Life

Three Food Writers Battle Over BBQ Rib Recipes, Just In Time For July 4th

Ribs. 4th of July. Three chefs doing their best to out-do one another and then burning one another for their mistakes.

You know what this is — it’s Cooking Battle. Me, Vince Manicini, and Zach Johnston fighting for kitchen supremacy. Who should win? Me, always me. Who will win? Well… that’s for you to decide.

— Steve Bramucci, Editorial Director, UPROXX LIFE

PAST 5 RESULTS (see full results here):

Meatball Showdown with Chef Tyler Anderson: 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Diner Food Showdown with George Motz: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Vegetarian and Vegan Showdown: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Sweet Treet Showdown: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Pancake Showdown: 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. All votes are counted equally. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 50
VINCE: 48
STEVE: 39

Steve’s Vietnamese-STYLE Streetfood-STYLE Ribs Two Ways

This was my pick for a challenge and in my world, it’s ribs season. With that said, I don’t really have a ton of great ribs stories to fall back on. My dad made amazing ribs — “low and slow, finished on the grill” — but they had a BBQ sauce base and Zach would have torn them to pieces as middle American trash.

That said, I do have great grill-based food memories. The best grilled meat I’ve ever eaten has been street food, cooked over wood charcoal. If we’re ever walking together and there’s meat grilling over hot coals on the street, you can bet I’m stopping. It’s a policy. Perhaps my best food memory ever was getting zebu skewers off a wood-charcoal grill for a dime each on the pirate sanctuary of Ille St. Marie, off of Madagascar. They were sitting practically right on the glowing coals and tasted iron-rich, like if you put a penny between your molars and bite down. I ate ten in a sitting.

As for my other touchstone, over the past decade, Vietnamese food just seems to speak to me in a way few other foods do (Italian, Mexican, Southern US, Vietnamese — those are my go-to’s). Like it’s specifically calibrated for my palate — that mix of spice and sweet and funk. But I’ve seen enough food controversies to know better than claiming a region, that’s just asking for trouble.

For this contest, having no clear inspiration felt right. Because that vagueness and the use of “style” twice in the dish title reveal my real rib philosophy: It’s something you do off feel and knowledge of flavor. It’s improv cooking, where instinct rules.

Steve Bramucci

My sauce and marinade were the same. Meaning I reduced my marinade and added a bit more sugar and citrus to turn it into the final sauce. Here’s what was inside:

  • One small jar red curry.
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce.
  • 1/6 cup soy.
  • 1/6 cup Maggi sauce.
  • 1 yellow onion.
  • 1/2 tube pureed lemongrass.
  • 1/2 tube pureed ginger.
  • 1/2 tube pureed garlic.
  • 1 cup ketchup.
  • 2 Tbsp. Shallot Sauce (fried shallots in oil).
  • 3 Tbsp. honey.
  • 3 Tbsp. brown sugar.
  • 2 Thai chilis.
  • 5 sprigs of cilantro.

I piled all that in the blender and turned it into a slurry. Then I added Chinese 5 Spice and hand-squeezed grapefruit juice to taste. (If you ever take one piece of cooking advice from me, try grapefruit or mandarin oranges as your citrus element over the palate-commandeering lemon or lime.)

Steve Bramucci

I let the meat soak in that mixture overnight. I know duos are Top Chef killers and I’ve now opened myself up to Zach and Vince writing these beautifully withering sentences like: “I’m just shaking my head over here thinking: ‘Just do ONE meat RIGHT, Steve.'” But I felt like I could pull off two types of meat and that’s what I was craving.

I got a pound of pork spareribs and a pound of beef short rib. After a night spent marinating, I did the spareribs in the oven — low and slow at 225 for 3.5 hours — and figured that they’d only need as much time to finish on the grill as the spareribs did to cook.

As for the grilling bit, I decided to imitate street food by creating a little makeshift charcoal grill. Especially with wood charcoal being en vogue right now.

Steve Bramucci

I put the beef short ribs on first. The spareribs were out of the oven and tender to the bite. It’s easy to do fall off the bone ribs in the oven and I like those, but they stick to the grill in a way I don’t love and can sometimes just fully fall apart on you.

I wanted a little bite on these.

Steve Bramucci

Soon everything was on the grill together. That scorched rib on the bottom pic was a bit of a “first pancake” situation as I got my heat right while working so close to the charcoal. I ate it myself. From there on everything was smooth sailing — things moved fast (again, heat) so I sauced everything on the flip and reflip and after two turns on each side they were ready to go.

Steve Bramucci

After about six minutes on the heat total for both the shortrib and sparerib, they were ready to go. More grapefruit.

Steve Bramucci

And who could forget the “Bram salad?”

What can I say? I like herbs — that’s why I hang with Vince and Zach. My favorite being Thai basil, which I take great pains to grow because it’s always trying to go to seed. I used a ton here to add a nice little licorice edge. There was some spice in these ribs and the fresh element cooled it nicely. (I guarantee my dish was the spiciest among us, because Vince always de-seeds his peppers like an Omaha grandmother.)

I also snipped a few sprigs of cilantro which… I admit I could have done more elegantly.

Steve Bramucci

Taste-wise, these were bliss. The fish sauce funk carries over heavily and the ketchup makes the sauce nice and tomato-y for someone who wants that US of A touchstone. Lemongrass and ginger make the bite brighter than ribs have any business being and red curry and chilis add heat. For my palate, they were the perfect ribs — not the gut bomb you see so often, overly slathered in sauce.

Bright. Spicy. And — dare I say — straightforward?

Zach on Steve’s Ribs:

I know Steve did this one purpose. He knows I’ve lived in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia and knew there was no way for me to burn his “cooking” to the ground without me sounding like a pretentious dick while doing so. See, it’s already working!

Well, fuck that. This is a mess and Steve knows it. Do you know what would have been the ultimate power move for this style of ribs? Fuckin’ goat. Go all in or go home, Steve.

I don’t know, man. Everything else feels obvious. You didn’t control your fire enough, hence the burnt ribs. These only really work if you layer and slather sauce on while you cook, creating a coating of caramelized sugars, spice, and umami. The plating is wild in the worst ways. It feels like a viral Twitter food post that Vince would share in our Slack room of some nob pretending they know what ribs are.

Steve, you know you lost the second you took that final photo of “burnt ribs next to sludge-pond sauce featuring green herbs cut up by angry house cat.” This squarely falls into the ledger row of dishes you’ve made in this competition I’d try only out of obligation to the format. But, I’d imagine I’d spit out the mouthful as soon as the focus was off my face.

Vince on Steve’s Ribs:

When Steve posted these on Instagram someone commented “did you plate these next to the lawn mower?” I’m not even going to try to outdo that one, I’m just going to leave it here.

One section of this stood out to me though: “But I’ve seen enough food controversies to know better than claiming a region, that’s just asking for trouble. ”

Steve, I know it’s hard to get roasted by random strangers on the internet week in, week out, but you’re cooking scared now. It’s helping no one. I think you maybe need to sit on the shores of a former pirate sanctuary off the coast of Morocco and have a think. Reading this I’m just imagining you getting pre-emptively defensive towards the critics who only exist in your head. “I know you think this is too many herbs but it’s not! They add distinctive grassy notes! I’m not even crying, you’re crying!”

Did you mention a single component of this dish without a clarification or a pre-apology or some kind of defense first? I have a lot of questions about your technique here and the difference between a sauce and a marinade, but I’ll leave that to Zach. Mostly I just feel like you need a hug.

Zach’s Smoked Beef Short Ribs w/ Blueberry Bourbon Chipotle BBQ Sauce

Zach Johnston

It’s summer. I have access to an old smoker. And dry-aged short ribs were sitting there at my butcher, teasing me to take the plunge and smoke them. So I’m making Texas-inspired smoked beef short ribs.

The crux of this recipe is the low and slow-smoked BBQ action. These ended up taking seven hours cooking plus about 90 minutes to get the fire hot enough and the internal temp of the smoker right. Then there was the overnight sit with the dry rub. So yeah, these are an effort.

But the end result was that wonderful silence that happens at a table of friends when the food is too good to say a word. It’s one of those dishes that you just bask in.

Oh, and I made my own sauce from blueberry purree, chipotle in adobo sauce, Wild Turkey, and maple syrup.

Ingredients:

Zach Johnston

For the Sauce:

  • 2.2-lbs. strained blueberry puree (about 4 cups)
  • 1 7-oz. can Chipotles in Adobo Sauce
  • 1 cup Grade A maple syrup
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • Large pinch of salt
  • Large pinch of allspice

I used Ponthier Blueberry Puree. It’s made every August when blueberries are at the peak of their in-season freshness. The puree is already strained and “cocktail” ready, making it perfect for making a sauce with.

Beyond that, the rest is pretty straightforward grocery store items. For the bourbon, I used Wild Turkey 101. It’s was open and on the shelf. Plus, I’ve really gotten into cooking with it lately.

Zach Johnston

For the Ribs:

  • 5-lbs. dry-aged beef short ribs
  • 1 tsp. pink salt
  • 1 tsp. MSG
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 tsp. cracked black pepper
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp. white pepper
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • More black pepper

Whenever I watch videos about Texas-style smoked short ribs, salt and pepper seem to be the main ingredient, and that’s cool. But there are plenty of BBQ joints that are using a little more than that. So, I took my cue from Meat Church in Austin and leaned towards their rub which is a little more dynamic than just salt and pepper. Still, I used a f*ckton of pepper and three types of sodium.

Other than that, get some good, local beef that you trust. I trimmed the fat cap and silverskin myself (I save the fat for grinding my own burgers). You can also ask your butcher to do that for you.

Zach Johnston

Method:

Zach Johnston

For the Sauce:

  • Grab a medium-sized pot and fill it with the blueberry puree, can of chipotles, maple syrup, whiskey, salt, and allspice.
  • Place the pot on medium heat and gently stir until everything is dissolved and mixed together.
  • Place a lid on the pot (slightly ajar) and bring to a low simmer, lowering the heat when necessary.
  • After about 30 minutes, I use a slotted spoon to remove the chipotle chilis and onions. They’ve steeped enough heat into the sauce and will overpower it if you leave them in. (Leave them in and puree the sauce at the end if you want a very hot and slightly bitter BBQ sauce).
  • Let simmer until reduced by half.
  • You’ll know the sauce is ready when it easily coats your spoon and has visibly thickened.
  • Let cool completely and save in a squeeze bottle or jar.
Zach Johnston

For the Ribs:

  • The day before your smoke session, trim the short ribs of the hard fat cap and layer of silverskin if necessary. (I don’t remove the membrane over the rib bones as they help stabilize the meat while it cooks and you can easily remove it after).
  • In a small bowl, mix all the salts, peppers, and spices.
  • Use paper towels to blot away any access moisture from the beef ribs.
  • Liberally apply the rub on all sides of the rib.
  • Place the ribs in a food-safe container, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
  • The next day, I set out the ribs to bring them up to room temp.
  • In the meantime, I get my smoker going with a combination of Weber briquettes and ash wood. I set up a fire pit next to the smoker as a feeder fire as well. I also pre-soak some Whiskey Wood Chips I have in water to ready them to go into the smokebox every hour or so.
  • Once the internal temp of the smoker reached a consistent 250F, I lay out my ribs on a cutting board and hit them with a thick layer of fresh cracked black pep.
  • I then lay the short ribs down on the smoker, rib side down, with a small bowl of water in the back of the smoker.
  • I close the lid for two hours while checking on the smoker’s temp about every 15 minutes to adjust the fire if needed (it’s an old and finicky smoker).
  • During that time, I get a food-safe spritzer and fill it with about one cup of apple cider vinegar.
  • After two hours, I hit the ribs with a good spritzing of apple cider vinegar and close the lid again. I do this again after another two hours. I then do it again at hours five and six.
  • At hour six, I check the temp and they’re about 175F. So, I wrap the ribs in butcher paper and return them to the smoker for about another 90 minutes while I work to fire to get the smoker’s internal heat closer to 275F.
  • I used a meat thermometer to check the doneness. I want them to hit 200F. I take them off the heat when they hit about 195F and let them sit on a cutting board for about 15 minutes until they hit 200F. The meat should have an almost jelly-like jiggle.
  • I use a big bread knife to cut some of the meat off the bone (though the bones slide out pretty easily) and slice it like brisket across the grain. I also slice some of them to make big ol’ on the bone chunks.
  • I hit the ribs and meat with a healthy drizzle of the BBQ sauce and serve.

Bottom Line:

Zach Johnston

There was dead silence at the table while we ate these. Seconds and thirds were had. It took a lot of work (nine hours or so) but, wow, was this worth it.

The fatty, smoked, and peppery meat has a serious bark and killer, fatty, and succulent burnt ends. It was seriously juicy and damn near melted in your mouth while still have the slightest of bites.

The sauce was full of earthy blueberry goodness with a hint of rich tobacco thanks to the Adobo and whiskey. The sweetness and chili heat was dialed in but there. That sweet, spicy, earthy matrix was the perfect accompaniment to the fatty and super umami beef ribs.

Zach Johnston

And come on! Look at that smoke ring!

Zach Johnston

I’m sure a Texas BBQ champion could find a million errors in the millimeters of my smoke ring, or the wood I used, or my spritz, or whatever. The bottom line is these were f*cking delicious and beloved by everyone in the backyard on Sunday afternoon. Plus, they made for amazing leftovers. Short rib hash and eggs, anyone?

Oh and in case you’re wondering what all those foil-wrapped packets were in my smoker, I also made a big batch of smoked spare ribs with a classic BBQ sauce glaze… We needed something to snack on while the beef ribs got up to temp! But, that’s a story for another day.

Zach Johnston

Vince on Zach’s Ribs:

Is it just me or does that top pic look a little… uh… vaginal?

That’s not a criticism, and, honestly, I’m having trouble finding things to criticize. You’ll see from my recipe that we clearly share a certain rib philosophy and you even used my beloved Wild Turkey. I guess my main criticism is that beef ribs seems like an insane amount of work. You work your ass off for basically an entire day, just to make your beef ribs taste as good as pork ribs do in half the time. There’s also sooo much meat on them!

I always think of ribs as kind of a weekend barbecue afternoon kind of meal, and I know if I ate these I’d need a nap right after. And I’d be thinking about waking up in the middle of the night with the meat sweats and the 10-pound dump I’m inevitably going to have to take at 5 am. So, that’s a little window into my rib-eating process.

These look wonderful, I just think eating more than one or two would have me pondering my own mortality.

Steve on Zach’s Ribs:

Holy shit. I hate you. I feel like I just walked into a knife fight in West Texas carrying an overboiled piece of spaghetti. YOU SMOKED RIBS FOR NINE HOURS? Listen man, we need to make this contest more competitive and I think I’ve figured out how: I’m putting my kids up for adoption. How much spare time do you have?

I don’t really know how to critique these besides mentioning that they’re more “meat slabs” than ribs. I see big wobbly-grained meat sections which… just isn’t really what I think of when I think ribs. They’re basically tall meat hunks over the top of some bone. That’s not much of a gripe but you have to let me reach a little.

Okay, you want the real mistake you made? Throwing in that picture of pork ribs at the bottom. Because I’d rather have those than the triple thiccccccc beefy versions any day of the week. Can a chef actually lose to his own (unsubmitted) dish? Because, if so, I think you did exactly that.

Vince’s Applewood Smoked Vinegar-Brined Chipotle Garlic Ribs Finished In A Pizza Oven

When it comes to barbecue, I’m more of a rib guy than anything else. Brisket is great, but only if it’s really good brisket. With pork ribs, even the mediocre ones are pretty good. Because they’re always pretty decent, I’ve experimented a lot with ribs. I’ve smoked them, boiled them, sous-vided them, water bathed them, foil-wrapped them; done them wet, dry, vinegary, Kansas City-style, Chinese five-spiced, and with mustard.

Of all the ways I’ve tried them, still the best ribs I think I’ve ever had are the ones my friend Clint Melville, who runs a tri-tip truck in Portland called Rip City Grill, made. We’ve known each other since kindergarten and get together at least once a year to play golf, and a few years back I went to visit him and he made these ribs that were so simple, just canned chipotles and brown sugar, cooked low in a water bath in the oven and then finished on the grill. They were so good that no matter how many different types of ribs I’ve tried since then, and I’ve been to barbecue competitions and the Aspen Food & Wine Festival since then, those are the ribs I remember.

These are basically those ribs, with a couple of tweaks.

Unless you have a big smoker, your basic home rib cook consists of two parts, a slow cook to weaken the connective tissue and get the ribs nice and tender, and a hot cook on a grill to give them some char. My ribs basically consisted of three steps:

– A dry brine overnight to make sure the ribs were seasoned through
– A stovetop smoke/vinegar steam to tenderize the meat and add the smoke flavor
– A short, hot cook in a pizza oven for maximum char with minimum dryness

The Dry Brine – 24 Hours

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

I tend to think just having a spice rub that you put on 24 hours ahead of time is far more important than the specifics of that spice rub. I made this rub a while back so I don’t remember the exact proportions, but it was something like:

  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • White Pepper (not a lot)
  • Onion Powder (lots)
  • Garlic Powder (lots)
  • Smoked Paprika (a medium amount)
  • Cayenne Pepper (just a little)
  • Brown Sugar

Basically I want the kick from the three kinds of pepper, onion and garlic because obviously, the smoky-sweet paprika, and sweetness from brown sugar. I tend to think my spice rub is perfect because I get it just the way I want it, but if you have Pappy’s, Slap Ya Mama, Lawry’s, whatever lying around, I tend to think all are fine.

I also add a drizzle of olive oil. It isn’t that common in rib recipes, but I did it that way once and the meat was noticeably more moist and tender.

Applewood Smoke With Vinegar Bath – 3 Hours

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

Now, if you want to just steam your dry-brined ribs in the oven using a little water, a grill pan covered in aluminum foil, that works just fine. Bake at 250-300 for two hours and they’re good to go. But I have this little stovetop smoker that’s perfect for ribs, which gets the steaming done while also adding the smoke flavor.

Basically, applewood chips go on the bottom, then a little grill pan filled with apple cider vinegar goes on top of that, then the grate with the ribs, then the lid. You turn the oven on until it starts to smoke, and then let the ribs go for three hours. It gets up to about 200 degrees (but tenderizes a lot more this way than if you just baked them at 200 degrees for that long in a regular oven). It infuses them with both the applewood smoke and the tang from the cider vinegar steam. You can kind of just check them and take them out when they hit the desired doneness level.

The Glaze

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

Like I said, this recipe was based on a simple chipotle + brown sugar formula that was so good I remembered it 5-6 years later. I didn’t tweak that much, I simply added garlic confit. Here’s my method:

  • About 2-3 heads of garlic
  • Enough olive oil to cover in small pot
  • Set heat at medium low and cook for 30-40 minutes (low enough so that they don’t really brown)
  • Cook until the texture of cream cheese, remove cloves with slotted spoon, reserve oil

Then for the glaze, I used:

– About 4-5 canned whole chipotle chilis in adobo
– The 2-3 heads worth of garlic confit
– About a cup, cup and a half brown sugar

Blend ingredients in blender, use reserved garlic olive oil and apple cider vinegar to get to the desired texture — roughly like store-bought bbq sauce. Then I brushed the glaze liberally onto the smoked ribs (note: that’s not an unglazed rib on the left side, it’s the second rack that I hadn’t glazed yet peeking through underneath).

The Char

The idea here was to create just a bit of crunch by caramelizing the glaze (which also makes it slightly less messy to eat), without leaving it on the heat long enough to dry out the interior of the meat (which is basically the perfect degree of rendered after the smoke/vinegar steam). Basically, I wanted it as hot and fast as possible (much like Steve’s mom).

My solution was to use my miniature wood-fired pizza oven, which claims to get up to 950 degrees (I haven’t sprung for the instant read thermometer to test it yet, but I’m going to assume this was at least 800 degrees). My wood pellets are a mix of applewood and oak.

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

(Those are some lamb sausages I was also cooking in the foreground there)

Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini
Vince Mancini

As you can see, I didn’t want to blacken the piss out of it. I didn’t leave it longer than five minutes, just enough time that some of the glaze crystallized, which created an amazing layer of microcrunchies on the outer layer of the moist, tender ribs. I took them out of the pizza oven and let them rest for 15 minutes.

The finished ribs weren’t too soft, like mush, but they were incredibly tender and easily pulled away from the bone. When you bite into them, they’re seasoned through from the dry brine, plus you get the tang from the vinegar steam, the sweet smokiness of the applewood, the spicy-sweet of the glaze, and the little bit of crunchiness from the super hot pizza oven. The chipotle-garlic sauce doesn’t come on that strong, but after two or three ribs your scalp is definitely sweating.

I have trouble being completely satisfied with anything that I cook, to the point that my whole family makes fun of me for never serving anything without some kind of apology, but in all honesty this time around as I was about as close as I’ve ever been to being thrilled with how my food came out. You may have ribs that you like better than these, but for me I think these are my favorite.

Steve on Vince’s Ribs:

I don’t think much of the pizza oven finishing and, having had one of those pizza ovens, I’ll bet anything it’s not 800-degrees. Your “micro-crunchiness” sort of sold me. If you really got that cool crystallized layer, I admire it. But it’s not a real char flavor. You made candied ribs — that’s what these are. I get the allure, but I want something kissed by fire.

As for more substantial critique, I’ll let Zach address the salting-pork-the-night-before issue and use my time to wonder: What’s the “other flavor” here? Is it bright enough to have layers? Did that apple cider steam give these ribs enough tart-sour to balance the umami of the meat plus chipotle? (Nope.)

I swear to god you put some Sweet Baby Rays sauce in a blender with a canned chipotle in adobo and lather it on a rack of ribs (no brine, no pre-seasoning) and then do these in the oven for three hours and finish on the grill and you have a dish that tests virtually the same. Meaning the inventiveness and creativity are equivalent to your “Steve needs a hug” burn — which you’ve literally already used three times now. Where’s the creativity, my dude?

Zach on Vince’s Ribs:

The cardinal sin of these ribs is that you pre-seasoned them overnight. BBQ champs the world over say again and again that you never season your pork ribs more than half and hour or so before you smoke. It’ll dry out the pork. Don’t believe me? Watch this video from Meat Church down in Austin.

When I was scrolling through these images, I was jolted by your plastic-wrap saucing as well. Why does your sauce look so plasticky? Does it taste like melted Saran wrap?

Then, those final photos scroll past and this gif came to mind:

New Line Cinema

Those last photos do really sell the ribs. Still…

You definitely under sauced your ribs. You also seem to have skipped a crucial second step of smoking again wrapped into foil with spice, butter, and more sugar before you do the saucing and caramelizing up at the end.

In the end, these feel like perfectly suitable backyard ribs for a dad in his 40s who loves food but doesn’t quite have the drive to really go all-in. I can imagine Steve asking me after he missed your BBQ (he has kids, Vince!) how I liked these and my response would be, “Yeah, they were fine.”

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