From America's Test Kitchen Season 5: Texas Rib House
In Texas, good beef ribs are all about intense meat flavor—not just smoke and spice. The barbecue chefs we’ve met get this flavor just right, thanks to the assistance of massive electric smokers with automated temperature controls. But can a backyard cook replicate this Lone Star classic without the help of special equipment? We were looking for a recipe that would yield potent meat flavor with a bit of honest Texas chew—on our conventional-size grill.
We began by debating whether to trim the fatty membrane that runs along the back side of the ribs. Surprisingly, the juiciest meat with the most flavor was accomplished by the path of least resistance: simply leaving the membrane in place. The fat not only bastes the ribs as they cook but also renders to a crisp, bacon-like texture. A simple mixture of salt, pepper, cayenne, and chili powder rubbed into each rack was all that it took to bring out the flavor of the meat. To turn our grill into a backyard smoker, we kept the temperature in the range of 250 to 300 degrees. A couple hours of slow cooking were enough to render some of the fat and make the ribs juicy, tender, and slightly toothy. When cooked any longer, as is the case with pork ribs, the meat disintegrates into messy shreds, taking on a sticky, pot-roasted sort of texture that any real Texan would immediately reject.
For real Texas-style barbecue sauce to pair with our ribs, we pulled together the usual ingredients—vinegar, onion, molasses, to name a few—with dry mustard and chipotle chiles for spiciness. Savory Worcestershire sauce added depth while tomato juice (in place of ketchup) provided tangy flavor and helped thin the sauce out.
It is important to use beef ribs with a decent amount of meat, not bony scraps; otherwise, the rewards of making this recipe are few. Because the ribs cook slowly and for an extended period of time, charcoal briquettes, not hardwood charcoal (which burns hot and fast), make a better fuel. That said, do not use Match Light charcoal, which contains lighter fluid for easy ignition. For the wood chunks, use any type of wood but mesquite, which can have an overpowering smokiness. It's a good idea to monitor the grill heat; if you don't own a reliable grill thermometer, insert an instant-read thermometer into the lid vent to spot-check the temperature. Except when adding coals, do not lift the grill lid, which will allow both smoke and heat to escape. When barbecuing, we prefer to use a Weber 22-inch kettle grill.