Pork Ribs: How to Trim Them Like A Pro

It requires very little effort to find good pork ribs. Unlike prime, aged beef, which requires significant effort and, in many cases, a trust fund. The warehouse stores carry good-quality, untrimmed pork ribs for incredible prices. I am familiar with how efficiently freight moves in this country, but it still impresses me that they can get this stuff all over the country, in good condition, and charge less than $2/lb. I am sure that if you wandered around Pennsylvania or upstate New York or Iowa and found an artisanal hog butcher, he would be happy to sell you gorgeous rib racks — just not for $2. That is what is so impressive about commercial ribs; they are almost always really good. But there is a reason for that, and it is called fat. Ribs are cooked at low temperature for a long time, so most of that fat has a chance to melt away, and as it melts it bastes the meat, keeping it moist. The long cooking times also help tenderize the meat and break down the connective tissue and collagen, all of which contributes to flavor and texture. If you take a look at some of the more expensive cuts of pork you will find that most of it is very, very lean. And that is not a good thing. Prime beef is rare and expensive because it is tough to breed and raise cattle that have consistent marbling in their muscles. Marbling is simply fat, but not thick sheets of the stuff; it is beautiful little flecksĀ  distributed evenly throughout the flesh. They just don’t grow pigs like that anymore, except maybe on those little farms I mentioned. So what’s a pork lover to do? Barbecue ribs, that’s what. And not those silly looking (but admittedly sometimes tasty) baby back ribs. I am talking about those big, meaty St. Louis ribs, or spare ribs, or whatever they are called in your neck of the woods.

But they come from Costco or Sam’s Club in vacuum-sealed bags that conceal untrimmed racks. That is, the chine bone or cartilage is still attached, and the flap of meat on the concave side is still there too. You can buy nicely trimmed racks at many supermarkets and butchers, but you will be paying a lot of money for someone to trim away perfectly delicious meat. So the trick is to buy untrimmed racks for very little money, and then trim them so they look like the beautiful racks that you see at barbecue competitions.

So I have finally come to the point of this long, drawn out and hopefully not too boring post. It’s easy to trim the racks to end up with perfect pork rib racks and the bonus of the trimmed meat (I call it knuckle meat because it looks sort of like knuckles) that can be cooked alongside the racks and served to any stray children or extra guests.

The first step is to turn the rack over so that the concave side is up. There is a flap of meat attached to the ribs that can be trimmed.

The silvery tissue attached to this strip of meat can be removed. Just wiggle your finger underneath it and separate it from the meat.

The next step is to remove the silvery tissue that covers the ribs on the concave side. It’s the same stuff that you just removed from that little strip of meat, but don’t think you can remove it the same way. Try to peel a corner of the stuff away from the corner of the rib. You might have to use a knife, but try to do it with your finger or something dull because it is surprisingly fragile. Anyway, once you have a corner of it, grab it with a piece of paper towel and peel it slowly and gently away from the bones. Sometimes it peels perfectly, but sometimes it will tear and you will have to find another corner to peel.

I peel this stuff off so that my dry rub has a chance to penetrate the meat and the fat has a chance to melt away. And it looks better too.

The next step is the most difficult one, but the first two were pretty easy, so the degree of difficulty is still pretty low. The only tough part is finding where the bone ends and the cartilage begins. But there is a trick, so don’t despair. Fold the rack lengthwise, and where it folds easiest is the place to cut.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but try to slice on a straight line so everything is pretty. The rack narrows slightly from the end with the large bones (see above on the right side), so don’t be fooled into cutting at too much of an angle.

This is what it should look like. Notice that it isn’t a perfect rectangle, but it’s pretty close. The last step is to chop up the stuff you just trimmed away from the rack. I like to slice it into 1 inch chunks, but anything will work.

And that is it!

A Barbecuer’s Dilemma: Charcoal Or Gas?

I love to barbecue. There, I said it. For those of us who aren’t chefs, barbecuing is a perfectly acceptable cooking method, and one that is preferred for some things (no matter what the real chefs say). Like steak for instance. Oh, I can make a mean steak in my kitchen with my trusty cast-iron pan, but grilling outside on a charcoal or gas grill just…feels right. But which will it be? When I was young and poor I didn’t have a choice. It was a tiny kettle and cut-rate briquettes. Then, as my pay check grew, so did the size of my grill. And the next logical leap was into hardwood charcoal or, and this was the really fun part, hardwood itself. Then I moved to the suburbs and left behind many things, not least among them was good bars and restaurants just around the corner, but that is a different post. But I also left my trusty Weber kettle, and moved on to a neat, and expensive, Weber gas grill. Continue reading “A Barbecuer’s Dilemma: Charcoal Or Gas?”

Pork And Super-Pork

If the past several years of the pontifications of many food writers are to be believed, the best foods are also the leanest. And if you can’t get beautiful, uniform, pristine, fatless pork, you are in some way unworthy of being considered a real cook. But fat is flavor, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Oh, there are techniques to extract amazingly concentrated flavors from lean meats and vegetables — just take a look at some of the French “cuisine minceur” cookbooks. The food is great! But it is a huge amount of work, inaccessible to most people. Can some foods taste great without fat? Of course. But some foods are simply better with fat, and pork may be at the top of that list. There has been pushback from some of the more interesting chefs, led, it seems, by David Chang, of Momofuku fame. Eat at one of his restaurants (if you can get in), and you will discover a man who revels in pork fat. His new restaurant, Ko, opens its reservations website at 10:00am and it’s full by 10:01am. I wouldn’t be surprised if his next venture is a spa in which the patrons are immersed in warm pork fat before being massaged by Rubenesque masseuses. Continue reading “Pork And Super-Pork”

There Is No Accounting For Taste In Barbecue . . .

. . . including my own!

We were shiftless and lazy last night and decided to get some takeout barbecue from a local restaurant that has received some positive reviews in the press and glowing comments from a few local bloggers. Barbecue is one of my favorite foods, and I take it fairly seriously. I think that most restaurants make abysmal, bordering on inedible, barbecue. Sweetness is not a substitute for all other flavors, but it is one of the easiest to dump into a dry rub or pour into a batch of sauce. And I can’t stand cloyingly sweet ‘que (and neither should you!). Of course, most restaurants are guilty of this misuse of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, as well as bottled smoke, and that’s why I always am suspicious of barbecue coming from any place that has other foods on the menu. Barbecue requires an intensity and a focus that isn’t available to most restaurant cooks when they’re slinging other foods. But I had read the entrails of a chicken, and all indications were that this place was going to be good.

And it was, but not to my taste. The barbecue was well made, tender and juicy, with interesting spicing. And I could really taste the smoke! The sides were very good, another indication of seriousness. Even the white bread was homemade and good. They clearly know how to make barbecue. But I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t like the combination of spices that their pit master used, and they’re depending too much on the smoke and not enough on the flavor of the meat. However if anyone asks me for a recommendation for barbecue in my town, I certainly would mention this place. And if friends want to go there for dinner, I won’t hold my breath and stamp my feet. I will happily go and order carefully and realize that my palate does not approve of all good food.

P.S. I am not trying to be coy by not naming this place. I don’t want to be critical of a restaurant that does something well, but just not the way I want it done. If anyone is curious, I would be happy to spill the (baked) beans; send me an e-mail. Oh, they also have a more casual barbecue-only restaurant a few miles away, which also is a serious place.

To Grill, Or Not To Grill (Chicken that is)

Everyone has grilled chicken. And everyone has failed, at least a few times. Who hasn’t opened the lid of the grill to find little chips of carbon where your beautiful free-range chicken used to be? I got tired of tending the grill and having to deal with the constant flares of burning chicken fat, the skin stuck to the grill and, worst of all, a mouth full of dried, charred chicken.

Obviously, I am talking about high-temperature cooking, otherwise known as grilling. But, the trick to great chicken is simple — low-temperature cooking. I don’t mean the traditional low-temperature, long, indirect cooking that is the backbone of great barbecue. What I am talking about is a modification of barbecuing that allows the chicken to cook to perfection without drying or, even worse, toasting.

I start with the chicken cut into serving pieces. I usually cut the ribs out of the breasts and then cut each breast in half if they are large; otherwise, leave them whole. Trimming excess fat seems to be a good idea, if not for the cooking process, than certainly for my waistline. And that last bit of the wing? Clip it off! Who eats that?

The next step is what makes this dish work. I use my basic barbecue dry rub to season the chicken. Any dry rub will work; it doesn’t have to be traditional. As long as the rub has some sugar in it, you will be successful. Just put the chicken in a 1-gallon ZipLoc bag, along with your dry rub, and shake away! Make sure that the chicken is completely coated and then stick it in the refrigerator for a few hours to as long as a day.

Cooking is simple, and it doesn’t require constant tending. Just heat your grill to about 250 degrees. Most grills have 2 or 3 burners, so use just one of them. If you are using charcoal, pile it up on one side of the grill. Then put the chicken pieces anywhere on the grill except directly over the burner that is on. I try to keep the chicken as far away from the flame as possible. It’s okay if the pieces touch. Close the lid and cook for 10-15 minutes. Check how it looks, flip the pieces, and cook for another 15 minutes. Repeat. Total cooking time should be 45-60 minutes.

The sugars will slowly caramelize and create a nice crust. The meat will be amazingly juicy and tender, and most of the fat will have rendered. The nice thing about this technique is that if you cook the chicken for an extra 5 minutes, it won’t burn. If you want the chicken to be even crispier, just turn up the heat for a few minutes and open the lid. But be careful, that is the kind of cooking that ends by ordering a pizza.

I haven’t written a more formal recipe because it is difficult to make a mistake with this technique. I have varied pretty much everything and it has still turned out well. Just don’t cook over direct heat, and don’t cook at too high a temperature and you will be happy with the results.