The ability to cook tasty ribs is a skill that can give you legendary status amongst your friends and family.
Riding high on the praise of your loved ones, you may think you are ready to step it up and test out your skills at your nearest barbecue comp. But there are a couple of things you should know first which could save you some disappointment and perhaps a little embarrassment.
There are rules, conventions and standards in barbecue competitions that we tend not to adhere to, or even know about, when cooking in the backyard.
Thankfully, those involved in the barbecue competition circuit are a friendly bunch, and aren’t afraid to share their knowledge. So we have decided to break down how one of the barbecue circuit greats, Malcom Reed, prepares his ribs. Armed with your passion, and Malcom’s tips, some success at the next barbecue comp could well be in your sights.
Competition Ribs 101
Of course, whether you are cooking in a competition or in the backyard for your mates, you want your ribs to taste amazing. But there is an extra level of precision that is required if you are going to win big points with the judges.
For starters, you will need to pay some more attention to the appearance of your ribs. Judges will be looking for uniformity of size and shape. So even if the ribs you present are not from the same rack, you will need to pick the ones that are closest in size to hand in to the judges.
Ribs that are charred, dry looking, and “plonked” in the box without much care will not leave a great first impression, or score highly with the judges.
It is worth remembering that you need to wow the judges in a couple of bites. So your ribs will need to pack a punch flavorwise. This is a tricky balance to strike, as ribs that are too spicy, sweet or salty are also not going to win any prizes. The trick is to create rich, show stopping flavor without sacrificing balance.
It is true, however, that judges will have their personal flavor preferences. So getting to know others on the competition circuit may help you get the scoop on what flavor profile the judges like.
Another common misconception amongst backyard barbecue enthusiasts is that meat falling off the bone means the ribs are perfectly done. In the world of barbecue competitions, this means that the ribs are overdone. While the meat should come off the bone clean when it is pulled, it should not fall off.
Step By Step Instructions
Before you start, an important thing to remember is that you really need to invest in quality meat, sauces and rubs (or master making your own) if you want to produce winning ribs.
Here we will break down how Malcom Reed produces his winning ribs.
What You Will Need and Getting Prepared
If you plan to enter a competition, it is a good idea to do at least one test run beforehand. This will help you become familiar with your smoker, hone your recipe, and have a plan of attack in case anything unexpected happens during the cook.
- Get all your equipment ready. This includes knives, gloves, cutting boards, rubs, sauces, aluminum foil, trays, plates, tongs, a spray bottle filled with a dilution of apple juice in water, wood, and charcoal or pellets (depending on the smoker you are using).
- Wear gloves when handling raw meat, and use good food hygiene practices.
Selecting and Trimming Your Ribs
Get to know your local butcher. Let him know you want great quality ribs that are straight and even, with a nice amount of meat.
- Square up your ribs. Cut off the ends, and use ribs that are of the same size and length. These ribs will not only look better, they will cook evenly too.
- Trim along the tops and bottoms of the ribs so they will fit nicely in the box.
- Remove the membrane from the ribs. This is the white fatty looking covering over the meat. Push your knife under the membrane and prize it up. Once you have some leverage, you can pull it off using your hands.
- Look over your ribs and trim off any uneven flaps of meat that make the ribs look uneven or ‘messy’.
Seasoning Your Ribs
Put a light covering of mustard on both sides of your ribs. This mustard is not for taste, but rather to provide a base for the spice rub to stick to.
- Dust both sides of your ribs with the rub of your choice. Malcom uses his own “Killer Hog’s Hot Rub’ This does not need to be a heavy coating, as you will be layering more flavor on the ribs as you prepare them. There is no need to literally ‘rub’ the rub into the ribs. Just a light pat to make sure the rub has stuck to the surface of the meat is fine.
- Add a second layer of rub. Malcom uses ‘Killer Hog’s BBQ Rub’. You can grab these two rubs in a combo pack. If you are not using these exact products, the principle to keep in mind is that the first layer of rub is spicy, and the second layer a little sweeter.
- Leave the ribs to rest on the board for about an hour. During this time, the rubs will work into the meat and the meat will sweat.
Preparing Your Smoker
We will follow Malcom’s instructions for using a drum smoker. But you can also use a Weber Smokey Mountain, stick burner or pellet smoker. The principles Malcom uses when using the drum smoker, however, will apply to any of these smokers.
- Add a basket full of lump charcoal to your drum and light it. Usually, 2 wax cubes should be enough to get the charcoal burning.
- Once the coals are lit, place them in the drum. At this point, add your smoking wood. A couple of chunks should be enough to get some good smoke flavor into your meat. Malcolm uses a piece of cherry and a piece of hickory for a nice balanced flavor but you can experiment with different combinations.
- To keep the temperature even throughout the cook, Malcolm uses the CyberQ temperature controller set at 250°F. If you want to learn more about these devices we have a guide to them here.
- Vents should be very slightly opened to keep the airflow up to the fire.
- Once the grill is up to 250°F, it is time to put your ribs in the cooker.
Cooking Your Ribs
- Leave your ribs in the cooker for about 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, check your ribs to see if they have started to dry out.
- If they have started to dry out, spray them with some of the diluted apple juice mixture.
- Replace the lid, wait for another 30 minutes and check your ribs. If they have dried out again, give them another light spray with diluted apple juice.
- Replace the lid and let the ribs cook for another hour.
Wrapping your Ribs
After your ribs have cooked for another hour (2 hours in total) take them out of the cooker and place each rack of ribs on a seperate sheet of aluminum foil. It is time to wrap your ribs!
- Place a couple knobs of butter on the foil (or about 3 lengths of squeezable margarine should be enough for each rack of ribs).
- Sprinkle a quarter of a cup of brown sugar over the butter (one eighth of a cup for each rack of ribs).
- Drizzle honey over the brown sugar. One tablespoon of honey for the two racks of ribs should be enough.
- Place the rack of ribs meat side down on the butter, sugar and honey mixture. Take this opportunity to ‘clean up’ any burnt bits, or parts that a sticking out, from the ribs.
- Drizzle some vinegar sauce over the ribs. This will add some spice and acidity. Malcom uses his Killer Hog’s Vinegar Sauce.
- Wrap the ribs up in the foil, making a good seal, and place them back in the cooker. Make sure you wrap the ribs meat facing down, and place them meat down in the cooker as well.
- Keep the cooker at 250°F and leave the ribs in the cooker for another 1 ¼ hours. Now that the ribs are wrapped, the smoke from the wood is not important. Rather, you want to make sure that the temperature is consistent.
After 1 ¼ hours, check the ribs. The ribs should be flexible, the meat should have pulled back from the bones, and some of the meat and fat that sat over the bones will have melted away. If your ribs match this description, they are done!
- Wrap your ribs back in the foil and let them rest out of the smoker for about 15 or 30 minutes.
- Pour the juice from the ribs out into a bucket or a pan.
- Grab a tray, or make a tray out of your foil, and after you ribs have rested, place them in the tray, meat side up, ready to put back in the smoker with some glaze.
- Mix up a sauce of one part Killer Hog’s Vinegar Sauce, and 3 parts Killer Hog’s Original Sauce, and lightly coat the ribs.
- Place the ribs back in the cooker for another 15 minutes so that the glaze can become tacky and cook onto the surface of the ribs.
- After the 15 minutes is up, take the ribs out. Flip them bone side up and use a long bladed knife to cut them up. Try and make neat, even cuts.
- To give your ribs an extra touch, coat the cut edge with a light brushing of the sauce.
- For presentation, pick the ribs that have the most meat, the cleanest cuts and are the most uniform in size.
After stealing a sneaky taste of the ribs you have made following Malcom’s instructions, we are sure you are going to be hooked on cooking competition style barbecue ribs. While a crusty, blackened rib might be a sentimental favorite, a succulent, mahogany glazed rib which looks just as great as it tastes is sure to win you over to cooking ribs in this way.
Have you ever tried your hand at cooking ribs at competition level? What has your experience been? Be sure to share any tips and tricks in the comments section below. And if you have found this article helpful, please be sure to share.