Cast Iron Pans Cast iron pan owners swear by them for their even dispersal of heat and non stick nature. However, iron is not as happy go lucky as other metals. Initially, the pan must be seasoned with vegetable oil in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for at least an hour. Each time you heat the pan with oil, it will season till it obtains a beautiful dark color. Don't wash off the black patina thinking it is dirty. In fact, never use soap or scour the pan or you will remove the essence of the pan. Dry your iron pan on the stove with medium heat but watch it so it doesn't burn.
There is nothing like a rack of beef back ribs, slow cooked in a smoker with hickory chunks for five or six hours. It's a long time to wait but patience has it's rewards. That beautiful crunchy bark is nothing like the crust created when cooked at higher temperatures. When bitten into, the crunchy exterior reveals a tender and juicy inner meat that falls off the bone with little effort. If that sounds good to you then go by a smoker. I recommend the inexpensive and very easy to use WSM or Weber Smokey Mountain. There is an 18 and 22 inch version. I recommend the later so you can easily fit more and larger cuts of meat into the cavity.
If you don't have a smoker, good results can be achieved in an oven, especially if you have a convection oven. My Viking Convection Oven has a setting for convection roast which works really well on large slabs of meat like ribs, turkey, chicken and prime rib. Regardless of your oven type, set it to 225 degrees, just like you would a smoker. It's all about low and slow so the connective tissue can be broken down but not dried out. More details to follow about the cooking times and process.
A steer has 13 pairs of ribs but a butcher typically sells between six to eight ribs as a rack due to size and shape. If you find prepackaged beef back ribs in your supermarket, they are likely previously frozen with little meat on the bones. This type of rack is often called a "shiner" and shrink up to a tiny piece of meat when cooked and look nothing like the picture above. You will recognize them because the bone will be showing through on the top. You can't really blame the store as they can charge far more for prime rib so they cut the meat as close to the bone as possible. If you have a good butcher, ask him for freshly cut beef ribs, straight from the prime rib. Specify that you don't want "shiners" so cut them thick.
24 hours before you are going to start smoking your ribs, or cooking them in the oven, remove the silver skin and dry rub them with your favorite seasonings. Removing the silver skin from the back of the rib will allow for better penetration of seasonings as well as smoke flavor. I know there is a temptation to leave the silver skin on because it is so difficult to remove with it's slippery texture. Some barbecue experts even prefer the silver skin left on. I highly recommend removing the silver skin, not only for flavor penetration better but more thorough cooking.
I highly recommend my All Purpose Dry Rub but you can also use any store bought product that looks good to you. If you have never made a spice rub, they aren't that hard to make and allow you to increase flavors you prefer. I love garlic so my dry rub has a good amount of that pungent and spicy goodness. I also enjoy a little heat in my rubs, something you don't usually get in a store bought brand.
Don't be afraid to get messy when applying the dry rub. Spices will go everywhere and your hands will looks like you stuck them in dirt. If you don't have to clean up afterwards, you are doing something wrong. One tool that helps tremendously in applying an even coat of rub is a Spice Shaker. You still need to rub the spices in with your hands for better penetration but the even distribution and pinpoint accuracy of a shaker is really worth the five bucks you spend.
Once the spice rub is applied to all sides, nooks and crannies, wrap in cellophane and place in the refrigerator overnight or longer. This allows the spices to penetrate more deeply into the meat. When you pull the slab of meat out of the fridge the next day, the dry rub will be wet. Thirty minutes before you start smoking or cooking in the oven, shake about an eighth of a cup of brown sugar on each rack using a shaker. After 30 minutes, it will soak into the meat as well.
Adding sugar to slow cooked meat is critical for sealing in juices with the bark it helps create. Sugar caramelizes at low heats but burns at higher temperatures above 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm not a big fan of sweet barbecue so I add just enough to do the job. If you like sweet barbecue then, by all means, add more.
The process of smoking is pretty simple but the first time it can be kinda nerve racking. Fill a Charcoal Chimney full with charcoal brickets and pour it unlit into the bottom of your WSM. I like to use Stubb's Charcoal because it's 100% natural using a vegetable binder instead of chemicals. This is very important during the smoking process as you don't want your meat to taste funky as the chemicals slowly burn during the cooking process and seep into your meat.
Fill another chimney full of charcoal and light it on fire. After 30 minutes or so the coals will be lit and can be poured on top of the unlit coals. Put your WSM together, including filling the water pan. I like to set my bottom vents to barely open to keep the charcoal burning slowly. The less air that reaches the charcoal, the slower they burn. Towards the end of the cooking process, you may need to open them to get more heat if the temperature drops below 200 degrees Fahrenheit. I leave the top vent completely open so smoke flows through the WSM from bottom to top, creating a convection like air flow.
Add your four wood chunks all at once or two every hour. Smoke is only going to penetrate the meat for the first hour or two so there's no point in adding wood chunks during the entire cooking process. I use Hickory Chunks for beef but it can handle any of the other stronger tasting woods like oak or mesquite too. If you don't want a strong smoke taste then try Apple.
That's all there is to it. Just wait 5 to 6 hours and the ribs will be done. Don't open the top of the smoker or you will add at least 15 minutes to the cook time. Take a peak if you are so compellted to but don't completely remove the top. Sometimes I like to glaze the meat after a few hours with a raspberry chipotle glazing product from Fresh & Easy but it seems they have discontinued it. Bad move as it was so good. I'm developing my own glazing sauce but it hasn't been perfected yet.
Don't worry about your ribs turning almost black. That's just the bark developing. It's also a good indicator the meat is getting done. There are many methods for determining doneness but I think visual is the easiest. My butcher, Orlando, told me to grab one of the bones and twist to see if it gives but to me that represents over doneness. Ribs should not fall off the bone but rather easily tear away from the bones. Using a thermometer doesn't seem practical either on such a thin piece of meat. Yes, visual indicators such as the color of the bark and the bones protruding from the beef are the best way to determine doneness.
When the ribs are almost done, remove them from the heat source and wrap them tightly in Heavy Duty Foil, being careful not to puncture the foil with the bones. You want to keep the moisture in not let it escape. A lot of people add moisture to the cacoon of meat and foil but trust me, they will be juicy after sitting in the foil for an hour.