Kara Wille’s secret to great ribs — Brine, Braise and Barbecue
When i was a kid in the 70s, ribs were cheap. My mother would regularly buy a rack of spareribs at the supermarket, slather them in mustard, ketchup and various other things and bake them in the oven. “Ketchup meat,” as my sister called it, was simple to make, easy on the household budget and I hated it. My limited little kid palate found the meat meagre, the sauce too sharp and the whole thing horribly messy.
So, it’s not surprising that I didn’t try restaurant ribs until some time in my early 30s, but when I did, what a revelation it was! Beguiled by the scent of barbecue sauce, I ordered a half-rack and sunk my teeth into tender, sticky meat with a flavour spectrum that began at tangy, crossed into sweet, then into salt and finally finished with a gentle smokiness. Pure heaven on a bone! Naturally, I needed to try to replicate the experience at home, even without access to a restaurant smoker, if only to eradicate all memory of my childhood “ketchup meat.”
Ribs are a lot more expensive these days and certainly deserve more attention than a swab of ketchup and mustard. In my quest for the perfect rib, I’ve read a lot about Southern and Texan barbecue over the past few years and, as a result, what follows is a mish-mash of various regional barbecue styles and flavours that will surely make a purist shudder, but reflect perfectly my taste for ribs that are succulent and sticky, smoky and sweet with a vinegar tang and some definite heat. I invite you to use the following recipe and method as a basis, a building block to developing your own rib recipe. Most importantly, always remember to make more than you need – the scent of your ribs and sauce on the grill will have the neighbours hanging over the back fence, angling for an invitation to dinner.
BASIC BARBECUE SAUCE
Use to mop on meats or fish as you are barbecuing, but be aware that the sugars and fat in the sauce could cause flare-ups on your grill. Serve in a sauceboat at table into which guests can dunk their cornbread.
3 TBsp olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup vinegar (white or cider)
1 small can tomatoes (398 ml), puréed
3/4 cup cold strong black coffee
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup mustard (yellow is fine, but grainy is better)
2 tbsp honey or maple syrup
1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp celery salt
1/4 tsp smoked salt
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
pinch ground chipotle (omit if you don’t like a
lot of heat in your sauce)
In a large saucepan, SAUTÉ onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft and golden. Add all other ingredients in the order listed and simmer over medium to low heat, STIRRING frequently, until the sauce reduces to your preferred thickness, probably about an hour. TASTE to check for seasoning, adding whatever your palate tells you the sauce needs. Yields about 2 cups, depending on thickness. Will keep, covered, in the fridge for about a week.
3-B RIBS FOR FOUR OR SIX
Brine, Braise and Barbecue (or, in the winter when I don’t want to use the grill outside, Broil) is my secret for ridiculously tender, melty, deeply flavoured ribs. The brine, in my opinion, drives flavour deep into the meat while also, ideally, increasing the moisture content. The low and slow cooking with a bit of moisture in step two tenderly cooks the ribs through. And the final stage, finishing the ribs on the grill with generous mops of glistening sauce, allows you to present your guests with a meal that looks as good as it smells.
STEP 1 – FLAVOUR BRINE
4-6 lbs back ribs (1 lb per person)
8 cups water
2 cups vinegar
1/2 cup table salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
1 tsp cinnamon
1 TBsp ground cumin
1 TBsp smoked paprika
1 large bay leaf
COMBINE all ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil. REDUCE heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Let the brine cool completely before using. REMOVE bay leaf and any cloves you can find. When the brine is cold, CUT rib racks into portion sizes and place in large freezer bags. FILL bags with cold brine, making sure the liquid covers the meat entirely, and SEAL with as little air as possible. REFRIGERATE bags of brining meat for 4 to 6 hours. (I often brine overnight)
STEP 2 – LOW & SLOW
PREHEAT oven to 200°. Remove meat from bags and discard brine. Place rib portions in roasting pans, bone side down. SLATHER with sauce and add the braising liquid of your choice — white wine, beer, cola — to about an inch in depth. COVER roasting pans tightly with aluminum foil, then place in oven for 3 hours. At the end of 3 hours, remove from oven and uncover the pans. The ribs will be fall-apart-tender at this point so use tongs to gently hold them back as you drain off the liquid.
STEP 3 – SAUCE & GRILL
Preheat your barbecue to medium heat. GENTLY place rib portions on the grill, bone side down and MOP GENEROUSLY with sauce. Close barbecue lid and let the ribs and sauce warm through, checking frequently and swabbing with more sauce as necessary. As noted before, if making ribs in the winter, you can perform this final step with your oven broiler, keeping a close eye on your ribs. After all that work, you don’t want to burn these beauties.
SERVE with hot cornbread, cool coleslaw and ice-cold rosé for the ultimate summer meal.