you’ll also need:
Approximately ¼ cup light brown sugar
Approximately ¼ stick (about 200 grams) butter
- Prep your meat. Wash your ribs and, using a sharp knife, trim away any large or lumpy pieces of fat. If you’re looking for competition-level perfection, trim the “cap” from the tops of the ribs using a sharp knife. Depending on where you buy your meat, it may have a layer of silverskin on one side. This is fairly easily removed: insert a sharp knife between the silverskin and the flat part of the bone on one end of the ribs, work it off from the edges, and firmly pull it away from the meat. It should come off in a single long strip.
- Make your rub by combining all ingredients. As noted below, you can either apply the rub to the meat the night before or a few hours before you start cooking.
- Prepare your barbecue sauce. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius), slice the top 1/4 inch off the end of your head of garlic, drizzle a little olive oil over the top, wrap the whole thing in foil, and roast for about 30 minutes or until soft. While your garlic is roasting, in a heavy-bottomed pan, slowly caramelize the sliced onion in the olive oil until soft. Stir in the cider vinegar and then the remaining ingredients, and simmer, uncovered. When your garlic is ready, pop out the softened bulbs and add to the sauce, and continue to simmer for about another 45 minutes to an hour. Purée using the immersion blender until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Remember that your meat will get a little extra sweetness from the crutch, so the sauce doesn’t need to be too TOO sweet.
- Now you’re ready to start cooking! Get your smoker up to 225 degrees Fahrenheit (107 degrees Celsius) and add plenty of wet or green wood to get some good smoke going. Rub the ribs liberally with the barbecue rub (you can also do this the night before), and place the racks directly on the grill. Smoke for about three to four hours, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65.5 degrees Celsius). Again, give yourself time and room for error; it may take a little longer, depending on your smoker, the thickness of your rack, or other variables.
- It’s time to crutch! Spread out a big sheet of heavy duty aluminium foil – enough to wrap the ribs on both sides with room to spare. Sprinkle chunks of butter on the foil, and then sprinkle half of the brown sugar. Lay the rack of ribs over this mixture, sprinkle on the remaining brown sugar, and wrap and seal completely. Return the ribs to the smoker and continue to cook for about another 45 minutes to an hour. Open the foil and continue to cook for another 30 minutes.
- Your ribs are done if they have a nice soft flex to them, but are not so soft that they’re falling apart. This is about texture. You don’t want mushy ribs. Before you remove the ribs from the smoker, heat the barbecue sauce. Open the foil, paint the ribs liberally with the sauce on both sides, and then immediately rewrap so the meat can rest. Allow the meat to rest for a good 30 minutes at least.
- When you’re ready to serve, separate the ribs from one another using a sharp knife and paint with more barbecue sauce. Serve with extra barbecue sauce on the side.
Remember: figure on one pound of ribs per person.