Rib questions answered

The article on cooking ribs had only been out for a few days and I am already getting questions, mostly, on how long to cook the ribs (visit TheTahoeWeekly.com to read the column). However, there were some other questions, as well, so I want to see if I can clear things up a bit.

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Packaging matters

First, I’ll address the cooking times because after I re-read the article, I could understand the confusion. The cooking times will vary between 3 and 8 hours depending on the thickness of the ribs, and the packaging of the ribs can be an indication to the meatiness of the ribs.

It needs to be rendered down enough to make the meat melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s why you want to cook low and slow for hours.

The first time that I cooked the ribs, I used ribs that were prepackaged in the seam-sealed packaging, which I have to admit was a first. The only time I buy pork ribs or beef ribs is when they are on sale and are freshly cut at the store. They are not in cryovac packaging, but rather placed on a Styrofoam platter and wrapped tightly with plastic wrap. I can see just how meaty they are which dictates whether I’ll buy them or not. The ribs I got for that test were huge, meaty racks. The cryovac-packaged ribs had so little meat on them, I didn’t bother to cut them into individual ribs. Even as a rack, they only took between 4 and 5 hours.

Low & slow

The only time I go the full 8 hours is when I’m using the roasting pan and water at low heat for fall-off-the-bone ribs or with big beef ribs. The main thing to remember is to start checking after half the time has gone by.

This is a great excuse to give the ribs a good basting, and you will get a good idea of how close the ribs are to being fully cooked. Think of it this way: When you cook a steak, the meat can be done in 10 to 15 minutes depending on how thick it is and how you like it cooked. But, that steak is being cooked at high heat and doesn’t have any of the sinewy tissues you find in ribs.

READ MORE: Chef Smitty’s Chinese-style spareribs recipe

Now think of the ribs. There is a lot of connective tissue connecting the meat to the bones. This tissue is what can make ribs so chewy and even tough. It needs to be rendered down enough to make the meat melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s why you want to, when possible, cook low and slow for hours.

Leaving the ribs as full racks can also make it easier to get a consistent doneness because by cutting them into individual pieces, you can end up with different sizes, depending on how accurate you are with the knife, which will lead to differing doneness times.

On the grill

I was also asked if it’s possible to cook low and slow using indirect heat on a small Weber charcoal grill. Yes, but the temperature is going to be the tricky part. You need to put an oven thermometer in there or have a good idea of just how little heat 220 F to 225 F degrees is. You want to use just a little charcoal and add to it as the charcoal burns out. This means you have to keep constant vigil.

READ MORE: Methods for cooking ribs

As for the indirect heat, those tiny grills are tough to keep meat on one side and charcoal on the other or meat in the middle and charcoal ringing the outside, which is possible for bigger grills. Instead, use a sheet pan with a wire rack that you would use to cool a cake on top of the pan. Be sure to wrap your pan all the way around with foil so you don’t ruin it for later use. This same setup can be used on a single-burner gas grill.

Using a roasting pan

The last question was why use a roasting pan with a roasting rack instead of just wrapping the sheet pan with foil when cooking low and slow with water. The answer is to keep the foil off the meat and out of the water. There are times when the acid of certain rubs and sauces can oxidize the foil and you can see flakes of foil on the meat.

I hope this clears things up. All ovens and grills are a little different as to actual temperatures and cooking, so start checking about halfway through what you guess to be your time until done. Use the recipe as a guide and do not follow it to the letter. The same can be said for cooking times. Use the sheet pan wrapped in foil and the wire rack for indirect heat on small grills. Cook on.