I was a skeptic at first, but I'm going to say it now: When done properly, ribs cooked via sous vide are every bit as good as traditional barbecue, if not better. Not only that, but they're far more replicable (no weather or wind or uneven heat from coals to deal with), they take much less effort (no babysitting that smoker!), they take less practice (anybody who can turn on an iPod can turn on a sous vide cooker), and, to top it off, they can be cooked year-round, indoors.
Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
For most people who live outside of the southern US, the opportunities to taste excellent, smoky, low-and-slow Southern-style barbecue pork ribs are few and far between. You may be lucky enough to have a backyard and a smoker or Kettle grill, but even then, nailing that perfect temperature time after time can be a tricky affair that takes years of practice to get right. Enter sous vide. With a vacuum sealer and a precision cooker in your kitchen, you're guaranteed perfect results every time. I'm talking pork ribs with a crusty bark or rich glaze of sauce and a texture that's tender yet meaty. Ribs that don't fall off the bone—any barbecue lover will tell you that ribs that fall off the bone are overcooked—but that release with just a gentle tug of the teeth.
What We're After
When you cook barbecue ribs in a smoker, a number of things are going on.
- First, slow, gentle heat in a smoker allows the ribs' copious connective tissue to convert into gelatin, turning the tough ribs tender.
- Second, the exterior of the ribs dehydrates and browns via the Maillard reaction, a series of chemical processes that gives browned meats their complex flavor. This is what creates the pleasant, crisp bark on the outside of a good rib.
- Third, the meat becomes more and more flavorful as smoky compounds from the wood and coal are lifted into the air via water vapor. That water vapor then condenses on the surface of the meat and re-evaporates, leaving smoky flavors behind.
- Fourth, the ribs develop a "smoke ring," a ring of pink just below the surface of the meat, caused by the interaction of its red pigment with nitric oxide or carbon monoxide from the grill.
So, in order to get great ribs from our sous vide cooker, we need to address all of these issues.
A Tender, Meaty Interior
Turning tough meat tender requires two things: heat energy and time. When meat is held at a temperature of around 130°F (54°C) and up, tough connective tissue will break down into gelatin. The rate at which this conversion takes place is a function of temperature; the lower the temperature, the longer it takes. At the same time, the lower the temperature, the more internal moisture the ribs will retain as they cook. To determine the optimal temperature and timing range, I cooked several dozen ribs, at temperatures ranging from 130°F all the way up to 180°F (82°C).
At the lower end of the spectrum, the meat takes far too long to tenderize—up to three days or more, and even then, the meat comes out more mushy and soft than tender and meaty. Too hot, and the meat falls apart in shreds, tasting more boiled than barbecued. The middle, between 145 and 165°F (63 and 74°C), was the sweet spot, and, to be honest, there were quite a few temperature and timing combinations from that range that I enjoyed. Here are my two favorites:
Extra Meaty: 145°F (63°C) for 36 Hours
At this low temperature, ribs retain plenty of moisture as they tenderize. The result is an extra-meaty rib that has the texture of a moist pork chop, but is still tender to the tooth. It pulls away from the bones nicely with just a little tug. I've never gotten meat with this texture using more traditional means of cooking, so if you really want to see what sous vide can do, this is the way to go.
Traditional Barbecue–Style Texture: 165°F (74°C) for 12 Hours
At 165°F (74°C), you end up with meat that's a little more loose and shreds more easily, though it's by no means dry. This is meat that pulls off the bone and almost melts on your tongue, washing it with porky flavor and leaving behind shreds with a more significant chew. The texture is very much like that of traditional barbecue, though a little bit moister.
You can extrapolate from these two temperatures and timings to figure out what other combinations in between will yield. Cooking at 152°F (67°C) for 24 hours was a close runner-up, resulting in a texture that's a little more tender than the 145°F ribs, but a little juicier than the 165°F ones.
So, while ribs cooked at 145°F will take about three times as long to tenderize as ribs cooked at 165°F, they'll end up with a meatier, more succulent texture that eats almost like an extra-tender steak. Ribs cooked at a higher temperature will have a more traditional barbecue rib texture, with well-rendered fat and meat that shreds as you eat it.
For Extra-Juicy Ribs, Turn to Salt!
With temperature and timing addressed, I turned to the next question: the rub. I mixed together a basic spice rub using our guide to spice rubs as a template, adjusting the flavors until I got something I was happy with. I ended up with a combination of paprika, mustard seed, black pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, coriander seed, and red pepper flakes, along with brown sugar for sweetness.
A couple of questions came up immediately. Some sous vide recipes recommend against adding spice rubs to the bag as the meat cooks, because they can alter the flavor in a negative way. I have never found this to be the case, whether I'm cooking a steak, vegetables, or ribs. Spice rubs work just fine in sous vide bags.
The other, more important question was that of salt. Specifically, when and how much to add. Salt can have a profound effect on the texture and flavor of meat proteins. As salt sits in contact with meat, it will dissolve some muscle proteins, which in turn helps the meat retain moisture better. That's the reason a ham has that particular juicy and tender texture—which is great in ham, but not always desirable in barbecue. I tried cooking a few different sets of ribs side by side.
The first batch I left completely unsalted, rubbing the ribs with the salt-free rub, cooking them, then adding salt only to taste at the very end. These ribs came out tender, but relatively dry, and they also weren't particularly well seasoned on the inside. The ribs I rubbed with a mixture that included salt, on the other hand, came out far juicier in the end. Juicy enough that you could immediately see the difference with your naked eye before even biting into them.
I also tried salting the ribs by soaking them in a brine solution for a few hours before rubbing, bagging, and cooking them. The ribs that were brined in salt water ended up with the same problems I find in almost all brined products: They are juicier, but that juice is watery. The ribs end up tasting more wet than juicy and meaty. Regular salting is the way to go.
As for timing, even salting immediately prior to bagging and cooking is okay, but I got the best results out of ribs that were salted and bagged a day in advance and allowed to rest overnight in the refrigerator before cooking the next day. Any longer than a day in the fridge, and they start to take on a much hammier texture.
Liquid Smoke Is Real Smoke!
Now we get to the real question: How do you get smoky flavor into ribs without actual smoke? Some sous vide recipes use a hybrid method, either starting or finishing the ribs in the smoker to add real smoke flavor to them. To me, this seems to miss the point. If I'm willing to fire up the smoker, then there are any number of traditional recipes out there that don't necessarily require sous vide for great results. I want a method that allows me to cook the ribs indoors from start to finish, no actual fire necessary.
Liquid smoke gets a bum rap, but it shouldn't. The good brands, such as Wright's or Colgin, are quite literally nothing more than smoke and water in a bottle. To make it, manufacturers burn hardwood—just like you would in your smoker—then run the moist smoke through a condenser, where water vapor condenses and traps the smoky constituents—just like how water vapor condenses and deposits smoke flavor on the surface of meat. This water drips down and is collected and packed into bottles.
According to gas chromatograms from flavor and fragrance experts Leffingwell & Associates, the vast majority of compounds that lend smoke its unique aroma—smoky phenols derived from burnt wood lignin, and burnt caramel–scented cyclopentenolones from cellulose—make their way into those liquid smoke bottles as well. In taste tests I've held, most folks cannot tell the difference between truly smoked meats and those treated with judiciously applied liquid smoke.
To get a smoke flavor that penetrates the meat but doesn't overwhelm it, I like to add liquid smoke directly to the sous vide bag just before sealing it. The good part is that you don't have to worry about distributing it evenly. Just shake a few drops in and seal the bag, and as the meat cooks, the juices it releases will distribute the liquid smoke flavor naturally.
And What About the Smoke Ring?
The smoke ring? You mean that pink ring of meat that appears around the edges of a well-smoked rack of ribs or brisket? Yeah, what about it?
Here's the fact: The smoke ring is purely cosmetic. That's right. It signifies absolutely no guarantee of smoke flavor or proper cooking. The smoke ring appears due to the interaction of carbon monoxide (CO) and nitric oxide (NO) with myoglobin, the natural pigment that makes meat red (a close relative of hemoglobin, the red blood pigment). As meat cooks in a carbon- and nitric-oxide-rich environment, its pink color becomes "fixed," preventing it from oxidizing and turning into metmyoglobin, the brown pigment you see in cooked (or old) meat. A red "smoke" ring will appear in any environment in which meat is slow-cooked in the presence of CO or NO, whether or not any smoke is involved in the process at all. For some deeper science on the smoke ring, I highly recommend reading this great smoke ring myth-busting article from AmazingRibs.com.
All that said, what if you do want a smoke ring, to help you replicate the barbecue experience as fully as possible? There is no CO or NO present in a sous vide bag, so getting that smoke ring seems like an impossibility, right? Not so fast. We can't get the exact same reaction, but we can get one that's darn close by using pink curing salts, a.k.a. sodium nitrite. The reaction between sodium nitrite and myoglobin is very similar to that between myoglobin and CO/NO, and it has the same end effect: fixing the pink color. By adding a small amount of sodium nitrite to the spice rub and letting the meat rest in that rub overnight, you end up with a nice pink "smoke" ring after it's done cooking—no actual smoke involved!
How to Cook Pork Ribs Sous Vide, Step by Step
Step 1: Peel and Section Ribs
Remove the papery membrane on the back of the ribs, using a paper towel or kitchen towel to grip it and pulling it away in one piece. Divide each rack of ribs into three to four portions, with three to four ribs each, by cutting through the meat in between the ribs.
Step 2: Rub the Ribs
Working in batches, combine paprika, brown sugar, salt, mustard seed, black pepper, garlic powder, oregano, coriander seed, and red pepper flakes in a spice grinder and reduce it all to a fine powder. (See the full recipe here for exact measurements.) If you'd like your ribs to have a pink smoke ring, add a quarter teaspoon of pink curing salt (Prague Powder #1) to your spice mixture. Set aside three tablespoons of the mixture; you'll use this later to flavor your barbecue sauce, or to re-rub your ribs before finishing if you're making dry-style ribs.
Rub the ribs generously on all sides with the remaining spice rub mixture, then place individual portions of rubbed ribs in vacuum bags. (Fold over the top while you add the ribs so that no rub or pork juices get on the edge of the bag, which can weaken the seal.) Add four drops (about an eighth of a teaspoon) of liquid smoke to each bag. Don't worry much about distributing the liquid smoke evenly over the ribs; it'll spread around during cooking no matter where you add it.
Step 3: Seal and Cook the Ribs
Seal your ribs and let them marinate in the refrigerator at least overnight to get the best texture and flavor.
When you're ready to cook, set your precision cooker to the desired temperature according to the guidelines above. Add the ribs to the water bath and cover it with a lid, aluminum foil, or table tennis balls. Cook them for the recommended time period. When the time is up, transfer the cooked ribs to a large bowl of water filled with ice to chill them thoroughly. The ribs can be stored in the refrigerator at this stage for up to five days before finishing.
How to Finish Your Ribs With a Kansas City–Style Sauce
Combine the remaining three tablespoons of the spice rub with grated onion, ketchup, mustard, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and liquid smoke in a medium saucepan and whisk to combine. (Again, see the full recipe here for exact measurements.) Bring the mixture to a bare simmer and cook until it's reduced and thickened, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
Remove the ribs from the vacuum bags and carefully pat them dry with paper towels.
To Finish in the Oven: Adjust your oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Line two rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil and place a wire rack in each. Divide the ribs evenly between the racks, facing up. Transfer the ribs to the oven and cook them until their surface is sizzling and the ribs are heated through, about 20 minutes.
The key to good saucing is using layers. Brush the ribs with sauce and return them to the oven for 10 minutes. Remove them from the oven, brush them with another layer of sauce, and return them to the oven until the sauce is dried and sticky, about 10 minutes longer. Remove the ribs from the oven and serve, passing extra sauce at the table.
To Finish on the Grill: Light half a chimney full of charcoal (about two and a half quarts of coals). When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set the cooking grate in place, cover the grill, and allow it to preheat for five minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the medium heat setting, cover, and preheat it for 10 minutes. Scrape the grill grates clean with a grill scraper, then oil the grates by holding an oil-dipped kitchen towel or paper towels in a set of tongs and rubbing them over the grates five to six times. Place the ribs, facing up, over the cooler side of the grill. Cover and cook until the ribs are heated through and dry to the touch, about 15 minutes.
Brush the ribs with a layer of sauce and transfer the ribs to the hotter side of the grill. Cover and cook until the sauce is mostly dry, about seven minutes. Brush with a second layer of sauce, cover, and cook until the second layer is sticky, about five minutes longer. Remove the ribs from the grill and serve, passing extra sauce at the table.
How to Finish Your Ribs Memphis Dry-Style
Remove the ribs from the vacuum bags and carefully pat them dry with paper towels. Rub them with the remaining three tablespoons of spice rub.
To Finish in the Oven: Adjust your oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and preheat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Line two rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil and place a wire rack in each. Divide the ribs evenly between the racks, facing up. Transfer the ribs to the oven and cook them until their surface is sizzling and a crusty bark has formed, about 40 minutes total.
To Finish on the Grill: Light one half chimney full of charcoal (about two and a half quarts of coals). When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set the cooking grate in place, cover the grill, and allow it to preheat for five minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the medium heat setting, cover, and preheat it for 10 minutes. Scrape the grill grates clean with a grill scraper, then oil the grates by holding an oil-dipped kitchen towel or paper towels in a set of tongs and rubbing them over the grates five to six times. Place the ribs, facing up, over the cooler side of the grill. Cover and cook until the ribs are heated through and dry to the touch, about 15 minutes. Transfer the ribs to the hotter side of the grill and continue cooking, turning occasionally, until a crusty bark has formed, about 10 minutes longer. Remove the ribs and serve.
I can already hear the cult of barbecue beating a path toward my door. "That's not real barbecue!" "It may be delicious, but how dare you!" "Only a Yankee would dare call this stuff barbecue!"
All I can say is, you can fret and call me names all you want. In the meantime, I'll be over here enjoying my smoky, tender, meaty, delicious, and 100% replicable ribs. If you'd like to join me, you're welcome to pull up a seat and grab a rack or two.
Editor's Note: This guide was produced for Serious Eats as part of our partnership with Anova, the makers of the Anova Precision Cooker. You can download the Anova Precision Cooker App (it's free) to grab all this information right off your phone or tablet while you're cooking. And, if you've got an Anova Precision Cooker, you can even control it directly from the app via Bluetooth or WiFi. Of course, this information should prove useful to anyone who owns a functional sous vide device.