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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 04:18 pm

Barbecue ribs

Go low and slow, and don’t forget to brine the meat

Untitled Document Do you have any suggestions for making barbecued ribs? Every time I’ve tried, they end up tough, dry, or both. — Ted
It’s all too easy to end up with dry, tough ribs. A couple of cooking principles, however, can make the difference between succulent, mouthwatering ribs and ones that are so chewy, you can gnaw on them forever but still need a sip of beer or other liquid to wash them down. Brining — Brining is placing meat in a salt solution for a period of time. Sugar and other flavorings are often added as well. Brining is used most often with meats such as chicken, turkey, and pork that easily become dry when cooked. I’m a huge fan of brining. Since I started using the technique, I almost never cook poultry or pork without brining it first. Done properly, it doesn’t make the meat any saltier than if it were normally sprinkled with salt before cooking, just juicier and tastier.
Though you might think that soaking something in salted water would draw moisture out, exactly the opposite happens. The reason involves two laws of chemistry, diffusion and osmosis, which deal with the need for the concentration of a substance to be the same on both sides of a semipermeable membrane. When meat is placed in brine, the concentration of salt is greater outside the meat than inside its cells. According to the law of diffusion, the salt will naturally flow from the brine into the meat. Osmosis acts similarly to bring water from the brine into the meat. Additionally, once the salt is inside the cells, it causes their proteins to unravel, or denature. When the individual proteins unravel, they interact with each other, forming a sticky matrix that captures and holds moisture. When the matrix is exposed to heat, it jells, forming a barrier that keeps moisture from leaking out as the meat cooks.
Low and slow is the way to go — One of the things that makes ribs — as well as other cuts of meat such as beef chuck and pork shoulder roasts — so delicious is the amount of connective tissue, which contains lots of natural gelatin. When these substances are subjected to intense high heat, however, they seize up and tighten, making the meat tough and sometimes inedibly chewy. If, instead, these cuts are cooked for a long time at a relatively low temperature, the connective tissues and collagens relax and the gelatin flows into the meat, making it succulent and adding additional flavor. Barbecue master Steven Raichlen recommends indirect heat for ribs. If you’re interested in learning more about barbecuing and grilling, you couldn’t do better than to watch Raichlen’s public-television show Barbecue University (it usually turns up seasonally on local PBS channels) or buy his grilling/barbecuing cookbooks. Indirect heat is great for ribs. It involves building a charcoal fire on one side of a grill and placing the meat on the other or, alternatively, lighting just one side of a gas grill. As always, grilling with real charcoal gives the best flavor, but sometimes the convenience of gas is hard to beat — and unless you’re an expert it can be easier to regulate the heat. Place the ribs on the unlit/off side of the barbecue and add the smoking wood of your choice to the coals. If your smoker/grill has a thermometer, try for a temperature of 200 to 250 degrees. The cooking time varies, depending on the temperature, but the bones should pull easily away from the meat. Plan on at least two hours and possibly more.
There’s a third way to ensure great ribs, but I’m a bit hesitant to suggest it, because it’s regarded as absolute heresy — cheating, actually — by barbecue enthusiasts. Yes, it might be fudging things somewhat, but it’s foolproof, and I especially like to use it when I’m feeding a crowd. Smoke the ribs — still over very low indirect heat — intensely (adding smoking chips/wood to keep the smoke constant) for 30 to 45 minutes, then place them in a single layer in a large pan. Cover the pan tightly with foil, place it in a 150-degree oven, and bake for two or more hours or until the meat is tender. Brush the ribs with sauce and return then to the grill, cooking until the sauce and meat are just slightly browned and caramelized.

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Though regular table salt can be used, kosher salt is best for brining — in fact, the process of brining is also known as koshering. Kosher salt is preferred because it doesn’t contain iodine or anti-caking ingredients. Because kosher salt is flaked instead of ground, it varies in weight and so must be adjusted appropriately to the brining formula. Diamond Crystal kosher salt, the “gold star” of kosher salts, is preferred by many chefs. The proportion used for brining is 1 cup per gallon of water. Morton kosher salt is the brand most widely available locally; 3/4 cup per gallon water should be used. Regular table salt is twice as salty as Diamond Crystal; use just 1/2 cup per gallon. Sugar provides some sweetness and, more important, browning and seasoning properties. Use 1/2 cup per gallon of water.
A wide variety of aromatics — herbs and spices — can be used to infuse the meat with flavor. Garlic, onions, herbs, and spices can be geared to coordinate with the rest of the meal and any sauce to be brushed on the meat. Just be sure not to use anything that contains additional salt. To bring out their flavor, cover the herbs and spices with water, bring them to a boil, and then cool them to room temperature before adding them to the brine.
How much brine to use depends on the amount of ribs involved, but they should be submerged in it. A large nonreactive pot works well, but I like to use large resealable plastic bags. Any amount of time that the ribs spend in the brine will be beneficial, but the ideal is four hours to overnight. Any longer, and the ribs will start to have a “cured” flavor and texture, like ham — still good but different from traditional ribs. Liquids other than water can be used to give the brine extra flavor; I use pineapple, orange, or apple juice or, especially with pork or fried chicken, buttermilk.
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