Combine the briny, smoky, umami flavors of country ham with the crusty, gnaw-off-the-bone pleasure of barbecued baby backs and you wind up with ham ribs. I wish I could say I thought of it, but I got the idea from a man utterly obsessed with pork, smoke, and fire: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston, Texas. Curing the ribs in ham brine prior to smoking produces a gorgeous color, uncommon succulence (in the way most brine-cured meats are succulent), and an astonishing honey-ham flavor.
Step 1: Arrange the ribs on a rimmed baking sheet or cutting board. Remove the thin papery membrane from the back of each rack of ribs. Cut the rack in half widthwise between the middle bones. Place the ribs in a jumbo heavy-duty resealable plastic bag or nonreactive baking dish just large enough to hold them.
Step 2: Make the brine: Place the coarse salt, honey, pink curing salt, and hot water in a large bowl and whisk until the honey and salts are dissolved. Whisk in the cold water and add the cloves and bay leaves. Let cool to room temperature.
Step 3: Pour the brine over the ribs, squeeze out the air, seal the bag, and place in an aluminum foil pan or roasting pan (to contain any leaks), or cover the baking dish with plastic wrap. Brine the ribs in the refrigerator for 24 hours, turning them over twice daily so they cure evenly.
Step 4: Drain the ribs well, discarding the brine, and blot dry with paper towels. Arrange the ribs on a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet and let dry in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
Step 5: Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225° to 250°F. Add the wood as specified by the manufacturer.
Step 6: Place the ribs directly on the rack in the smoker, bone side down. Smoke 4 to 5 hours, adding wood as needed. When done, the ribs will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers and the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about ½ inch.
Step 7: You can serve the ribs hot off the smoker, cut into individual ribs. Serve with Mustard Seed Caviar, if desired. That’s how I serve them, because patience is not part of my genetic makeup. (Chris Shepherd likes to add an additional step: He chills the ribs, cuts them into individual bones, then grills them over a hot wood fire to crisp the exterior.)
“If you’re expecting ribs that fall off the bone, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Shepherd says, a gentle reminder that ribs—even after smoking for 5 hours—should have a little chew to them. That’s why God gave you teeth. Pork chops and pork collar (cut from the neck) are also delicious cured and smoked in this fashion.