Backyard: Fire

In recognition of yet-another-local-lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, I'm doing a week of feature blog posts about living in the backyard. From May 10th through 16th, my posts will be themed around life outdoors but as close to home as possible, a few steps out the back door.

It’s been about a month since I settled on my backyard firepit solution but I haven’t said much about the pit itself save for posting a few photos of the results of my outdoor cooking efforts.

My upgrade from a simple steel fire bowl was an effort to find a backyard firepit that answered a number of questions:

How much was I willing to spend?

My initial research had led me to a company out East who build custom iron fire pits. I corresponded with their sales guys for about a week back and forth, negotiating a price, but at the end of the day I wasn’t going to be able to get what I wanted AND have it shipped across the country without spending well over a thousand dollars. I’m all for good quality, but knowing that I also needed to spend some money on firewood and other supplies, that was pushing the budget into the neighbourhood of $1500 which was substantially more than I wanted to spend. I landed on something on the slightly-fancy end of the box-store firepit selection.

How much of my yard was I willing to convert to a permanent fire pit?

A couple months ago I was still debating the question of whether or not to install a permanent firepit in the yard. Given fire regulations and safety considerations, there were a couple candidate spots in the middle of my lawn that were possible locations for this… but only a couple. I was really deciding on what was more important out my backdoor: a fire pit or an open lawn. The compromise was a firepit that could be relocated, moved, or even stored. I have the sense that it will stay in roughly the same space for the rest of this summer, but going with the portable solution avoided major landscaping efforts and converting a part of my yard into “the firepit” forever.

Could I cook on it?

I dug around the internet looking for solutions to my cooking dilemma. I found tripods upon which I could hang a camp oven. I read the reviews of wire racks and iron grates. I contemplated the effort to build a stand-alone spit that I could pound into the soil and from which I could suspend my culinary creations. Ultimately, the firepit I discovered was a single unit that was a cylindrical fire bowl with a notched holder for two included demi-circle cast iron grill attachments. One of those grills is a grated grill, while the other one is a solid half circle of smooth cast iron joy. These both provide direct cooking surfaces but also as somewhere to rest a pan or Dutch oven above or near the fire.

A month after bringing home and setting up my new fire pit I’ve stoked at least five backyard cookouts, seasoned my grills, and begun to seriously dabble in open fire cooking… right in my own backyard.

And oh man, are the neighbours ever getting jealous.

a’la plancha

It’s Friday afternoon and it turns out that you really can learn something new every day. For example, while I was reading a new e-book that I had downloaded I also learned a new cast iron word.

In fact, last night I was sitting in the truck waiting for my daughter to finish her dancing class for the night and was skimming through a PDF of The Backyard Fire Cookbook by Linda Ly (which you can pick up for a few bucks in this month’s Humble Bundle by the way… tho only if you’re reading this in May 2021. No affiliation.)

The author’s introduction noted that (in her opinion) cooking over a campfire required three foundational pieces of cast iron: a dutch oven, a big pan, and a plancha.

Pause.

I’ll admit. That was a new word for me: plancha.

So, of course, I temporarily closed the PDF, swiped open a browser window, and Google’d it.

… to which a confusing selection of advertisements for griddles appeared on my screen.

Um.

As it turns out the English translation for what turns out to be the Spanish word plancha is iron.

More specifically, and digging through more sites helped me discover this, the word plancha in reference to a cooking tool is a flat, iron griddle with shallow sides.

Or, a big flat hunk of cast iron… and what I would have up until last night called a griddle.

Even Google knew better.

Not that griddle is a great word. I have a round griddle. I also have reversible griddle with grooves on one side and a flat smooth pancake-friendly surface on the other. I’ve a got a small griddle I put in my barbecue. And I even have an electric griddle (which I will mention as little as possible going forward.) Lots of griddles that have multiple different meanings even in my own kitchen.

Plancha may be a new word for me, but it suits the specificity of the kind of griddle-like pan I tend to prefer: an oblong, squarish piece of flat iron that has a bit of a lip to keep the food from slipping off but is otherwise a big broad cooking surface.

So. Friday afternoon and I have a new word to help me talk about one of my favourite topics. How’s your week going?

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!