Backyard Ribs: Part Two, The Cook Up

This past Saturday morning I woke up at 6am and (after letting the dog out and setting the coffee to brew) I went to work making dinner. That is to say, I peeled open a family pack of pork ribs and mixed up a dry rub.

I wrote about it in part one of this article, an article that concluded unsatisfyingly with said ribs being wrapped in plastic and left in the fridge to rest.

The results, and admittedly my first attempt to cook something as delicate and finicky as ribs on an open campfire, were decidedly mixed.

The Cook

Here’s how things went down between the application of the rub and the parade of meat to the kitchen table.

The ribs rested for about seven hours in the fridge with the rub. Dinner plans, the clock, and impatience go the best of me, and I extracted the experiment around 330pm.

Foil-wrapped and suspended on a wire rack over a baking sheet, the whole batch went into the oven on 250F for two hours. I had debated on the full outdoor cook approach versus the oven/fire mix and decided for my first attempt I’d focus on fire-smoked finish over battling with raw pork outdoors. Plus the weather had started to look a bit sketchy.

At about 430 I set up the outdoor fire in the pit. This gave me lots of time to not only get some nice hot coals built up in the floor of the bowl, but I was able to run another full round of seasoning on the two cast iron grill plates that came with the fire pit. I’ll write about that later.

Around 530, I pulled the ribs from the oven, brought them outside and started the finish cook over the fire.

What Went Wrong?

First, let me just say again that I was working off a lot of foundational cooking approaches here. I didn’t do a lot of research, made a few assumptions that I assumed would translate between gas grill and open flame, and got a little stubborn about sauce. Much of the advice out there is geared for people with expensive smokers or equipment I just don’t have… yet.

So what went wrong?

For one, the ribs had a lot more fat than I was expecting. I’m not sure if it was meat quality or if I should have knifed in a little better at 6am to trim some of the visible white stuff. I was hoping more of it would render off during the oven cook, but not everything did. As a result, the drippings would almost continuously fall into the lovely glowing coals below and flare into a small grease flame. At one point I actually moved the fire over so it was not directly below the ribs and tried to work off radiant heat but even the heat from the fire pit floor was causing flare ups. Suggestions for improvement came in the form of a comment on one of the photos I posted to a family chat where my father suggested using yellow mustard as a pre-coat to the dry rub. “It’s what the pros do to avoid flare ups.” He offered.

The texture also wasn’t great. I was hoping for something closer to the tender meat one associates with ribs, but again, either something was off in my cook or the quality of the meat just wasn’t as high as I’d hoped. The results were a little bit chewier than I planned. This may require a little more prep of the meat for next time, an examination of my slow cooking approach, or just springing for some better quality meat.

Another flaw was moisture. The rub provided a nice flavour, but a bit of char and my reluctance to cover up the rub flavour with a cheap barbecue sauce meant that the final results were on the crunchy and dry side. Next time I’m going to plan for a sauce or a glaze (but not one that comes from a bottle.)

What Went Right?

All that said, the meat was actually not terrible. It wasn’t the knock-your-socks-off-amazing was hoping for, but a solid 7 out of 10, family restaurant quality rib meal.

Apart from the dryness, the rub brought a very nice flavour to the table. I’m catering to a spectrum of tastes, from my own personal like-it-spicy preference, to a teenage daughter who turns her nose at any spices that stray from basic salt-and-pepper or plain garlic toast levels. Compliments on that front all-round.

Also the meat was cooked evenly. I have a probe thermometer that is one of those how-did-I-live-without-this tools and I made sure that the meat was actually cooked through to the appropriate temperature before serving. The mix of oven cook and fire finish helped no one get food poisoning. High praise for any meal, huh?

It’s still barely May and the outdoor cooking season is barely begun.

I’m loving my outdoor firepit and the bit of suburban firecraft I’m able to take on out my back door. Not every cook out is going to be amazing, but as I told my wife while we nibbled our fire-cooked ribs on Saturday evening, practice makes perfect and by the end of this summer I’m going to make sure I’ve had a lot of practice. Stay tuned!

Backyard Ribs: Part One, The Rub

It’s the first Saturday in May and I woke up to a clear blue sky and a weather forecast that was begging for a day outdoors.

It’s always a gamble, of course, to plan twelve hours ahead of your cooking time for a backyard grill, particularly something as elaborate as a fire smoking some pork ribs. The rain could appear over the horizon and soak the suburbs. The weather could turn cold on a dime still this early in the season. Or the wind could push through and make building a fire a hurculean feat.

I took the gamble, though.

I had my reasons for stopping by a new local grocery store last night and a big one point five kilogram pack of ribs caught my eye. “I’m making ribs on the fire tomorrow.” I told my wife as stocked up the fridge with my purchases upon returning home.

“Oooh. Yum!” She replied.

“I’m also making it up as I go along.” I told her.

That got a less enthusiastic response.

I’ve never grilled ribs over an open fire, so tonight is going to be an adventure. It’s a new-to-me process, but makes use of lots of practiced skills that add up to what I hope will be a success. So, I’ll start with what I know, a basic dry rub and about eight hours in the fridge to let it season up a bit.

Dry Rub Recipe

60ml brown sugar
15ml salt
15ml ground black pepper
15ml paprika
30ml garlic powder
30ml onion powder
10ml ground celery seed
10ml ground mustard
10ml cumin

I spread this evenly on the washed and dried ribs. There was enough in this batch for about 2kg of meat, so I had a little bit left over when everything had been generously coated and wrapped.

Dry rubs have a couple of positive features I’m looking for in their use: Flavour. Tenderizing. Simplicty. And more, I’m sure.

I don’t have much room in the fridge for a big old marinade right now, either, and we’ve been trying to cut back on single-use plastic like large zip bags (he writes as he posts a photo of cling wrap on his countertop.)

But for more important results, back to things like flavour and texture. If you look at the recipe, for example, this particular rub has a solid tablespoon of salt. Eight hours resting in that much salt has an effect on the meat that is essentially a preliminary cure. It’s not going to make this into a true cure of the meat, but it will start to draw some of the moisture from the tissue and will have a tenderizing effect on the final texture.

My basic rub recipe also has a lot of sugar. Partly, it’s there to even out the spices. Literally. The sugar is a good way to bulk up the rub and make sure it spreads evenly across the meat and doesn’t concentrate too much of the spice unevenly as my untrained hands dash it across the raw flesh. Also, while I’ll add a sauce when I put these over the fire, that sugar in the rub will be the start of the carmelization during the first exposure to heat that will crank up the sticky sweet flavour many people associate with ribs.

The cooking of these gorgeous hunks of meat will happen later today, and I’ll photograph and post the results in the upcoming part two.

For now, cross your fingers for that weather holding out!

Caged Flame

It was Saturday afternoon and for the first time in a week there was nary a spot of snow in my backyard.

We had some pork loin marinating in the refrigerator and my wife was all “I was just going to cook it in the oven but if it’s nice enough out there you could barbecue.”

“Or I could try it over a fire.” I offered.

“You could.” She was skeptical. “But you’re the one who has to sit out there and tend to it.”

Despite the snow there have been a number of fire restrictions in place across the prairies.

No open fires. No fireworks. But carefully tended pits are fine… provided certain rules are followed.

Rules, such as using a fire screen cover atop your fire pit.

Caging your flames.

I cracked open a beer as the fire burned to a good base of hot coals. I’ve been working my way through a Grizzly Paw sampler pack since we visited the mountains last month and I picked up the beer right there at the microbrewery in Canmore.

This afternoon’s selection was called the Three Sisters Pale Ale, named for the triple peak mountain range that stands guard over the townsite below, down where the beer is brewed.

It was a fitting spring drink to complement the first burn of the new batch of firewood and a reward for hauling a cubic meter of logs from my driveway to the storage space behind the shed earlier this week.

Let’s also call it the small makeup drink from the alcohol-free hangover I endured on Thursday, the morning after joining club AstraZenenca and priming up my immune system against a future COVID invasion. No regrets, but that vaccine wasn’t giving free rides to many.

My caged flames burned down to a smoky bed of embers and I cautiously added a bit more wood and some charcoal to maintain the heat level.

My low-smoke firepit and the so-called clean burning cedar is belching smoke into the neighbourhood and likely annoying my neighbours.

I should really focus. Tend those wild flames and pay a little less attention to my can of cold, crisp pale ale brewed in the mountains.

I should. It’s fine though.

“The smoke smells kinda nice.” My wife says as she comes outside to check on the progress of the cook and his fire. “Better than that pine we had before.”

“I guess.” I say, but smoke is smoke even if it smells less bad than other smoke.

I would just invite the neighbours over for a beer. No one minds smoke as much with a beer in their hand. But that vaccine doesn’t really kick in for a couple more weeks and even more restrictive than the local fire rules are the pandemic ones.

The pork loin hits the hot cast iron grates and the sizzling, spicy sounds fill the backyard and for a few minutes as I turn and prod and manage the heat against raw flesh I forget. Forget it all.

The smoke.

The neighbourhood.

The disease ravaging the world.

The cage is off, the flame unleashed, so that I can just cook.

Suburban Fire Craft (Part Two)

Back in early March I introduced my readers to my simmering big plans to upgrade my backyard fire pit set up.

For years we’ve not made campfires in our backyard a priority, mostly because we could go camping any time we wanted and evenings in the city were otherwise filled with social visits and travel. Backyard campfires were an occasional indulgence.

For half a decade we have had a small fire bowl which for basic purposes allowed us to have a small marshmallow-roasting fire in the backyard if we wanted, and I kept a bit of wood in the shed for a those handful of evenings a year when we kindled a flicker-filled gathering out our back door.

But the prospect of another summer of limited camping and sidelined travel plans… blah, blah, blah. You know the story. You’re all living it, too.

Since that post, I’ve made some purchases and done some setup work. Last night it all came together for an innagural (if small and simple) backyard cookout involving some sausages, marshmallows, and a beautiful evening watching the sunset beside some glowing coals.

First, I bought the family a new movable fire pit. It’s a much more elaborate setup than our old bowl, though. It’s a side-vented deep body steel fire pit, with a removable tray for charcoal burning, and two cast iron grill plate attachements. I can either cook on the grills directly, or it’s strong enough to hold a pan or a small dutch oven atop.

Second, I bought some cooking fuel in the form of both charcoal and smoking pellets. The tray insert allows us to have simple grilling fires which (unlike the gas grill we often use for backyard “barbecues”) is a more authentic cooking-over-fire option we now have.

Third, I stocked up on wood. Not only did my coworker chop down a bank of aging trees in her backyard and provide me with a few good chopping stumps and a truck full of logs, but I ordered a cubic meter of firewood from a local supplier, dried and ready for a summer of backyard fires.

Summer isn’t quite here, but I’m officially ready to tackle it with flame and iron… right in my own backyard.