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AWARD WINNING SMOKED RIBS
Everyone loves smoked ribs but what you love at home may not necessarily work when you go to enter them in your first barbecue contest as I learned very early on in my competition days. Here's the story of how I got starting in BBQ contests, some tips that I learned for cooking competition smoked ribs, and my recipe for award winning ribs.
When I first started competing in 2003 as team Smoke In Da Eye, I was certain that my backyard recipes were good enough to hold their own among the seasoned veterans on the circuit.
I had been attending the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest since 1999, collecting valuable tips and techniques from as many competitors as were willing to lend their insight.
Around the same time, I stumbled across BBQ-Brethren.com, an online forum dedicated to swapping recipes, tips and a whole lot of BS. It was there that I discovered a contest in my own backyard (not literally but pretty darn close!). I assembled a small team of family and friends, loaded up everything I could possibly find that was barbecue and grilling related including a small pig and my pig cooking box, and hit the road to Belmont Racetrack in Bellmore, NY.
The competition was fierce with the local Brethren and the New England BBQ Society contingent dominating the grilling contest (I opted to keep it simple and save my inaugural KCBS brisket, chicken, ribs and pork shoulder/pork butt/pork picnic contest for another rain-doused weekend), though we did manage to break the top 10 in a few categories.
And while I walked away disappointed, the experience that I gained was worth all of the sleepless nights that got me out of the backyard and in to the fire on that hot, hot weekend all of those years and contests ago.
In the spirit of the competition barbecue family (and hopefully encouraging other backyard grillers to jump in to the game at least once), here’s a few tips for perfecting my favorite category – competition ribs - plus my actual recipe that has yielded countless trophies. When adapting your home rib recipe for competition, keep in mind that (1) you'll want to go heavy on flavor (thus the extra ingredients when wrapping the ribs) as judges will only take 1-2 bites and (2) fall-off-the-bone ribs are considered overdone (instead you want to be able to take a bite and see clean bone without the rest of the meat coming off).
AWARD WINNING SMOKED BBQ RIBS
1) Stockpile charcoal. Home Depot and Lowe’s have AMAZING deals on Kingsford charcoal during Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends and without the charcoal and/or wood at most sanctioned contests, you’re guaranteed a DAL (aka Dead A$$ Last) finish.
2) Select your favorite smoking wood (I prefer 4-6 small chunks of cherry wood)
3) Selecting ribs. I love cooking and eating baby back ribs, but unless it is a grilling contest in which cooking time can be short, I tend to stick to spare ribs as they more often than not keep me in the top 10.
4) Prepping the ribs. Doing your first contest is stressful enough so why add additional pressure by trimming your meats on-site? Note that your meat will be inspected before you can do anything so bring proof that the ribs haven’t been enhanced for juiciness and that any additional rubs, injections (yes, there are plenty of folks that inject butter and other flavor enhancers in to ribs and God bless ‘em as long as it continues to do right by them!) are left for after you get the “all clear.”
5) K.I.S.S. How much equipment do you really need to cook a couple (or four in my case) racks of ribs? In addition to the basics like a canopy and racket straps and plastic water jugs (to weight down the canopy if and when the rain and winds starts picking up), I use:
1. A single bullet style smoker
2. A single kettle grill for finishing/saucing the ribs
3. Two six foot tables with adjustable legs for my 6’3” frame and a smaller table for a wash and rinse station (required by the Board of Health)
4. A meat thermometer (required by the Board of Health)
5. A fire extinguisher (required)
6. A couple pairs of tongs in case one pair is missing or is dirty
7. A very sharp boning knife
8. Two cutting boards or disposable cutting boards to avoid cross contamination
9. Some food safe gloves (required by the Board of Health and available at any restaurant supply store or from a friend in the professional, competition, or farmer’s market cooking game)
10. 4 “bus tubs” (black or grey tubs with optional lids used by busboys to bus tables at a restaurant), 3 for the wash-bleach rinse-wash station and one for seasoning the ribs (note, I often use the lids to move ribs to and from the smoker grill)
11. A sauce brush (if you opt to use brushes with natural bristles, be VERY aware of stay strands which can end up in the sauce and result in a 1 in appearance as it is a foreign object. Same goes for small pieces of foil, toothpicks or a thermometer)
12. Scissors for trimming the green leaf lettuce or parsley garnish (more on that below)
13. A single long wooden skewer (used to push stray lettuce in to the turn-in clamshell once it is closed)
14. A clock or watch that has a working battery so that you can ensure your time is on par with when they say your food needs to be turned in
6) Shop smart. As with equipment, you don’t need more than what you will actually use at the contest. One cooler for non-meat essentials like garnish (if required) and beverages and a second one for raw meat.
1. Ribs (I always cook 4 racks so that I have options when it comes time to select the best 8 or so ribs for the turn-in box)
2. Foil (!!!) for wrapping midway through the cook
3. A binding agent (mustard in the case of the recipe below but I now prefer mayonnaise as it's basically nothing but fat and fat is good!)
5. a butter substitute that comes in stick form or in a squeeze bottle
6. a sweetener like honey or Agave syrup plus brown sugar
7. Barbecue sauce. I use KC Masterpiece original that has been modified by adding natural cherry juice, chipotle powder and one or two other ingredients.
8. Lettuce or parsley. I have done exactly one parsley box in my life and I intend to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. (There are masters out there with some great tips for doing them faster but I’m determined to keep the dying art form of lettuce boxes alive for as long as possible)
9. Two extra cans of adult or non-adult beverages for your turn-in box (I learned somewhere early on that the two cans create a perfect indention in the garnish in which the meat can rest comfortably. Simply prepare your garnish then set the cans side-by-side in the center to create the indention)
7) Arrive early and ask plenty of questions. Organizers and teams are always willing to help out new teams so take advantage of their knowledge and guidance.
8) Rub down the ribs and start the fire. I use the Minion method for starting and maintaining a 225-250 degree fire for the entire cook time. Start with the much recommended 3-2-1 method of cooking (3 hours of smoking, 2 hours wrapped, 1 hour rest in an empty cooler or other container) and adjust as needed once you get a better feel for how your ribs cook in a competition setting. These days I tend to cook my ribs the same way the are outlined in the recipe below with 3.5 hours on the smoker; 1.5 hours wrapped with butter and sweeteners (this addition of flavor helps to create the "perfect bite" for judges who are using only taking one or two tastes of your finished product); and 20 minutes back on the smoker unwrapped. Keep in mind that despite the common misconception that ribs should be "fall-off-the-bone," judges are actually looking for ones that provide a clean bit without all of the meat coming off.
9) Attend the cook’s meeting, at least the first time. This will insure you have all of the turn-in times and rules down pat and you will also receive your 10x10 Styrofoam box (double check your team number and the one on the top of the box otherwise you’ll be cooking some amazing ribs for some other team. Also keep track of the top and bottom as it is easy to “build a box” upside down and find yourself re-building it at the turn-in table)
10) Get cooking and get ‘em turned in on time! I have had way too many issues with the 10 minute turn-in window (five minutes before the 12:30pm turn-in time until five minutes after), but that, as well as my second adventure judging a contest, is a tale for another day!
With the tips out of the way, here's a complete recipe that has been modified for those without access to a smoker so that they can create the same award winning ribs on a kettle style grill like a Weber.
AWARD WINNING COMPETITION RIBS
· 1 rack St. Louis spare ribs
· ¼ cup yellow mustard
· 1/2 cup of your favorite BBQ dry rub
· 4 tablespoons “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (cut into eighths)
· 2 tablespoons honey
· ¼ cup brown sugar
· 2 tablespoons apple juice
· ¼ cup of your favorite BBQ sauce
Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs and coat both sides with a layer of yellow mustard. Season well with dry rub then allow the ribs to rest while you prepare the smoker or grill.
Prepare grill* for indirect cooking, placing a water filled disposable aluminum half pan in the center of the grill’s charcoal grate and piling pre-heated Kingsford® charcoal briquets on either side of the pan. Add 3–4 chunks of your favorite smoking wood to the charcoal then replace the main cooking grate and adjust the bottom grill vents to bring the temperature to 250°F.
Place the ribs on the grill directly above the aluminum pan. Cover the grill and allow the ribs to smoke for approximately 3-3.5 hours until the meat begins to pull away from the bone.
Lay out a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and top with four ½ tbsp. pieces of butter laid side-to-side and roughly the same length as the rack of ribs, followed by 1 tbsp. honey drizzled over the butter, and 2 tbsp. brown sugar sprinkled over the top. Lay the ribs meat side down on the butter, honey and brown sugar mixture. Place remaining sections of butter, the second tbsp. of honey, and 2 tbsp. brown sugar evenly on top of the bone-side of the ribs. Fold the sides of the foil up and add the apple juice before loosely sealing the foil.
Place the foil wrapped ribs back on the grill directly above the water pan, cover the grill, and allow the ribs to cook for approximately another 1 hour (the ribs should have pulled away from the bone by approximately 3/4-inch and have a nice flex to them). Remove the ribs from the grill and gently open the foil packet to allow the steam to escape. Remove the ribs from the foil and set them back on the grill, cover the grill, and allow them to cook for approximately 20 minutes until tender but not “fall-off-the-bone” (note: ribs should bend at a 45 degree angle when held on one end with tongs). Sauce both sides of the ribs then cover the grill and allow them to cook for another 3–4 minutes to allow the sauce to set and become tacky. Remove the ribs from the grill, slice and serve or, if preparing for a BBQ contest, set 4-5 ribs side-by side in the turn-in box and top with another 4 ribs.
Recipe by Clint Cantwell and courtesy of Kingsford.com