Monday, January 3, 2011

Smoking - Part 1 - Overview and Ribs

Happy New Year, fellow foodophiles!

Here's a tale that has no business being told in the middle of Winter, but I did promise to blog about smoking food a while back and I wouldn't want anyone accusing me of blogular reneging.

Back in Summer of 2007, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on my own. This was the first time I'd done so since 2003 and I found myself needing a lot of stuff, namely a barbecue to go on my awesome deck, which was the main reason why I took this apartment in the first place! Now, where I'm from, there are laws prohibiting gas barbecues in apartments. The reason for this? There's a safety risk in having a potentially explosive propane tank inside. Now I know that many people flout this law, but it got me thinking that perhaps I should explore the idea of a charcoal barbecue instead, which is completely legal. I know I covered this in my April post about BBQ season, but it's part of the narrative, so stick with me here.

Anyhoo, off I went to Canadian Tire with my girlfriend and picked out a very affordable BBQ with an offset smoker box. I didn't really think I'd use the smoker much, but it was about a 20 dollar difference from the model that didn't have the box, so I figured "you never know" and bought it. Here's a picture of my baby (the smokebox is the smaller compartment on the left)!

I went a couple of years before even trying out the smoker, but finally gave it a go in the Summer of 2009. I figured the first thing to try was ribs. After all, ribs are one of the best "blank canvasses" when it comes to cooking, and it's not difficult to cover up your mistakes with lots of BBQ sauce. But before you can smoke anything, you need fuel!


I prefer using lump charcoal. It provides a more natural flavour and ignites faster. Lump charcoal burns a lot faster than briquettes, but that's OK when smoking, because you usually smoke food at low temperatures and something that burns fast will allow you to regulate your heat better. In addition to charcoal, you'll need some kind of wood to help flavour the smoke. I've acquired lots of different types of wood from Home Hardware and Canadian Tire. I imagine Wal-Mart, Rona, Lowe's and many others also carry wood for BBQ/smoking. Right now, I've gathered a supply including Maple, Cherry, Apple, Alder, Hickory, Mesquite and Cedar. I'd like to get some Pecan and Peach as well, if only to see how different a flavour they impart. I read a story online from an expat in Thailand mentioning how the locals use Mango wood to smoke their food. How awesome would that be!?!?

Now, you may ask yourself, which wood should I be using? Well, that all depends on what you're smoking. I've only done pork, fish and shrimp so far, so I haven't used all the types available. But here's a basic guide to what woods match well to what foods:

- Alder: mild and slightly sweet. Best with fish, pork and poultry

- Apple: fruity and sweet, especially good with pork. I like to use it with fish as well, but that might not be considered "normal"

- Cherry: rich, fruity, slightly sweet. Goes well with any meat. I like to smoke pork tenderloin with a mix of cherry and hickory.

- Hickory: rich, strong smoky flavour. Probably the most common wood used in smoking and good for anything except possibly fish (Hickory would overpower the natural flavour of any white fish and maybe even salmon). A mix of Hickory and Mesquite is good for spicy or peppery meats like ribs and beef brisket.

- Mesquite: strong but slightly sweet. Good for poultry, beef and pork. As with hickory, too strong for fish.

- Cedar: VERY strong flavour, probably too strong for most meats. Since cedar has a very distinctive pine taste, it would overpower just about everything if used in more than the tiniest amounts. And apparently it might be toxic. Makes we wonder why the heck Home Hardware sells it! grumblegrumblegrumble...

- Maple: strong and sweet. Maple could realistically be used with any meat, but the amounts have to be regulated. Also, since most lump charcoal you get in this part of the wood is made of maple, you'll get a maple smoke flavour from that.

Of course, most of this was figured out through a combination of trial and error and Internet research. But, to sum up what I've done and used so far:

- Ribs (made three times): Hickory and Mesquite (and a handful or two of Cherry and/or Apple)
- Pork Tenderloin (made twice): Cherry and/or Hickory
- Tilapia (made twice): Apple and/or Alder
- Arctic Char (made once): Apple and Alder
- Shrimp (made once): Apple and Alder

Alright, let's go on to the first thing I ever smoked: RIBS!


During a slow day at the office, I took to the Internet for advice on how to pull off smoked ribs. I'd previously done slow cooker ribs and baked/grilled ribs with varying results, but all being tasty (more on that process in this post). One piece of advice though, if you're going to slow cook ribs, remember to skim the fat off the top! I forgot to do so and my ribs were pretty much too fatty to be edible.

Anyhoo, as with just about everything else, the 'Net was chock full of helpful advice. I compiled a bunch of info from a variety of sites, and I've tried a few different ideas. Now, the whole "fall off the bone" concept is one I haven't quite mastered yet, but I've gotten pretty good at the "damn that's tasty" side of it. So, let's get into the "how-to" of smoking ribs. I'm assuming you rushed out and bought an offset smoker or Big Green Egg or something like it and are ready to get on with it!

Right, first things first. What kind of ribs are you going to use? Well, smoking involves a certain amount of drying out of the meat, so I'd go for the more tender cut: back ribs. Side ribs are better for the oven or slow cooker. I've also heard that short ribs work well for smoking, but I haven't given it a try.

For now, let's stick to back ribs. So, how do you smoke a tasty rack of ribs? Well, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't quite gotten the whole 'tenderness' aspect of it figured out, but I'm getting close. So, don't get frustrated, all cooking is a journey towards perfection, but rarely does one arrive.

So, you'll need to prep your rack(s) of ribs before they can be smoked. You'll want to give yourself a day to either brine, marinate or rub your ribs. I've only used the rubbed method, but I'm quite curious to try brining ribs. It's done wonders for my smoked fish recipes (more on those in a bit).

Before you can rub/brine/marinate your ribs, you'll need to remove the membrane, found on the underside of the rack (concave rather than convex); otherwise your ribs will be rather tough. Now removing this thing is somewhat difficult, and is best done with a sharp knife, pliers, possibly even gloves, and great care and patience. I tell you what, let's let the Internet take care of this lesson:

Alright, now that your membrane is removed, it's time to have some fun! It's rub time! Now, there are rib rubs all over the place. Just pop into any store that sells BBQ equipment and you'll see many brands of rub for sale. Same applies to the supermarket.

Now, being the self-reliant fella that I am, I make my own rub very simply out of a mix of brown sugar and berbere spice, with about a 2-to-1 ratio of sugar to spice.

Here's the berbere spice recipe from the May 27th post:

Berbere spice

1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/2 cup ground dried serrano chili peppers or other ground dried chili peppers
1/2 cup sweet paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (preferably freshly ground)
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Finely grind the fenugreek seeds with a mortar and pestle or in an electric spice or coffee grinder. Combine the remaining ingredients and add the ground fenugreek seeds, mixing well. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 months (although I've had batches last 6 to 9 months in the fridge and be fine).

Now, the berbere spice is pretty fiery and makes for a rather spicy rib. If you prefer things a bit more tame, there are numerous recipes on the 'Net. For example, here's one from

Kansas City Rib Rub


1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne


Combine all ingredients together and transfer to an air tight container. Maybe stored up to six months.

Nick's note: You could omit the cayenne if you want barely any heat at all.

Now, once you have your rub all mixed together, I suggest getting a glass/pyrex lasagna pan, place a rack at a time in the pan and generously apply the rub all over, pressing it firmly into the meat to ensure it is absorbed. You might even want to score (slice small cuts on the surface) the meat a bit for maximum absorption.

Once the meat has been coated with the rub, wrap it in plastic wrap, pressing all air out, and store in the fridge for 12-24 hours and dream of smoke and pork and joy.

Next day...

Let's hope you picked a nice sunny day and have an empty calendar for the day, because you're about to embark in a 6-7 hour smoking bonanza. It might be time-consuming, but MAN is it therapeutic! Having a case of cold beer around doesn't hurt either...

So, take your ribs out of the fridge and unwrap them. Let them warm up a little bit, for say 30 minutes. Here's what they look like out of the fridge:

While the ribs are getting closer to room temperature, you're going to want to get a large container of some sort and fill it halfway full with water. Take handfuls of whatever wood chips you would like to use and soak them in water for at least 30 minutes. That allows the wood chips to burn slowly in the smoker and produce lots of delicious smoke.

Next we start the fire. Let's be clear off the bat: AVOID any kind of chemical fire starter, especially when smoking. It ruins the flavour and is probably not too healthy. So how do you start a fire without lighter fluid? Well, a lot of people swear by the chimney starter, but I have my own method of starting a fire that works pretty well. I use an electric starter like this one:

You can find it at the same stores you find all your other BBQ supplies. Just plug it into an extension cord or outdoor outlet. The element heats up quickly and becomes red-hot. Find a way to keep the starter fixed in a position that allows you to pile charcoal on top in a pyramid-type formation as best as possible. Once this is done, leave it for about 10-15 minutes and let the element do its job. You'll hear the fire starting as the charcoal begins to crackle. At this point, unplug the starter and gently remove it from the pile of now-smoldering coals, trying your best not to disturb the coal bed, and put it aside somewhere fireproof as it cools down.

You're not looking for a huge fire here, because we don't want the temperature going over 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep the pile under about half a foot in diameter and no more than 3-4 inches high. If it isn't hot enough, you can always add more charcoal. If it's too hot, it's a lot harder to remove lit coals! If the fire needs a bit of a boost to get it going, there's always blowing on it, but I find fanning it with a fairly large piece of box board works perfectly.

So now our fire's going and the wood chips are soaking, so it's time to get the meat on the smoker! Place the meat directly on the racks of your main grill area if you're using an offset barrel smoker like mine. Otherwise, follow the instructions on the box!

Don't worry about the bright patch on the front rack, that's sunlight!

So, now all you have to do is shut the lid and let the smoke do the work! We'll call this Step 1 of what some nice person on the Internet called the "3-2-1 method" of smoking, which consists of 2.5 to 3 hours of smoking the meat as is, followed by 2 hours of smoking the ribs "tented" (wrapped in foil and moistened with some sort of liquid, I use apple juice), and finally 1 hour smoking unwrapped to finish.

Now, I have a little confession to make: I usually cheat and put anything I've smoked in the oven at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. It just seems to make everything right in the end. Not entirely sure why...

So, as you're going through Step 1, ensure you have a steady stream of smoke flowing through the smoker to the meat, add handfuls of wood chips to the fire as you go to keep the smoke going. Also, try to keep the temperature between 225 and 250 degrees. Any smoker should come with a thermometer built in. As for the meat, you don't need to do a thing to it during Step 1.

Now, it's best not to open the lid to the BBQ too much because the smoke can escape, but if you're like me, you occasionally want to look in, just to see how it's coming along.

And because you like to take pictures:

As you can see below, the meat is definitely cooking.

This is about what the ribs are going to look like at the end of Step 1. After 2.5 to 3 hours have passed, it;'s time for Step 2. Remove the ribs from the grill using tongs and place each rack on a piece of heavy-duty aluminium foil large enough to completely wrap up the ribs. Spray a good amount of apple juice or other liquid (but not alcohol or vinegar, as these may dry out the meat) on each rack of ribs, on both the top and bottom. This is going to help steam the ribs and make them more tender. Wrap up the ribs tightly, containing all the juice, and return them to the smoker for another 2-2.5 hours.

At this point, you might want to get started on the finishing sauce, if you're making one. I posted the recipe for my homemade BBQ sauce back in July, but you can make variations if you want or even use a high-quality store-bought sauce. To be honest though, the ribs will be tasty with or without sauce. It's up to you how you want to serve and/or eat them.

So after Step 2 has passed, unwrap the ribs again and place them back on the grill for another hour. Spray them again with apple juice to keep tender. If there any woods you want to experiment with, now's the time. The smoke won't penetrate right into the meat, but it will flavour the surface of it. 

This is what your ribs will look like after being wrapped. GORGEOUS!

Smoke for another hour. Once done, place onto a baking sheet and cook in the oven for another 10-15 minutes. You can choose to cut them into segments before or after baking them. I did cut them up before baking last time and it worked well.

Pull them out of the oven, serve with whatever you're having on the side and chow down!

Is there anything classier than serving a meal on cooler?

Till next time, enjoy!


  1. hey! those are my toes! wait! i remember these ribs! they were amazing! make these ribs, people, you won't regret it.

  2. Let me be clear, kira_kitten's toes were NOT part of the meal.