First things first. I have to do this because there are a lot of people out there who call something barbecue when they’re really missing out on the essential element of real barbecue. There are many different definitions and usages for the word “barbecue”. You may disagree with me, but here is the one I use:
bar-be-cue (bär‘bĭ-kyū’) (also spelled "barbeque”, “bar-b-q”, “bbq”, “’cue” or simply “Q”)
n.: Meat cooked in the heat and smoke of a wood or coal fire.
v.: A method of cooking meat over a wood or coal fire.
I see a lot of recipes out there for “barbecue” ribs which call for slathering the ribs with barbecue sauce and then grilling them on a gas grill. Worse, there are so-called “barbecue” recipes which call for boiling the ribs first and then drowning them in sauce while baking them in an oven. I just think these are shortcuts to making tender ribs but cannot compare to the true taste of barbecue that only wood smoke and time can impart.
In order to test this theory, I made plans to cook pork spareribs using these three different methods, to see which one tasted better than the others. With the weather starting to warm up here in San Jose, I pitched our plan for the Ultimate Rib Showdown as a Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event, and Foodbuzz accepted our submission! We invited FoodGal Carolyn Jung and Michael from Cooking for Engineers, along with their respective spouses, plus some other friends over to our house. Their job was to taste and score the ribs cooked with the different methods. Then we’d tally up the scores and see which one came out on top.
Which rib cooking method is the best? Boiled, grilled or smoked?
On Friday night, I mixed together a rib rub using a recipe I found on Fine Cooking by Paul “the Barbecue Baron” Kirk. I deviated from the recipe a bit, using granulated garlic and onion instead of the garlic salt and onion salt that the recipe called for. I also prepared the barbecue sauce recipe found on the same page.
Saturday morning, we went to Costco to pick up ten slabs of pork spareribs. We got them home, and prepped them “St. Louis style” by pulling the membrane off the insides of the ribs, and cutting the flap meat and the rib tips off. Each slab was then cut in half. I coated six of the slabs of pork spareribs with the rib rub and set them aside.
Two uncoated slabs went in a large stock pot, covered with water, and simmered them for 45 minutes. Then I pulled the ribs from the water and let them cool before coating them with the same rib rub as the others. At about 5 pm, I put the boiled ribs in a 350*F oven and baked them for one hour.
Four of the rubbed slabs went in my trusty Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, along with two more slabs prepared using my tried-and-true salt and pepper rub. I used mesquite lump charcoal for the heat and cherry wood for the smoke. The temperature in the WSM maintained a steady 250*F throughout the cook. I did not baste, turn or even peek during the entire 4 hour cook.
Pork Spareribs in the Weber Smokey Mountain
The remaining two rubbed slabs went bone-side down in the center of the gas grill, with only one side burner set to medium. This gave a constant 250*F temperature in the grill. For smoke, I used maple wood chips wrapped in a foil packet and placed over the lit burner. After two hours, I flipped the ribs over and replenished the wood chips.
Pork Spareribs on the Gas Grill
To Summarize the Cook:
- Eight slabs of pork spareribs were coated with the same rib rub recipe
- Two slabs were boiled for 45 minutes, coated with the rib rub, then baked
- Two slabs were grilled
- Four slabs were smoked
- Two slabs got my “salt and pepper” rub and then smoked
I felt that this test of rib recipes needed a “standard” recipe. Something that represented what people could find if they went to a barbecue joint here in town. There aren’t a lot of barbecue joints here in San Jose, though. The most popular by far is Sam’s Bar-B-Que on Bascom Rd in nearby Campbell. But they didn’t have pork spareribs on their takeout menu.
Texas Smokehouse BBQ does sell pork spareribs to go. I checked them out on Yelp.com, where they have a solid 4-star rating. I’d never been there before but since it was closer than any other barbecue joint, I decided to try them out. I called them up and ordered a slab (with sauce on the side)for pickup at 3 pm.
The first thing I notice is that these aren’t St. Louis cut. They give you the whole slab, including the rib tips.
Pork Spareribs from Texas Smokehouse BBQ
The grilled ones came off first, at about 3.5 hours of cooking time. How do you tell when the ribs are ready? When you hold them with the tongs and they bend loosely, almost to the point of breaking.
Grilled Pork Sparereibs are Done When they Bend
Next came the smoked ribs. Four hours in the smoker leaves the meat with a nice red bark. The bones are starting to pull back and most of the fat has rendered off.
Smoked Pork Spareribs on the Weber Smokey Mountain
Last to come off were the baked spareribs. They certainly smelled good while they were roasting. Not much fat had accumulated in the bottom of the pan, since most of it was boiled off in the water beforehand.
Boiled and Baked Pork Spareribs Out From the Oven
The Freak Out
We cut each slab into individual rib portions and plated them up. Of course, we had to test each rib for “quality control” purposes. Each tasted different, but Annie noticed that something was not right. “It’s not salty enough,” she said.
Remember when I said that I deviated from the recipe by using straight granulated garlic and onion instead of the garlic salt and onion salt that the recipe called for? Well I forgot to add back the missing salt. So the rub ended up being unbalanced on the sweet side.
Annie freaked out. “You didn’t put any salt?!”
“The recipe doesn’t call for salt!”
“There’s no way that a meat recipe doesn’t have salt.” She looked the recipe up and noticed that the ingredient list said garlic salt and onion salt and celery salt. “There is salt in this! You just didn’t add it! We can’t serve this! It won’t taste good! You just screwed up your own showdown! Aaaaah!”
“Stop being so negative! It’s done, so what can we do to fix it?” I grabbed the canister of Morton’s table salt. “Let’s just salt it now with this.”
“No, let’s use the kosher salt instead.”
So we sprinkled all our slabs with kosher salt, covered the platters with foil, and hoped for the best.
The Set Up
Before the guests arrived, I set out the four platters of ribs, and labeled them A, B, C and D:
Ultimate Rib Showdown: Pork Spareribs Cooked Four Ways
When everyone had arrived and were all ready to eat, I explained to them what we were about to do. Each person would get a plate, a pencil, and a scoring sheet.
(I made this scoring sheet up based on my research into how barbecue competitions are judged and scored.)
They were here to taste and judge four ribs, cooked with different styles. I didn’t tell them which rib was cooked with which style. And then, we all got to eating and scoring.
Scoring the Pork Spareribs
When everyone had finished scoring, we could relax and start talking. I revealed which ribs were cooked which way:
B. Texas Smokehouse BBQ
C. Boiled and Baked
The Texas Smokehouse BBQ ribs were a dead giveaway because they were obviously a different cut, and also there was only one slab’s worth of ribs on the platter instead of two. Interestingly, everyone agreed that the Texas Smokehouse ribs were not very good.
Some people thought that the grilled ribs were boiled, and vice versa. Either the tenderness of the grilled ribs threw them off, or the flavor on the boiled ribs fooled them.
People were surprised when I revealed that all of my ribs were coated with the same rub. The ribs tasted differently, depending on how they were cooked. They thought I used different rubs for the different methods.
When all was said and done, we went inside to eat the rest of the meal, including a fantastic cornbread made by Annie (which we will blog about in another post), a sublime potato salad made by Carolyn, a wonderful bean salad by our friend Betty, and two awesome pavlovas by our friend Felicia. Not to mention the ethereal 2004 Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz brought by Manuel. We had a great time just talking about food and life in general.
Midway through the meal, I tallied up all the scores. I’m happy to say, there was a clear winner and a clear loser. In fact, the scores fell pretty much in line with what I expected. Although, two of the scores were closer than I would have thought.
So, which rib won the Ultimate Rib Showdown? Does Smoked stand out above the rest? Did Grilled burn the competition? Or will Boiled and Baked put out the others’ fires?
You’ll have to read our next post to find out