As you may recall, I’m a bit of a barbecue fan.  And not just a passive fan, either.  My experiment with pulled pork wasn’t my first time using the Big Green Egg.  For my first endeavor into the world of slow-smoked cooking, I worked with David (the friend who introduced me to KCBS judging) to cook up a few slabs of ribs for the Super Bowl.

Unlike pulled pork, which requires cooking time upwards of 15 hours to ensure tender and tasty results, slabs of pork ribs can be smoked to perfection in as few as four hours.  So we committed the better part of the afternoon to the effort, and we settled in with a few beers to tend the Egg.

A description of the process after the jump.

From our experiences judging competition ribs, we knew that it is just as important to get good ribs as it is to cook them well.  A poorly trimmed rack of ribs may cook up with the same smoky goodness as one that’s been handled by an attentive butcher, but they’re not going to separate as nicely when you go to cut them up and serve them.  Of course, if you’re just cooking ribs for your own personal enjoyment, that may not be an issue.  But we were planning to serve ours to a group of our friends – some of whom take grilling and barbecue almost as seriously as we do.

So we made it a point to seek out some quality ribs, choosing to buy from the folks at Canales Quality Meats in the temporary East Hall at Eastern Market.  These things were beautiful – a good layer of fat, but not a lot of gristle and cartilage that would cause problems for us later on.  At $2.79 a pound, the average 4-pound slab of ribs will run you a little more than $10 – not a bad price for something that can easily feed four or five people when all is said and done.

We took our precious cargo home and set about coating the ribs with a favorite barbecue sauce from Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City.  We let the ribs soak in the sauce, wrapping them in plastic and leaving them out on the counter for about an hour as we set about starting the fire.

Because this was our first effort at cooking on the Big Green Egg, we had no idea how long it would take to get the fire started or, once it was started, how long we would have to tend it to get the temperature regulated at that low-200’s range that signifies good smoking.  What we did know was that we wanted to use applewood chips to create the all-important smoke…and that we needed to soak the chips for a good long time to make sure they gave off smoke instead of simply burning inside the egg.

So we got down to business around 11 AM, knowing that we would want to be ready to eat by 6 PM.  As it turns out, we got off to an earlier start than we needed.  I’ve spoken before about how easy it is to light the Egg, and it turns out that it required next to no time at all to come up to a respectable 400 degrees.  After about an hour of fiddling with the two airflow restrictors, we finally got to the point where the grill was maintaining a steady temperature just north of 250 degrees – a bit hotter than we wanted, but we knew that the temperature could be turned down if it looked like things were cooking too quickly.

We unwrapped the ribs and set two slabs onto the grill surface.  The smoke was already starting to come up from the wood chips, so we moved quickly to set in a secondary V-shaped rack that allowed us to cook the other two rack simultaneously (the round interior circulates the smoke throughout the Egg, ensuring that all four of our racks of ribs would be immersed in the smoky heat for the duration of the cooking process).

From there on out, it was a simple matter of time, love and tenderness.  We killed some time sitting around watching the Egg do its thing.  We loved the rich, smoky scents rising up from the vent at the top of the Egg.  And we knew that the ribs had to come off between four and six hours after they went onto the grill to make sure they boasted the proper degree of tenderness.

At the five hour mark, we decided our ribs were about as done as we wanted them to be, so we pulled them off the grill and brought them inside.  After giving them 15 minutes to rest and redistribute their internal juices, we set about slicing the ribs.

I’ve found there are two schools of thought when it comes to the best way to portion ribs – grouping and individual preparations.  There are those who will tell you that it’s almost not worth the effort to cut each rib away from those around it, and that good ribs beg to be eaten in clusters of two, three, or four so you may as well cut them that way.  Personally, I like to give people (especially in larger groups) a chance to take as many or as few as they like.  So we went ahead and cut the rubs up individually.

We set out some additional barbecue sauce, for anyone who felt the need to further dress the ribs, but the long and slow cooking did a great job of caramelizing the sauce that we used as a marinade – turning it into a sticky-sweet glaze that clung to the ribs and added a bit of spice to the solid and richly meaty flavor of the ribs themselves.

We were pleased to note that there were very few leftovers when all was said and done, and the general consensus was that the ribs were well worth the time and the effort.  In the post-mortem analysis, David and I decided that a longer cooktime with even lower heat would be worth exploring, as would the use of spice rubs (like the one I subsequently employed for the pulled pork) and/or cider-based sauces.  The quick-cooking method (which uses temperatures approaching 400 degrees for 1-2 hours) was rejected as a poor substitute for this kind of smoky goodness.

Any recommendations out there from those who have also tried to do ribs?