I want my baby back baby back baby back riiiiiiibsssss.
June 29, 2010 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Help a former vegan learn to cook meat! What are your best tips and how-tos? How can I cook ribs that will blow my friends away on the 4th of July?

I recently gave up being vegetarian/vegan after 15 years. Now I want to learn how to cook meat. This question is a two parter.

1) I'm planning on cooking some pork ribs on a gas grill for the 4th of July. I have NO IDEA what I'm doing. I don't even know what type of meat to select. Are ribs and baby-back ribs the same thing? I'm clueless. Is there anything in particular I should look for when I'm at the grocery store?

How should I prep the ribs so that they are "fall off the bone" delicious? Suggestions for marinades and/or barbecue sauces? (I prefer homemade vs store bought stuff that is full of corn syrup)

I will have access to a generic gas grill. What do I need to do to cook the ribs perfectly? Please, spell it out... I have never done this but I want to impress my friends :)

2) Please give me any other good tips for cooking meat. I don't eat much beef, so chicken, pork, and turkey recipes will be most useful. I have access to a normal electric oven and a crock pot (I do NOT have access to a grill at home). Besides just browning meat in a cast iron skillet --- which is what I normally do, for fajitas etc --- how can I cook it to perfection? What good cuts of meat should I be looking for?

posted by buckaroo_benzai to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Ideally you want low and slow -- low temperature and a long time. Generally the best luck I've had is to cook ribs in the oven for a while and then move them to the grill for the last little bit of cooking. I've tried this recipe a few times with great results -- since you requested a homemade bbq sauce, it fits that bill too.

I always get baby back ribs, from a good butcher or upscale store; they're usually cheaper on holiday weekends so it's not too pricey.
posted by bizzyb at 10:17 PM on June 29, 2010

Spare ribs and babybacks are not the same cut, although they're for the most part cooked and seasoned the same way. For ribs, I highly suggest the BRITU (Best Ribs In The Universe) rub recipe. Typically, a quarter-batch is enough for 3-4 slabs or ribs. Ribs that are falling off the bone aren't a function of the marinade, btw - it's a nice "low and slow" cooking process that makes all that connective tissue dissolve into rich lovely gelatin.

As far as the second part of your question - WOW that's broad. I've been cooking meat for 30 years and I don't think I have it quite right just yet. Browning meat in a cast iron skillet is a damn good way to start. My favorite steak recipe just involves searing a couple of filets in a cast iron pan heated stupid hot, then finishing in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes. My recommendation is to watch and read as much Alton Brown as you can get your hands on. He's the MAN when it comes to this stuff.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:22 PM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

1) There are many schools. Mine says marinate overnight (bbq sauce, either homemade or storebought, with extra garlic powder, onion powder, ground white pepper [lots]). Wrap well in foil(!), bake in oven at 420'F or so for a couple of hours+; put on "real" bbq grill (sans foil) to get the extra Maillard reaction flavour. Lots of people will disagree with me. Some people will advocate boiling the thing. Ugh.

2) Steaks: great quality great cuts of steak are best served rare/medium-rare. Cuts with more fat/connective tissue are best cooked medium/medium well. Sirloin should be served rare, ribeye should be served medium/medium well. Lots of people will disagree with me.

Generic steak cooking technique: pre-heat oven to 420'F, electric stovetop at 9, cast iron skillet. Season steaks with oil (not olive), salt (a little more than you think), garlic, onion, pepper powder (less than you think). Brown one side for 3 minutes, other side for 1-2 (for a Chicago style; otherwise subtract one from time and maybe 1 from electric stove setting). Turn down heat to 6 or 8 (unless you have great ventilation) once you have the steaks on the skillet/pan. Stick a digital thermometer into the middle of the steak from the side after you flip. Put skillet in oven. Take skillet out of oven when the middle hits 145'F, remove steaks from skillet onto a plate. Wait at least 5 minutes (closer to 10 is better) before serving. The wait part is actually really important.

This works for steaks >0.5 inches in thickness. For <>
"Sirloin" is a generically good cut. Well, cuts will depend on where you buy them from; discount supermarkets vs. decent supermarkets vs. butchers vs. good butchers vs. great butchers.

I'm actually partial to the (generally) cheaper "tri-tip." It's a little tougher than the "best" cuts, but it tends to have a great marble pattern and has a stronger "beefy" taste, although as a former vegan, this might not be what you're after. I particularly like the higher fat content (which is pretty evenly distributed rather than, say, a cheap loin chop with a fricken huge strip of fat/connective tissue along one edge) which adds to the flavour.

You're going to have to look at meat, cook it, and see how you like it, in order to know what "good" meat looks like to you. My personal take on ribeye is 350'F or even 320 after the sear, which takes a lot longer than 420'F but melts a lot of the connective tissue.

Anything with bone-in will take a lot more finesse unless you like really raw meat along with the well-cooked meat unless you're really good at cooking this particular kind of meat. Pre-warming helps, as is super-low heat, but bones throw a huge monkey wrench into evenly cooked steaks.
posted by porpoise at 10:58 PM on June 29, 2010

It's too much to learn, too fast, for a certain and favorable outcome.
Get a carnivore buddy to help.
If you must risk it, use a meat thermometer.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:30 PM on June 29, 2010

2. My favorite way to cook chicken* is to season it with just salt and pepper then roast it at a higher temp of 450 degrees. Then I use an instant read thermometer to test for doneness since it will get dry if over cooked. The higher oven temp makes the skin very crispy but keeps the meat tender and juicy. There is something about perfectly cooked chicken with such simple seasonings that I find appealing.

*I prefer to roast chicken cut in pieces instead of the whole bird.
posted by GlowWyrm at 11:38 PM on June 29, 2010

Baby back ribs come from the upper part of the ribcage, starting at the backbone & going down to maybe halfway along the ribcage. Spare ribs come from the lower part of the ribcage. Baby back ribs are generally considered to be easier to cook because there's more meat, less fat & the meat is more evenly distributed along the ribs. For a skilled pitmaster the fat on spare ribs is a bonus & helps keep the meat moist, but for a beginner the problem of cooking too hot & burning the fat makes it riskier. Go with the baby backs.

Like everybody says, low & slow will win the day. Keep it simple; buy a premixed spice rub & apply it a couple hours before cooking. As you're cooking, periodically (every 45 minutes or so) flip the ribs & wet them down with a liquid; again, nothing fancy is needed, I find apple juice works fine. Don't drown them, use a small cloth towel dunked in the liquid to mop it onto the ribs. Other than that leave them alone; you'll know they're done when the meat pulls back from the end of the ribs & you can push a knife all the way through with minimal force. Only sauce them at the very end, just before serving. If you sauce too early, you'll burn the sauce & ruin the ribs.

Good luck!
posted by scalefree at 12:43 AM on June 30, 2010

I've recently started cooking meat and it took me about six months to get pork right. If it's a joint I put foil in the roasting dish, put the joint in then put about 1/2 an inch of water in it. Wrap up the foil round the joint and water then cook it on a lower heat for three hours, unwrap the foil and a higher heat for an hour or untill the skin stuff is crispy and brown. The meat falls apart and is moist/delicious but the down side is it takes me four or five hours to cook a sodding joint.

Most pork does okay on long and low, chicken and turkey are fine at a higher heat for a shorter time (if it's a whole bird I do two hours in foil and water and one higher and unwrapped).

Spend the money on organic meat with no bones if you can, the taste difference is HUGE for organic and I've never got the hang of dealing with bones.
posted by shinybaum at 12:49 AM on June 30, 2010

Ribs: Here's a link to one of Steve Raichlin's receipes, First Timers Ribs. His receipes were my introduction to the world of REAL barbeque. Follow his instructions and you will have praise heaped upon this weekend. FWIW, Hunt's makes a Barbeques sauce that eschews HFCS for real cane sugar.
posted by KingEdRa at 1:01 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ribs: Remember to remove the silverskin! Or go to a decent butcher and make him do it if you're not sure what that is/how to do it.
posted by Diablevert at 1:04 AM on June 30, 2010

If you're new at this and care more about ease and taste than pointless strutting about 'hurf durf dat ain't real barbeque' then try this:

Throw your ribs in a tray or Dutch oven. Pour over a bottle (16oz?) of smokey barbeque sauce mixed with a half cup of citrus or pineapple juice. Cover tightly. Cook in a 320oF oven for 2.5 hrs if you want some bite, 3+ hours if you want them sliding off the bone, 4 hrs if you want them melting away. Works for beef or pork. Getting rid of the tough skin on the back is essential - get your butcher to do it coz it's a pain in the arse.

If you really want to use your gas grill, do them for 2.5 hours in the oven then finish them on a hot grill - you just want to char the outside a little.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:57 AM on June 30, 2010

Alton Brown's rib recipe, while a little salty works perfectly for cooking. Like others have said, low and slow is the key to tender ribs. Since I'm a lazy SOB, I have cooked ribs in crock pot. Cut them into 1/4 slabs before putting on the dry rub and then into the crock pot for 10 hours.
posted by plinth at 2:53 AM on June 30, 2010

(Alton Brown's recipe)
posted by plinth at 2:53 AM on June 30, 2010

Question 2 is far too broad to address meaningfully here.

As to the ribs, the baby backs are significantly better. It's possible that you will have to peel a thin membrane off the inside of the ribs before cooking, or ask your butcher to do it.

Standard grills are too hot, even on their lowest settings, to achieve the long, slow cooking that you're looking for. Like others have suggested, I do most of my cooking in the oven and only finish on the grill. Typically I apply some sort of spice mixture -- you'll find the internet offers endless dry rub recipes, but the seasoning can be as simple as a generous sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. I put the seasoned slabs into a roasting pan, cover tightly with foil, and bake at 250F (or even lower if I have time) for a few hours, checking periodically. When they're pretty much done*, I pull them out and brown them on the grill while brushing with some sort of sauce**.

* Judging doneness is the key here. You are not baking a cake with carefully measured ingredients in a standard pan. Different slabs of ribs from different animals, with different starting temps, take different amounts of time to cook. There is no simple formula to tell you exactly how long it will take, at what temperature. This is where an experienced friend will be invaluable.

** Most commercial BBQ sauces are far too sweet for my taste. Besides the flavor issue, sugar burns easily. I don't have a particular recipe to suggest, but try making your own sauce.
posted by jon1270 at 4:13 AM on June 30, 2010

My personal rib opinion: Smoked ribs beat the pants off anything else, but not everyone has access to a smoker.

When i am preparing ribs, I use the following recipe (i believe it's originally from Bobby Flay):

* 1 tablespoon cumin
* 1 tablespoon paprika
* 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
* 1 tablespoon granulated onion
* 1 tablespoon chili powder
* 1 tablespoon brown sugar
* 2 tablespoons kosher salt
* 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 1 teaspoon black pepper
* 1 teaspoon white pepper

Combine the ingredients and pack them on your next set of ribs.

Place the ribs (packed with dry rub) in a roasting pan, bone side down. Run enough water into the pan to just cover the bottom. Cover the pan as tightly as you can with aluminum foil. Bake the ribs for 2-3 hours at 250 degrees. Essentially what you are doing is steaming the ribs at this point - this will ensure that your ribs are 1.) done and 2.) juicy. After that, pull the ribs out and give em a nice coating of your choice of barbeque sauce. At this point, You can either put them back in the oven (uncovered) for about an hour longer, or finish them off on the grill - I prefer the grill, but sometimes just use the oven for simplicity's sake.

(you can see some pictures i have taken of my ribs being prepared here, here, and here. Sorry, no "after" pics, they were delicious and everyone was hungry from the smell of roasting!"

With respect to the general question of cooking meat:

If you are making a steak, i highly suggest getting a instant-read thermometer. Generally you can use these guidelines:

Beef - rare - <> Beef - med.rare - 145 degrees F
Beef - med - 160 degrees F
Beef - well - >160 degrees F

Trade Secret: Early in my culinary career, i learned a little trick that makes temping meat on-the-fly very easy, without using a thermometer. Take a look at your left hand. With your right index finger, poke the fleshy area below the left thumb. Make a mental note of how much give the flesh of your left hand exhibits. This is an example of how a rare steak should feel when you poke it in a similar fashion. Now, take the index finger of your left hand, and press it to the fleshy part under your thumb. Leaving your hand like that, poke with your right index finger. This is how a medium-rare steak should feel. Each finger on your left hand corresponds (roughly) to a meat temperature. Note how stiff it feels when you press your left pinky finger to the fleshy part below your left thumb.

Chicken should ALWAYS be done to 165 degrees F. Generally, when you pierce the chicken and the juice that runs out is clear, the chicken is done.

There is so much more i could write here, but my shift at work is up. if i have answered your questions well and you would like more info, please feel free to MeMail me!
posted by frmrpreztaft at 4:20 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sorry, the messed up part above should read:

beef - rare - less than 145F
beef - medium rare - 145F
beef - medium - 160F
beef - well - greater than 160F

silly phone.
posted by frmrpreztaft at 4:47 AM on June 30, 2010

The essence of meat flavour is two things at odds with each other: browning reactions taking place at 300F and up, and fatty juices which are at their best at 140F or so. For excellent meat, you must cook it so the result has both, while being mindful of food safety.

The right way to cook almost every piece of meat, from steak, ribs, a burger, turkey, chicken, pork or any other piece of meat is to:

1) clean it, prepare it, and season it for flavour,

2) bake/roast/steam/smoke it low (200-250F) and slow (minutes to hours) until the internal temperature is just below the correct level for food safety but no higher

3) broil/sear/fry/grill it high (500F or higher) and fast (seconds to minutes) until the surface is browned but not blackened.

4) let the meat rest minutes (2-10) before slicing or eating, so the heat shock passes, surface temperature moderates, and the juices are somewhat re-absorbed internally.

If you remember those four essential steps as the backbone of any meat cooking process, you'll be doing much better than most carnivores who just "cook it until it's done" and you'll come out looking like a rock star.

The hardest part is making sure internal temperature is where it needs to be for the various cuts of meat: for this you need a digital meat probe thermometer. With that, some kitchen consciousness, and a good guide on getting appropriate cuts of meat, and recipes showing you the appropriate prep and seasoning (brines/marinades/rubs/etc) you'll be turning out everything from burgers to steaks to ribs to roasts to chops to birds that will delight the taste buds and amaze your friends -- "you used to be a VEGAN? how the fuck did you cook this?"

Good luck!
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:11 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

2) Please give me any other good tips for cooking meat.

This is actually really really easy: Cook tender cuts of meat fast and hot. Cook tough cuts of meat low and slow.

Meat gets tougher when you cook it, unless you cook it for a really really long time, at which point it starts to get tender again.

So if you've got a brisket or ribs, you want to wrap it up in foil, put it in the oven at 250° F and leave it in there all day. All that tough connective tissue will break down into soft gelatin and you get the tender, falling-off-the-bone thing. (I'm too lazy to use a grill for slow cooking, I'm sure it's better that way but I find it too much trouble keeping the temperature stable. BBQ sauce, foil, oven, done. I know, sacrilege.)

Or if you've got a nice filet steak, you want to let it come to room temperature first, sear it in a glowing-hot cast iron pan or on a hot grill for just a few minutes on each side, then get it off the heat and let it rest for a while before you serve it -- the resting period lets the heat spread through the meat and keeps cooking the interior without letting the outside get overdone.

The hardest part about cooking meat is knowing when it's done; you want to get it off the heat before it's done. This just takes practice. Poke the meat with your finger while it's cooking and eventually you'll learn what it should feel like when it's ready to come off the heat. (I still cheat and cut it open to take a peek sometimes, though. Nothing wrong with that. Just remember to turn off the heat while it's more rare than you actually want it to end up; you can always throw it back in the pan for a minute or two later on if you're too early, but you can't uncook an overdone steak.)
posted by ook at 8:09 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

See Harold McGee's just published article and accompanying recipe: The Secret to Ribs Is Already in the Kitchen: The Oven.

The basic point is that cooking ribs for a group solely on a backyard grill is a task that generally leads to mediocre results. I agree. As others have pointed out you want to cook the ribs low and slow and this is best achieved in an oven--follow this by getting a little char from the grill at the end.

And it can't be stressed enough . . . before you ad a rub or start cooking: Remove the membrane! (video instruction)
posted by donovan at 8:22 AM on June 30, 2010

General Meat Tips:

Marinating for flavor. The jury's out on whether it actually does anything re: tenderness (Cook's Illustrated doesn't think so IIRC), but it definitely does in my opinion give you an easy hands-off way to insure your meat tastes yummy. Lemon or lime juices, soy sauce (a little goes a long way), Asian fruit-based sauces like ponzu or bulgogi/kalbi marinade etc., pomegranate molasses, sumac, vinegar, tomatoes, other herbs and spices of your choice, yogurt, etc.--lots of possibilities.

Pat your meat dry gently before cooking on the stovetop to avoid it steaming and turning a lifeless mushy grey inside. Coat with salt, pepper, and other spices if you like. A light dusting of flour is fine too, esp. on chicken.

Sear/brown meat on the stovetop first, forming a crust using the Maillard effect (sounds like you're familiar already as you mentioned fajitas and cast iron, so you probably already know that newbie stovetop meat cookers often have their heat too low and the meat dries out, and not to do that). Certain cuts of beef or pork do really well when you do this and then broil in the oven for a little bit to finish off the center--London Broil and some versions of pork tenderloin come to mind.

Make easy pan sauces afterward with the fond in your pan from the Maillard effect browning step. Take something acidic like dry wine, vermouth, vinegar, etc., deglaze the pan of any browned bits while the alcohol or tang boils off, add stock and flavors of your choice, and finish up with a knob of butter, cream, or Wondra flour to thicken nicely and add richness. For a typical weeknight dinner to feed just 2 to 4 people, 1/2 cup liquid is around what you should start with, and let it cook off to about half that.

When sauteeing meat a lot of times, the best way to start is with a mix of butter and oil--oil for the smoke point and butter for the flavor.
posted by ifjuly at 7:01 PM on June 30, 2010

Oh duh, I forgot a big one: when you cook big cuts of meat via roasting, broiling, etc. when they come out of the oven, let them rest 10 or 15 minutes before you carve them. If you don't, all the wonderful juices inside that will keep the meat tender and tasty won't stay in the meat and continue making it tender.
posted by ifjuly at 7:03 PM on June 30, 2010

I thought of another trick. I had a bad time for the longest trying to use a cast iron grill pan indoors to "grill" meat like pork chops and marinated chicken breasts or thighs. I discovered that searing both sides briefly and then gently covering the pan with the lid slightly ajar helped the inside cook evenly super fast before the outside got tough and dried out. Kind of the same principal as grilled cheese sandwiches.
posted by ifjuly at 7:05 PM on June 30, 2010

G'ah, I keep thinking of more little things, apologies if they're too obvious:

Don't overcrowd your pan. That more than anything was my big mistake starting out before I knew anything. Crowding encourages your meat to steam instead of brown, which will not be as enticing a result with most saute recipes, and the more stuff you add to a pan at once obviously the more the heat in it abruptly drops, which is bad when you're pan sauteing. So whenever you're trying to brown meat quickly at high heat, don't crowd; do things in batches. This is a huge pain in the ass when browning, say, a bunch of meat for stew in the winter, but it's so worth it when you really want truly browned meat--the crustier and browner and stronger the initial seal the deeper the end flavor of stuff like stew beef, mm.
posted by ifjuly at 7:10 PM on June 30, 2010

I may be late to the party, but I wanted to add to the record. Spare ribs baked in the oven are no shame at all. St. Louis cut ribs, seasoned with just salt and pepper, will turn into the most beautiful thing you've ever tasted.
The McGee article above is about right (sans the rub) but you can go a little faster, brown the meat at about 375 or so, then back it down to 300 to finish. 165 is a great temp to eat this at, but remember that there's going to be some carry-over time. If you pull out spare ribs when they're 160, you're doing yourself a favor.
posted by Gilbert at 8:12 PM on July 1, 2010

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