An old fast food commercial had a sinister voice over that said, “Parts is Parts” when someone asked what was in their competitor’s chicken nuggets. The idea was that it DOES matter what you’re eating. It was true then, and it is true now. If you aren’t sure of that, you need no look further than the country style ribs in your local grocery store.
This post started because of all pork ribs, I love country style ribs the best. They are meatier than other ribs, though some would argue they aren’t really ribs. They’re right of course, but I’ll overlook those facts in the interest of good eats. However, sometimes they were great and sometimes they weren’t. And it wasn’t always clear why to my naive eye.
It is worth noting that any pig meat is a great choice for beginning BBQers – it is about the most forgiving of meats, which makes it easy to eat one’s mistakes. And I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes! Overcooked a bit, it’ll still taste great! And that may explain the late science fiction writer John Brunner’s observation that pigs and saints are a lot alike – both are more revered after their death than in their lives.
Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ fame, was commenting on BBQ and said something like, “… the horribly overcooked meat we revere – we cook it until it is done, and then keep cooking it until it’s tender.” The problem for me was that sometimes the country style pork ribs were tender, and sometimes they were as tough as shoe leather.
The easy way, the lazy way, and my early way, to check barbeque for “doneness” is to watch the temperature. As you progress in cooking BBQ, you move past the temperature, just using that as a starting point, as in, “well, it’s at 195F, I should start watching it very closely.” However, temperature is a starting point, and it does tell you if the meat is likely to be safe to eat.
Keeping with Aaron’s idea, I’d cook the country style ribs until they were up to 195F. And sometimes they were great! Tender, juicy, savory, delightful!
And other times it was tough, dry, and a total disappointment. If it wasn’t for the rub on them, they would have also been tasteless.
And this week a light went on! It turns out there isn’t much consistency as to what cuts of hog are sold as country style ribs. Two grocery stores in our area had country style ribs on sale so I stocked up! And… they were totally different! One set looked more like pork chops or sliced pork loin. This is a lean meat. The other set was far coarser in appearance with lots of obvious fat marbling in it. This was cut from the shoulder.
And that made all the difference. It is worth noting that country style ribs are sold for low prices and the butchers don’t give them the same level of tender loving care they give pricier cuts of meat – they are all different shapes and thicknesses. Some slices look more like wedges than a slice of meat. And, as a cook, you should pay attention to that so you don’t overcook the thinner pieces.
If you’ve followed our testing at SourdoughHome, you won’t be surprised to hear the differences between the cuts prompted a test. Using our CyberQ BBQ Pit Controller, we kept the pit at 270F and cooked both kinds of “country style ribs” to three different temperatures. Our CyberQ has four probes. One tracks the pit temperature, which we set to 275, and the other three can be used to track meat temperatures. It can also trigger alarms, so when it thinks the meat is cooked, it tells you.
We set alarms so that we’d know when the ribs reached 155, 175 and 195F. We planned on pulling one set off at each temperature to see what the differences were. As I was adding a log to the fire, I peeked and saw one of the country style ribs looked good, so I checked the temperature with a chef’s thermometer and saw it was at 138F. That is a bit lower than the UDSA likes for food safety, but I was feeling reckless and adventurous … so I sliced some and ate it right there at the smoker. It was delightful. Lightly smokey, tender, and moist with the rub’s seasoning making it so very flavorful! Still I wanted to see what happened as the cook continued. The shoulder section country style rib was clearly underdone – I was in no way tempted to saw off a hunk and try them!
A bit later, the alarm went off at 155F and we tried the ribs. The lean loin ribs were a touch overdone – maybe they were safe to eat, but they sure weren’t very interesting. Perhaps cooking them to a lower temperature, like the USDA’s recommended minimum of 145F might be better. Also, instead of cooking lean country style ribs from the loin, I could just cook a whole loin. With the decreased surface area of a whole loin (as opposed to 10 or so individual slices), the meat should stay moister and the meat more tender up to the 155 temperature. Or, we could batter and fry the loin slices like pork chops which would also help them retain moisture, but that wouldn’t be barbeque. The marbled shoulder ribs still needed more time. They were starting to develop a nice flavor and good texture, but they weren’t there yet.
Time passed and the alarm went off again to let me know that the second set of ribs had reached 175F. The lean country style loin ribs were way overdone. Tough. Dry. And if it hadn’t been for the rub, they would have been tasteless. The marbled country style ribs from the shoulder were coming along. Not quite tender, but better. I probably should have pulled the lean ribs as it was clear they weren’t going to get better. But when I start an experiment, I tend to ride it into the ground!
More time passed and the alarm went off again. I was tied up and didn’t go pull the ribs off the grill at 195. In fact, they got up to 203F. Predictably, the lean loin country style ribs had gone further down hill. In the end, we sliced them thinly, scrambled them into eggs and served with salsa on tortillas.
The marbled shoulder country style ribs on the other hand were a true delight. The fat had rendered and become delightful – smooth, satiny, sexual, smoky. We really enjoyed those ribs! Enough so that another set is going on the smoker tomorrow!
The first moral of this story isn’t that lean loin ribs are bad and marbled shoulder ribs are great, but that you have to cook the meat in the way that brings out its best characteristics. The USDA is pretty adamant that pork should be cooked to 145F to be safe. Which means you might be better off leaving the loin whole and smoking a loin roast. The shoulder ribs should go to 195 and then be checked for doneness. Depending on the animal, somewhere between 195 and 205 should be where the pig goes into the promised land.
A followup – it’s never been clear to me why we commemorate Memorial Day by having a barbeque. Perhaps it’s a return to the burnt offerings mentioned in Genesis and Leviticus. In any case, two more sets of ribs wound up on the altar, sorry, I mean smoker. This time, I pulled the loin based country style ribs at 145F, the lowest safe temperature recommended by the USDA. And they were amazing! Tender, juicy with a nice hint of smoke with great heat from the rub. We let the shoulder based country style ribs keep going for some time until they got to 195. And then a bit more. And they were also delightful. Tender, rich beautifully rendered fat, a great and more assertive smoky taste. Which are better? It depends on my mood. Both are great, but in different ways.
When thinking about how to cook country style ribs, remember what the salesmen in the opening scene of “The Music Man” sang, “Ya gotta know the territory!”
Next time, we may smoke a whole loin and see what happens….