Don’t get me wrong. I like a pork sausage or a chicken wing. I never say no to a burger or a chop. But when it comes to meat off the barbecue, there’s nothing quite like a succulent, smoky rib. “It’s so elemental,” says Jamie Berger of American BBQ concept Pitt Cue Co. “You get that connection to the animal and feel much closer to it than you would with a piece of meat without a bone.” Tom Griffiths of nose-to-tail restaurant Flank agrees: “Ribs belong on a barbecue. With the amount of fat on them, ribs need to cook low and slow. A barbecue is best for that.”
Certainly nothing says Fourth of July like a barbecue. And nothing says a barbecue quite like ribs. Particularly in smoker heartland like Texas, where barbecues were originally a way for ranches to feed lots of folk at any gathering. For today’s festivities, ribs are second only to fried chicken. Hot dogs would be scoffed at, seafood unheard of and steaks considered too fancy.
But what kind of ribs are Berger and Griffiths talking about? Not lamb or pork surprisingly, both of which elicit a shrug. What gets these guys excited are beef short ribs, an oft-neglected cut that is delicious and forgiving. “The bone-to-meat ratio is so favourable,” says Berger, “and because it’s such a slow cook, you’re not going to go wrong.” He also recommends dandy ribs (sometimes known as beef back ribs or occasionally beef spare ribs), which are smaller, taken from the back rather than the belly of the cow. These require less time to cook but are just as tasty, particularly smothered in chipotle caramel sauce, the way he likes them.
The trick with short ribs is to look for organic rare-breed meat, says Berger. It takes longer to mature and develops more intramuscular fat, where the flavour resides. He buys from Philip Warren (philipwarrenbutchers.co.uk), which is based in Cornwall. “They are butchers who farm,” he explains, “and really understand how meat is eaten.” Griffiths favours Swaledale in Yorkshire (swaledalefoods.co.uk), especially its Belted Galloway, the so-called teddy bear of cows: “The beef has high amounts of marbling. The cuts are longer. And the flavour is distinctive and really beautiful.”
Once you’ve got your ribs, trim the excess fat off the top, so the beef can pull in the smoke. (Unlike pork ribs, you don’t need to take the membrane off the bone side.) Then coat the meat in olive oil, salt and pepper. Or try Pitt Cue’s house rub, a dry marinade of toasted and ground fennel seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns and coriander seeds, with salt, sugar, smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and dried oregano.
When it comes to barbecuing, most people think of a searing-hot flame and nuking the meat. “It’s the great cliché of the British barbecued sausage,” says Berger, “burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.” But for short ribs, you don’t want direct heat. If you’re using a kettle barbecue (like a Weber), set the burning coals on one side and meat on the other, ideally with water trays in between to help diffuse the heat and add moisture. Ceramic barbecues (like Big Green Eggs) are ideal for this kind of indirect cooking. Then smoke the meat over charcoal or hardwood (oak, hickory) or a mix of both, at around 110°C for seven to eight hours. Maintaining the temperature is key, so don’t keep opening the barbecue, pleads Griffiths. He recommends wrapping the ribs in foil and putting them back in for up to two hours once the wood has burnt out, a “resting process” that deepens the flavour.
“When you unwrap them, you’re going to see a bit of steam,” says Griffiths. “Then there’s this crust or bark on the outside, and the beef has a wobble, this little bounce to it that just excites you. That’s because the fat has broken down but kept the meat intact. Then you slice into it and get this buttery soft texture like a marshmallow, with a ring under the bark from the smoke having penetrated the meat.”
The secret is not to slather on the sauces. Let the beef work its magic and go big on the sides. Pickles are the traditional accompaniment, as the acidity cuts through the richness. Vinegar slaw is perfect. Sauerkraut works a treat too, with a smear of mustard and some bread to mop up.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already firing up the barbecue.