Notes from 30,000 feet: The ongoing search for the perfect smoked ribs

The search for the best combination of method, rub, glazing sauce, and mop sauce used to achieve baby-back perfection has been an arduous but enjoyable task.  I think I may have found it this past Labor Day weekend with a new twist on a tried and true formula.

Over the years, I have used many methods: grilling, smoke boxes, barrel smokers, mesquite charcoal, briquettes with wood chips, and pellet smokers.  I have used rubs of all types as well as sauces ranging from store-bought to homemade, from simple to complex.

I thought I had found the right combination some years ago and have stuck with it for the past ten years or so.  The choices made were culled from personal experience and the help of Steven Raichlen’s excellent book The Barbecue Bible.  The format is Memphis Rub, 3-2-1 (smoke three hours, wrap and roast for two, then glaze and grill for one), a Simple Mop Sauce and Elida’s Honey-Guava Barbecue Sauce.

Elida’s Sauce was what seemed to be the missing ingredient.  Its beauty is in its simplicity: store-bought sauce (I use Sweet Baby Ray’s), add some honey and guava paste (found in Mexican Markets).  After first using that sauce, I felt that my search might be over.

And after a visit to Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, a barbeque house renowned to be one of the best in the country, I knew that the search was over.

A note on Arthur Bryants: Fellow Benician and rib aficionado Randy also took a trip to Kansas City in search of rib heaven.  His method of finding the best ribs was to ask the skycaps.  One of them replied: “Well, most people go to Bryants.”  Randy’s response: was “no, where do you go?”  He was directed to several, including Gates BBQ and Oklahoma Joe’s, with the later coming out at the top of the list.

Bryant’s may indeed be thriving based on past glories, but nonetheless, I compared mine to theirs and felt that my method was as good, if not better.  Thus, I remained loyal to the basics, but I would modify occasionally.

Recently, a tweaking indicated that the settled formula is capable of improvement.  The missing ingredient was narshrab.

This is a specialty ingredient from Central Asia: Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia.  It is better known as “pomegranate molasses” and can be found in stores that cater to Mideastern food.

More on narshrab later, but first a few comments on methodology used to achieve baby-back nirvana:

Treating the Ribs – First, and this is old news to an experienced griller but should be stated, remove the membrane (that thin layer on the concave side of the rib).  Use a butter knife.  With a little practice, the task is not daunting and worth the effort.  Second: Never boil your ribs.  You want boiled ribs, go to the chains.

Smokers – I wore two barrel types out over the years, while going through too many bags of mesquite charcoal to count.  They work well but have two serious drawbacks: the mess of starting and cleaning up and the occasional need of an additional fire during a long smoke.  For the past two and half years, I have used a Traeger Pellet Grill.  When I saw that my local butcher uses one for smoking his meats, the decision was made.

The RubThe Barbecue Bible has a recipe for “Memphis Rub,” an excellent multipurpose rub.  I use smoked paprika and always double the batch I am making.  This rub works well on fish, chicken, and ribeye steaks.  I do omit the MSG, in deference to allergies in the house, and have noticed no diminishment in flavors.

3-2-1 Method – I actually fell into this method before I knew what it was.  I had long been smoking the ribs first, wrapping them in foil to let them sit, and then putting them back on the fire to glaze the sauce.  The time spent wrapped in foil is the key to “fall-off-the-bone” perfection.

Sauces – Two are required for all and three for some.  The first is the “mop sauce,” and for me that actually means a spray bottle.  Simple is best: cider vinegar, mustard (I prefer Dijon style), apple juice, and Worcestershire sauce.  Once an hour for the first three hours is a minimum.  Second is the glazing and serving sauce, mentioned above.  At our house that means two: one mild for the Mrs. and one with a bit of spice, usually red pepper flakes and dab of Sriracha, for me.

The Missing Ingredient: Pomegranate molasses.  As mentioned earlier, this is also called narshrab and can be readily purchased.  True narshrab is a very thick dark syrup with a strong sweet-sour taste.  Mine was a home-made variety from pink pomegranates, thus not as pungent or dark.  Pomegranates are a fruit most do not do anything with except on rare occasions.  My neighbor has a tree, the fruit was free, and I decided to give it a shot after reading about it in The Barbecue Bible

I removed the “arils” from two dozen pomegranates to make the molasses (videos are on YouTube for the removal process).  Once juiced, sugar and lemon juice were added, and the mixture reduced.  Eight cups of juice yielded two cups of a syrupy molasses.  

This was then used in the mop sauce (in lieu of apple juice) and added to the glazing sauce (in lieu of the guava).

The end result resolved an issue I had with the guava-honey-based sauce, that being its thickness.  The G-H sauce has a consistency of tomato paste.  The lower viscosity of the pomegranate molasses yielded a thinner sauce, yet still fruitful.

The missing ingredient now found, the recipes may be tweaked on occassion, as I need to compare store-bought narshrab to the homemade style used.

Here’s to future grilling for all!

The search for the best combination of method, rub, glazing sauce, and mop sauce used to achieve baby-back perfection has been an arduous but enjoyable task.  I think I may have found it this past Labor Day weekend with a new twist on a tried and true formula.

Over the years, I have used many methods: grilling, smoke boxes, barrel smokers, mesquite charcoal, briquettes with wood chips, and pellet smokers.  I have used rubs of all types as well as sauces ranging from store-bought to homemade, from simple to complex.

I thought I had found the right combination some years ago and have stuck with it for the past ten years or so.  The choices made were culled from personal experience and the help of Steven Raichlen’s excellent book The Barbecue Bible.  The format is Memphis Rub, 3-2-1 (smoke three hours, wrap and roast for two, then glaze and grill for one), a Simple Mop Sauce and Elida’s Honey-Guava Barbecue Sauce.

Elida’s Sauce was what seemed to be the missing ingredient.  Its beauty is in its simplicity: store-bought sauce (I use Sweet Baby Ray’s), add some honey and guava paste (found in Mexican Markets).  After first using that sauce, I felt that my search might be over.

And after a visit to Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, a barbeque house renowned to be one of the best in the country, I knew that the search was over.

A note on Arthur Bryants: Fellow Benician and rib aficionado Randy also took a trip to Kansas City in search of rib heaven.  His method of finding the best ribs was to ask the skycaps.  One of them replied: “Well, most people go to Bryants.”  Randy’s response: was “no, where do you go?”  He was directed to several, including Gates BBQ and Oklahoma Joe’s, with the later coming out at the top of the list.

Bryant’s may indeed be thriving based on past glories, but nonetheless, I compared mine to theirs and felt that my method was as good, if not better.  Thus, I remained loyal to the basics, but I would modify occasionally.

Recently, a tweaking indicated that the settled formula is capable of improvement.  The missing ingredient was narshrab.

This is a specialty ingredient from Central Asia: Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia.  It is better known as “pomegranate molasses” and can be found in stores that cater to Mideastern food.

More on narshrab later, but first a few comments on methodology used to achieve baby-back nirvana:

Treating the Ribs – First, and this is old news to an experienced griller but should be stated, remove the membrane (that thin layer on the concave side of the rib).  Use a butter knife.  With a little practice, the task is not daunting and worth the effort.  Second: Never boil your ribs.  You want boiled ribs, go to the chains.

Smokers – I wore two barrel types out over the years, while going through too many bags of mesquite charcoal to count.  They work well but have two serious drawbacks: the mess of starting and cleaning up and the occasional need of an additional fire during a long smoke.  For the past two and half years, I have used a Traeger Pellet Grill.  When I saw that my local butcher uses one for smoking his meats, the decision was made.

The RubThe Barbecue Bible has a recipe for “Memphis Rub,” an excellent multipurpose rub.  I use smoked paprika and always double the batch I am making.  This rub works well on fish, chicken, and ribeye steaks.  I do omit the MSG, in deference to allergies in the house, and have noticed no diminishment in flavors.

3-2-1 Method – I actually fell into this method before I knew what it was.  I had long been smoking the ribs first, wrapping them in foil to let them sit, and then putting them back on the fire to glaze the sauce.  The time spent wrapped in foil is the key to “fall-off-the-bone” perfection.

Sauces – Two are required for all and three for some.  The first is the “mop sauce,” and for me that actually means a spray bottle.  Simple is best: cider vinegar, mustard (I prefer Dijon style), apple juice, and Worcestershire sauce.  Once an hour for the first three hours is a minimum.  Second is the glazing and serving sauce, mentioned above.  At our house that means two: one mild for the Mrs. and one with a bit of spice, usually red pepper flakes and dab of Sriracha, for me.

The Missing Ingredient: Pomegranate molasses.  As mentioned earlier, this is also called narshrab and can be readily purchased.  True narshrab is a very thick dark syrup with a strong sweet-sour taste.  Mine was a home-made variety from pink pomegranates, thus not as pungent or dark.  Pomegranates are a fruit most do not do anything with except on rare occasions.  My neighbor has a tree, the fruit was free, and I decided to give it a shot after reading about it in The Barbecue Bible

I removed the “arils” from two dozen pomegranates to make the molasses (videos are on YouTube for the removal process).  Once juiced, sugar and lemon juice were added, and the mixture reduced.  Eight cups of juice yielded two cups of a syrupy molasses.  

This was then used in the mop sauce (in lieu of apple juice) and added to the glazing sauce (in lieu of the guava).

The end result resolved an issue I had with the guava-honey-based sauce, that being its thickness.  The G-H sauce has a consistency of tomato paste.  The lower viscosity of the pomegranate molasses yielded a thinner sauce, yet still fruitful.

The missing ingredient now found, the recipes may be tweaked on occassion, as I need to compare store-bought narshrab to the homemade style used.

Here’s to future grilling for all!