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Smoked Pork Spare Ribs

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Say the words “spare ribs” to nearly any red blooded American male, and his saliva glands will kick into high gear.  There is something about digging in with your fingers and eating meat right off the bone that satisfies our “id” and reconnects us with our primal ancestors.  It’s no wonder that parts of the country have competitions and conventions dedicated to preparing (and consuming) this homage to our cave-dwelling days.  And there are easily as many “secret” recipes and preparations as there are devotees to this finger-licking food.

This brings me to the recipe I recently tried out on a Sunday afternoon, using my pellet grill and a simple 80-minute long series of temperature “steps.”  Purists may scoff, saying the only “real” way to make ribs is to start before the rooster crows to stoke up a fire in the offset firebox on their home-made “stick burner” and then babysitting and stoking it all afternoon while treating the ribs to a variety of basting and foil coverings and other treatments for hours and hours.  I won’t argue that low and slow makes for some amazing ribs, but I can also say that my condensed cooking schedule and easy-to-use pellet grill yielded some tasty ribs with a lot less trouble and a lot less time.

Gather Up:

  • 6 lbs pork spare ribs, membrane peeled from the inside of the ribs
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 10 cloves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice, plus more on the grill
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp black pepper, plus more on the grill
  • 3/8 cup sea salt
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3~4 quarts water (divided)

At least 6~8 hours before you plan to start cooking (so that would be about 8~10 hours before you plan to eat), you need to get the ribs soaking in a brine.  You can do this up to about 16 or so hours ahead of time, but if you plan to go much longer (24 hours), then I would probably cut the salt down to about 1/4 cup.

In a medium sauce pan, combine 3 cups of water with all of the other ingredients (except the ribs, of course).  Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for about 5 minutes while stirring to get the salt fully dissolved and to let the cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves steep a little.  Turn off the heat and add 5 more cups of cold water to the brine to help cool it, then transfer to a LARGE bowl (big enough to hold all of the ribs with room for the brine).  Add the ribs to the bowl, then add more water as needed to completely cover the meat.  Give it a bit of a stir to ensure the water and brine are mixed, then cover and put in the fridge.

Twenty minutes before cooking, pull the ribs back out of the fridge.  Rinse them under cold water to wash off the brine, then pat dry and place in a dish to hold them before putting on the grill.  Heat the grill up to 185 degrees (low smoke) using pellets or smoking chips of your choice – I had apple wood in the grill for this one.

When the grill is warmed up, lay the ribs directly on the grate with the curve facing up.  Sprinkle them lightly with allspice and black pepper.  Close the lid on the grill and set the timer for 20 minutes.  After the first twenty minutes, raise the temperature to 220 degrees.  This is where I must brag a little about having the pellet grill – simply turn the digital thermostat up to 220 and it takes care of the rest!  Close the lid, set the timer for another 20 minutes and walk away.

When the timer goes off this time, turn the ribs over and raise the temperature to 260 degrees.  Close the lid, set the timer again for 20 minutes, and go back to what you were doing.  After the next 20 minutes passes, turn the ribs back over (if you are keeping track, they’ll be back the way they started) and raise the temperature to 300 degrees.  This time, close the lid and…wait for it…set the timer for 10 minutes (threw a curve ball that time).  After 10 minutes, check the ribs with a quick-read thermometer (make sure to poke the  thick meat between the bones) and keep checking every five minutes until you get a reading of 170 degrees.

Stack the ribs in a baking dish and cover with foil to rest for 5 minutes while you finish up your dinner preparations.  To serve, slice between the ribs with a sharp knife and arrange on the plates with a salad and other sides (we’ve got a sweet onion and apple relish next to them above).  For each person at the table, take a cloth napkin and run under hot tap water, then wring out and fold neatly.  Stack the warm, damp napkins on a plate in the middle of the table for everyone to grab when they get to the ribs.  Dig in!