FOR MOST of the year, cooking is something that happens in the kitchen, with handy modern inventions like stoves and microwaves. During summer, though, it's socially acceptable for modern humans to return to their caveman roots and gather around the fire... Clan of the Cave Bear-style.
Meat roasts over an open flame, the smell of muscle and bones fill the smoky air, and friends and family consume the charred flesh the same way Cro-Magnons probably lapped up mammoth pieces. Almost any style of outdoor meat can evoke atavistic feelings of prehistoric toughness, but easily the most Fred Flintstone-esque of all cuts is the rib. There is no chunk of animal more evocative of Quest for Fire-style carnivorous primitivism than that lovely muscle that holds an animal's lungs in place.
But just because slurping up barbecue ribs makes you feel like a primitive viscera-covered cave dweller, that doesn't mean you have to cook like one. Despite humanity's persistent love for cooking meat over flames since time immemorial, culinary techniques have advanced a bit since Neanderthal days.
Jenn Louis, the chef at Portland's Lincoln Restaurant, Top Chef participant, and author of Pasta by Hand has a few opinions about ribs. For instance, marinating them for a few days is usually recommended.
"I like to grill beef short ribs and pork spare ribs," says Louis, when asked about which cuts she prefers. "Both benefit from a couple days of marination, soaking in a ton of flavor."
Louis recommends you pick a marinade based on the style or genre of the side dishes that you'll serve with the ribs, and emphasizes that ribs are versatile. They work with a whole variety of complementary flavors, so you can experiment and fool around.
And as much as your inner caveman might want to just shovel meat into the flames, low heat is the best.
"You want to cook your ribs slowly. The meat is a muscle that breaks down slowly with low, consistent heat. Do not cook over high heat," says Louis. "When building your fire on your grill, set the fire/wood chips up on one side and lay the ribs on the other side. Cover the grill and let smoke slowly. This indirect heat will keep the oven [or] barbecue going without heating up the meat with any direct heat. This is ideal so that the muscle is cooked and tenderized really slowly."
Louis emphasizes the importance of time and patience when cooking, so that by the end, the meat should still be tender and moist.
Post-ribs, though, there's still a lot of use you can get from those flavor-clad bone chunks.
"Pick leftover smoked pieces into a ragu for pasta," says Louis. "And stick a brined chicken on the grill with a can of beer under or in its carcass. Rub with salt, pepper, and pimenton and cook on the same grill."
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