Good Life

Cue the smoker

Ribs fit for competition are different than most because of their perfect cut and glossy finish.   Josh "Tiny" Shade, owner of Tiny's Bar-B-Que in Beech Creek, produces slow smoked barbecue.  Shade also competes on the barbecue competition circut.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark
Ribs fit for competition are different than most because of their perfect cut and glossy finish. Josh "Tiny" Shade, owner of Tiny's Bar-B-Que in Beech Creek, produces slow smoked barbecue. Shade also competes on the barbecue competition circut. CDT/Nabil K. Mark

A mouthwatering aroma of hickory laced with apple rises with light blue smoke as Josh “Tiny” Shade lifts the lid of his rotisserie smoker and checks his barbecue.

On six circling shelves rotate pork shoulders, each covered with a crusty “bark” that’s been forming since the early morning. Shade sprays them with a mixture of apple juice, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and a “few odds and ends.” He cuts off a morsel for his guest.

Then down goes the lid for an afternoon of slow cooking.

“Barbecue, it’s about patience,” Shade said. “I don’t have a lot of patience, but with barbecue, I do.”

In his case, good things indeed come from waiting.

Shade and his wife, Kristal, compete in several regional and national barbecue contests each year when they’re not running their catering business, Tiny’s Bar-B-Que, out of their Beech Creek home. They’ve done well, winning awards for their ribs and brisket as members of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which bills itself as the world’s largest organization of barbecue aficionados.

Last October, they finished ninth in the country — out of 102 teams — in the brisket category at the Best of the Best Invitational BBQ Cook-Off in Douglas, Ga. Their ribs have placed in the top 10 at other barbecue festivals full of tong-wielding chefs preparing their smoky, sweet and spicy versions of an American classic.

“For that brief 36- or 48-hour time period, it’s like a totally different world,” Kristal Shade said. “Public parks get turned into little tent cities.”

Bill Asbury, of Philipsburg, has never vied for barbecue honors, but he’s an expert at making savory slabs just the same. The former Penn State vice president of student affairs once taught a barbecue class for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute with his own, authentic fire pit, and has served as a competition judge.

Now in another home, he no longer has a pit but instead instructs by taking OLLI students on a barbecue tour to local restaurants. Whether it’s whole spareribs or baby backs, Kansas City-sweet or Carolina-tangy, the basics stay the same.“Barbecue is low (heat) and slow,” Asbury said. “Everything else is grilling.”

But if all you have is a gas or charcoal grill, relax: You still can turn your backyard into a back-road barbecue joint without an expensive smoker or pit. Just follow the Shades’ and Asbury’s advice on the way to good — and messy — summertime eating.

Pork shoulders

With pork shoulders, Josh Shade usually injects them with a mixture of apple juice, water, Worcestershire sauce, sugar and salt the day before cooking. He also trims the excess fat, leaving a layer 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.

In the smoker, the meat sits fat side up.

“It’s like self-basting that way,” Shade said.

Asbury works his rub vigorously into shoulders the night before and lets everything sit in a bag overnight in the fridge.

Preparing ribs

When choosing ribs at the store, Asbury subscribes to the “three and down” rule — cuts under 3 pounds yield more tender results.

He prefers to leave the thin, connective membrane on, unlike Josh Shade, who peels off the “silver skin.” Shade then slathers the ribs with plain, yellow mustard, to add flavor and help bind the rub.

Liberally coat the front, back and sides, but don’t leave the rub on all day. Shade, for example, applies his no more than two or three hours beforehand. “Ribs being so thin, anything longer than that, you can almost get like a cured ham,” he said.

Getting started

For that genuine smoky flavor, buy wood chips. Mesquite, hickory, cherry and apple are some of the popular varieties, Asbury said. Soak your choice for about a half-hour so that the chips smolder with heat, release a steady amount of smoke and do not burn up immediately.

Then place the chips inside a smoker box. These can be found where grills are sold. Put it below the grate, keeping chips from touching flames.

Cooking

The key here is steady, low heat — about 225 to 250 degrees with Shade and about 200 to 220 with Asbury. Use a grill thermometer or Asbury’s hand test. Hold your hand a few inches over the heat. If there’s no discomfort for three seconds, it’s just right.

Smokers and pits, using indirect heat, allow smoke and air to circulate over the meat. To replicate this with a grill, Asbury said, after about 40 minutes, push coals to one side or turn off one gas burner. “Now you’re going to have heat on one side, and the meat on the other,” he said.

Ribs should be first placed bone side down, Shade and Asbury said, so that they retain juices. Using Shade’s method, they’re then cooked 90 minutes, flipped, and then turned over every half-hour. Asbury, on the other hand, turns over his ribs every 15 minutes.

Basting

Asbury recommends initially spraying at the first flip to moisten and tenderize the ribs. Applied with each turn, his regular mixture consists of two-thirds water, one-third white vinegar and lemon juice to taste.

Use tongs, he said, rather than a fork, which can puncture the meat and let juices escape.

With shoulders, Shade said, wait about three hours before basting.“If you start spraying right away, you just wash away the rub you put on,” he said.

More cooking

Ribs can take several hours. If dinner’s at 6 p.m., Shade said, the rub might go on as early as midmorning.

One shortcut: After about three to four hours, wrap the ribs in foil coated with honey, brown sugar and squeeze butter. “It’s a big pouch with all this oozing, sweet goodness,” Kristal Shade said.

Because this speeds the cooking, some on the competition circuit consider it cheating — but not Josh Shade.

“It’s using tools available to make the process easier,” he said.

Place the pouches back into the heat and let cook for 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the desired tenderness.

Foil pouches also work with shoulders, which need about 10 hours otherwise. Wrap them after about five to six hours and continue cooking for another two.

Finishing

One common ribs mistake is brushing sauce on too early, only to have it caramelize and turn into a blackened mess. Wait until the last 15 to 20 minutes, enough time for the sauce to set before serving.

Finished meat should be 160 to 170 degrees or, with ribs, pass the tongs test. Grip a slab at one end and see how far it droops, Asbury said. Forty-five degrees or more, and you’re ready to chow down.

And don’t worry about getting the rib meat to slip off — at least if you’re striving for competition standards. Judges, Shade said, look for a clean, easy bite that keeps everything else on the bone.

Asbury agrees, saying ribs should hold together.

“You want a rib that has good flavor and good texture,” he said. “That’s the key to a good rib.”

Experts’ recipes for barbecue success

Bill’s dry rub

8 tablespoons light brown sugar, tightly packed

3 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon mustard powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Good for two slabs of ribs.

Source: Bill Asbury

Tiny’s dry rub

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup paprika

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon chili powder

3/4 tablespoon garlic powder

3/4 tablespoon onion powder

1 teaspoon cayenne

Source: Tiny’s Bar-B-Que, www.tinysbbq.com

No-name sauce

1 quart ketchup

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons dry mustard

2 cups onion, finely diced

4-5 dashes soy sauce1-2 cups brown sugar (if dark brown, use less; amount depends on taste)

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup white grape juice

7 ounces Worcestershire sauce

1 cup oil (canola or vegetable)

1/2 cup whiskey (optional)

water (optional, add as desired depending on thickness of sauce)

Saute onions in oil until soft. Place onions and all other ingredients into a large, heavy pot and simmer for one hour. If desired, add as much water as necessary to thin sauce. Cool and refrigerate.

Source: Tiny’s Bar-B-Que

Pop’s Peach BBQ Sauce

2 medium peaches, pureéd

1/4 cup apricot nectar

2 tablespoons beef broth

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon minced onion

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5-10 minutes while stirring occasionally.

Source: Tiny’s Bar-B-Que

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