An Interview With Steven

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,

It’s out! Launch parties in New York City and Detroit officially celebrated the May release of Steven’s latest book, Raichlen on Ribs (Workman Publishing, 2006). You’d think a rest might be in order for him after months of writing, research, and recipe development. But Steven is three weeks into a 20-city book tour, and can be found at 30,000 feet nearly as often as he can be found manning the grill! I caught up with him long enough to snag a quick interview and get the lowdown on one of America’s favorite foods, ribs. Barbecuing ribs remind me of playing checkers…it takes about twenty minutes to learn the game…and a lifetime to master it! Below you’ll find a favorite recipe from the book, and also… one that’s never been published!

Nancy Loseke
Features Editor

Steven, the June issue of Food and Wine magazine calls you the “BBQ Guru.” Yet, your degree is in French Literature. How’d you get from there to here?

When I graduated from college, I won a Fulbright and Watson Foundation Fellowship. The Fulbright was to study medieval French manuscripts; the Watson was to investigate medieval cooking in Europe. (Tom Watson founded IBM.) That got me thinking about food as a window into culture, and I’ve been on this road ever since. Grilling is our most ancient and universal cooking method, so virtually every recipe tells us something about human history and culture. Of course, there’s also the fact that live fire cooking is so much fun and that grilled and smoked foods taste so terrific.

So, you’ve always been interested in food?

Ever since I can remember. My mother was a ballet dancer and a terrible cook—so in a way, it was a matter of self-defense.

Why a book devoted exclusively to ribs?

Ribs are the quintessential barbecued food, yet they’re surrounded by so much confusion and controversy. Pork versus beef? Dry versus wet? Gas versus charcoal? Fall-off-the-bone tender or cooked so they retain some chew? These are a few of the questions pit masters debate every time they fire up the grill.

The other reason I wrote the book is that despite the universal popularity of ribs, many people are intimidated by them and reluctant to try them. There are many different ways to cook ribs. All are easy when you understand the basic principles.

What is it, in your opinion, that makes people love ribs so much? And do other cultures revere ribs the way Americans do?

There are three reasons. First, because ribs are so damnably delicious. In general, meat found next to the bone tends to have the best marbling and flavor and rib meat is certainly next to the bone.
Second, ribs are universal. Travel the world’s barbecue trail and you’ll find some sort of rib dish prepared by virtually every grill culture.
Finally, ribs are fun to eat. People love foods they get to eat with their fingers and ribs are the ultimate finger food.

What do judges look for in a barbecue rib competition? In other words, what makes a rib perfect in their eyes?

Judges look for many things—some technical, some subjective. For example, a judge might evaluate the “bark” (crusty exterior) and the “smoke ring” (a tinge of pinkish-red just under the surface of the meat—the result of prolonged smoking at a low temperature). The rub and sauce should complement the flavor of the meat, not overpower it. The meat itself should be tender, but still have some chew to it. (Judges do not like rib meat so soft it falls off the bone.) Ultimately, judges are looking for a sense of harmony—the perfect balance between meat, spice, smoke, chew, and tenderness.

What are your techniques for creating perfect ribs?
Just as there are many types of ribs (pork, beef, lamb, baby back, spare, short), there are many techniques for preparing the perfect ribs. I personally like smoke-roasting (indirect grilling with wood chips at a relatively elevated temperature—325 to 350 degrees) for baby back ribs—I like the way the higher heat crisps the meat fibers. I prefer smoking the traditional way—low and slow—for spare ribs. For lamb ribs, I like spit-roasting, and for beef short ribs, I love the way Koreans slice the meat into paper-thin slices and direct grill it over charcoal.

You didn’t mention boiling ribs first before grilling. Some people do that. But not you?

If you’ve read my books, you know I’m a pretty open-minded guy, but there is one thing you should never do to a rib, and that’s boil it. Boiling removes flavor from the ribs and denatures the texture. Enough said.

There seem to be so many options when preparing ribs–rubs, marinades, mop sauces, glazes. When would you use each of them?

There are no hard and fast rules. I often use rubs with fattier cuts of ribs, like pork spare ribs and beef short ribs, but I’ve also used marinades. Both are applied before cooking and provide the base layer of flavor.
Mop sauces are swabbed on during cooking and are designed to keep the ribs moist and add an additional layer of flavor. Also, they give you something cool looking to do while drinking beer and waiting for your ribs to cook.

The glaze or sauce goes on right at the end. Often I’ll apply it, then move the ribs directly over the fire to sizzle the glaze into the meat. Never put a sweet sauce on ribs too early, or the sugar in the sauce will burn before the meat has a chance to cook through.

What advice do you have for someone who’s never attempted ribs before, and can you recommend a specific recipe for novices?

Well, the first piece of advice is to take a deep breath and remember that cooking isn’t brain surgery. (Although removing the skin from the back of the ribs will sharpen your surgical skills.) Then read the first 50 pages of Raichlen on Ribs—they tell you everything you need to know about ribs—the different types, how to buy them and prep them; how to season them; the various cooking techniques, grills and smokers and other equipment. I won’t pretend that there isn’t some technical information you need to master, but I’ve tried to lay it out in a clear, logical, user-friendly manner.

In terms of the first recipe to try, that would be the First Timers Ribs on page 54. You’ll learn a great master rub, master mop sauce, and master barbecue sauce, and the recipe is designed to take you step-by-step through creating terrific ribs. (It’s also failsafe—it’s one of the dishes I’m doing on tour and the food stylist in each city has made it perfectly.)

Does it matter if I have a gas or charcoal grill?

Depends on the rib. If you’re making ribs in the American tradition, chances are they call for smoking. It’s easy to smoke on a charcoal grill (or in a smoker, of course), and virtually impossible to smoke in a gas grill.
On the other hand, if you’re making ribs from Europe or Asia—regions where wood smoke is not part of the barbecue tradition, a gas grill will work just fine.
How do you know when ribs are done?

Very simple. When the meat has shrunk back about 1/4 inch from the ends of the bones of pork baby back ribs, and about 1/2 inch from the ends of spare ribs or beef ribs, the ribs are done. Another test—try pulling two ribs apart with your fingers. If the meat tears easily, the ribs are done. Note: if the meat falls off the bone, the ribs are overcooked.

Tell us about the recipe development process. How do you come up with your ideas, and then translate them into recipes that work reliably for the rest of us?

For me, this book, like all my books, began with travel. It might be a quick trip to Memphis or Kansas City to check out dry rub ribs (page 61) or wet ribs. Once I decided to write a rib book, I started traveling the world’s barbecue trail. To Argentina for the tira de asado (cross cut beef ribs) on page 199, or to St. Barthlemy in the French West Indies for the Buccaneer ribs on page 81. Or even to Korea to experience kalbi kui, grilled short ribs (page 191).

We also ran a Lip Smacking Rib Contest on, and that turned me on to some of the amazing (and downright weird) flavor combinations rib enthusiasts use on their bones. Coffee, tea, bourbon, peanut butter, apple jelly, maple syrup, even chocolate syrup—if it has flavor, someone in our barbecue community has used it.

In terms of turning dishes I’ve eaten into workable recipes, that happens at Barbecue University where we have recipe testers with opinionated palates and access to more than 30 grills and smokers. Some recipes we nail on the first test; others require up to a half dozen variations.

What is the most off-beat recipe in the book? Which one is your favorite?

The most offbeat ribs in the book are probably the peanut butter ribs on page 107. When we ran the Rib Contest, I noticed a lot of people called for peanut butter. I had the idea to work in a Southeast Asian mode, adding garlic, ginger, cilantro, chili peppers, and soy sauce. It really works.

As for my favorite, that’s the “Sophie’s Choice” question. All my recipes are my favorite children, but a lot of my friends like the Buffalo Ribs that I’m sharing in this newsletter.

How can people find out if their community is one of your stops on your current book tour?

Visit my “home base”——and click on Steven’s Event Schedule. BTW, a book tour is hard work—I’m away from my home and family for weeks on end. One of the great pleasures of touring is meeting members of our barbecue “family”—like BBQ Bob and FedoraDave, who came to visit at a book-signing I did for Bed, Bath, and Beyond in New Jersey. You can see pictures of us here on the Barbecue Board.

My schedule makes it tough to keep up with all the e-mails I receive, so I’ve deputized the great moderators we have on the Barbecue Board. Please pose your barbecuing questions to them, especially if you need a quick answer.

The people photographed eating ribs in your book have one thing in common: They all look like they’re enjoying themselves! Who are they?

That’s one of the most fun things about the book. They all work at Workman Publishing. For example, my editor, Suzanne Rafer, is on page 50. Even the legendary Peter Workman stopped in for a rib and a photo. He’s on page 146.

Where can people find Raichlen on Ribs?

At bookstores and grill shops everywhere. And, of course, in our Barbecue Store.

This riff on Buffalo chicken wings, the signature dish of a special city in New York state, is a favorite among my friends.

Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.

2 teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
1 to 2 lemons, cut in half and seeded
1 to 2 tablespoons Louisiana-style hot sauce (preferably Frank’s Red Hot Original or Crystal)

For the butter sauce:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter
1/2 cup Louisiana-style hot sauce

For serving:

Purchased blue cheese dip, for serving (or homemade)
4 ribs celery

Combine the salt, lemon pepper, garlic powder, dry mustard, and cayenne in a small bowl and whisk to mix. Remove the thin membrane from the back of the ribs. Rub the lemon juice and 1 to 2 tablespoons of hot sauce over the ribs. Sprinkle the dry rub evenly over both sides of each rack. Transfer the ribs to a large resealable plastic bag and refrigerate. Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to medium (325-350 degrees F).

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the 1/2 cup of hot sauce and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the grate over the drip pan, away from the heat. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for 45 minutes, then lightly baste with the butter sauce. Continue cooking the ribs until they are well-browned and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours total, basting 2 times more. Serve with any remaining butter sauce (reheated), the blue cheese dip, and celery sticks.

Serves 4 to 6.

For the marinade:

2 cloves garlic, rough chopped
1 shallot, rough chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and rough chopped, or 2 strips lemon zest
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce or soy sauce
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus oil for grilling the ribs

What you’ll need:

1-1/2 pounds country style pork ribs (bone-in or boneless)
1 large or 2 small heads Boston lettuce, broken into whole leaves and washed
1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch sticks
1 bunch basil, washed
1 bunch cilantro, washed
1 bunch fresh mint, washed
2 ounces thin rice noodles, soaked in cold water for 1 hour, then drained
Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (recipe below)

Place marinade ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Marinate chops in this mixture in a baking dish in the refrigerator for 2 hours, turning several times to coat.

Place lettuce, cucumber, basil, cilantro, and mint on a platter. Make dipping sauce.

Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and oil the grill grate.

Grill the ribs until crusty and brown on the outside and cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes per side. To serve, thinly slice ribs or let each eater do it. Open a lettuce leaf and fill with rice noodles, cucumber sticks, basil, cilantro, mint leaves, and pork slices. Roll it up; dip in chili lime sauce, and take a bite.

Yield: About 1 cup

One 2-inch piece of carrot, peeled
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
1/3 cup Asian fish sauce (nuoc mam), or more to taste
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 small hot red chile, thinly sliced, or 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced

Slice the carrot lengthwise with a vegetable peeler and pile the slices on top of one another, then slice lengthwise with a sharp slender knife into the thinnest imaginable strips.

Combine the water and sugar in a small bowl and whisk until the sugar is dissolved; stir in the fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar, chile, garlic, and carrot strips (see Note).

Taste for seasoning, adding fish sauce or sugar as necessary; the nuoc cham should strike a delicate balance between salty, tart, and sweet.

Serve the sauce immediately, or at least the same day it’s made.

Note: You can also blend the ingredients for the sauce by shaking them in a sealed jar.

This past week, we received an ingenious suggestion from a rib-loving Canadian
BBQ U viewer, Bonnie B. of Ontario:

“I just watched the episode where you cooked the baby back ribs on the rotisserie. I agree that this is an excellent way to cook ribs. However, one rack of ribs doesn’t feed very many people. So I invented my “rib cage”. It is made from wire fencing, tied in a roll. I can tie up to 4 ribs on it. I rub them with Texas Beer-B-Q rub and let them cook (low and slow) for about 5 hours. I also add some canned wood chips for smoke about halfway through. I start the bottom burner just long enough to get it smoking. Everyone always loves the ribs and the drama when the rib cage is removed from the grill onto a platter.”

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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