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.
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!