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Fare Perspective: Smoked Beef Ribs

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Lockhart Smokehouse Pitmaster Tim McLaughlin displays a few selections of beef ribs. (Entree Dallas)

There’s little doubt that in the world of Texas barbecue, brisket reigns supreme: From Austin’s Franklin, Lockhart’s trifecta, Houston standby Goode Company and Dallas’ ubiquitous Dickey’s, ‘beef’ is simply short for ‘brisket.’

But on Wednesdays at Lockhart Smokehouse, brisket shares the stage – in fact, sometimes surrenders the limelight almost entirely – to a far lesser-known cut of the animal: a two-and-a-half pound hunk of meat on a stick known as the beef rib. Full of flavor as well as finicky collagen and connective tissue, the beef rib takes just as much care as brisket, but in several different respects. To get a better idea of how it’s prepped, and what to look for in a smoked beef rib, we sat down with Lockhart Smokehouse Pit Master and Co-Owner Tim McLaughlin to help explain some secrets about the Beef Rib.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Tim. To start, can you give us some general observations about beef ribs?

The beef short loin rib that Lockhart uses (top left) packs far more meat than the back ribs (bottom left) as well as pork ribs (right).

Well, from our perspective, the special thing about a beef rib is the way you have to deal with it. It’s got a lot of connective tissue, so it takes a long time to cook down; it’s really about the connective tissue, really.  There are two kinds of connective tissue, Collagen and Elastin; the elastin never really breaks down – that’s like that little rubber band looking piece you see on a chicken leg.The collagen, though, will break down and turn into a gelatin substance, and that’s what’s going to moisten the beef rib. So while there is a good amount of fat content in a beef rib, what really moistens it is that collagen breaking down and turning into the juice. And there are two ways you can do that: you can cook it really slow in the smoker, or cook it in a braise, like they’ll do up North. But in Texas, you’re more likely to see a smoked beef rib.

We season our ribs and we use our rub just like we would the brisket. And a lot like the brisket, it cooks for such a long period of time at such a low degree that that flavor really concentrates. But the benefit that’s not really there with brisket is that is anything you cook on a bone will stay more moist because it cooks from the inside out – that bone gets hot and starts cooking from the inside. As for the ribs themselves, the ones we use are short loin ribs, which come from the top half of the ribs as opposed to beef back ribs, which have a lot less meat on them.

So, like brisket, when it comes to beef ribs the mantra is also Low and Slow?

Yeah, if we wanted to cook some for dinner service we’d start them at five o’clock in the morning when somebody got here, and the ones we’re serving at lunchtime are cooked overnight. We cook them all at 220 (degrees Fahrenheit), and then as far as our meats go, we don’t really ever temp anything; it’s all done by feel. We have a poker in the back – there’s an art to it, really. Even with the briskets, some people will take a thermometer and stick it in a brisket, and at 190 it’s done.  We don’t really do it that way.

The Beef rib is well marbled, but also full of connective tissue that must be broken down over hours of cooking.

Are there any significant differences in the preparation of Brisket and Beef Ribs?

There’s probably a little bit more connective tissue in a beef rib than a brisket, but a brisket is also high in it as well. Brisket’s more high in fat content though, and with the fat you really need to break it down and render it. With beef ribs you’re really focusing on breaking down that connective tissue. Because if you don’t break down that connective tissue, it’s like beef chewing gum.

The probe helps determine the doneness of the meat, in this case how easily it pulls from the bone.

Beef chewing gum? That might not be a bad idea.

Well, yeah – we could probably sell it here!

So Lockhart uses Post Oak to smoke their meats – is that your preferred wood for Beef Ribs, or is it something that tradition dictates?

Well, since we try to focus on the flavor of the meats instead of the flavor of the smoke, Post Oak is the wood we prefer. You know, a lot of people use Mesquite, Hickory, or maybe a combination of the two because they’ve got a much stronger flavor. But the only time we ever steer away from the Post Oak is when we use a fruit tree, just to add a little sweetness to the mix. But we really want to focus on the quality and the flavor of the meat as opposed to the flavor of the smoke. Some people don’t get us about that one – they’ll say it’s not smokey enough, but that’s not really what we’re shooting for. Post Oak is a very, very tame smoke.

What are some of the reactions you get to the beef ribs when you serve them?

McLaughlin views his bounty of beef ribs and is pleased.

Well, everybody seems to love ‘em! Visually, they’re very impressive. We have two different cuts: one we call the Dinosaur Cut, where it’s just the bone in, and it’s ‘Here you go, have fun with it!’ And then if you wish, we’ll take it off the bone and slice it into pieces for you too. The one where you slice it into pieces is a little easier to deal with, but the whole bone is pretty impressive looking.

And when they sit down and eat it – well, we’ve never had a negative comment on our beef ribs.  We have a big following for them; we only do them on Wednesdays, so what we’ll see today is that they’ll be sold out in two or three hours – the first 20 people that come in here will be ordering beef ribs. They get here at eleven, eleven-thirty to make sure that they get one, and we probably have about four or five people already who have called in and asked us to hold them. On Wednesdays, it’s automatic: we always sell out of beef ribs no matter how much we cook. You know, half a case, full case, case and a half, they’re always gone by six o’clock.

The Lockhart smoked beef rib.

We hear you’re from St. Louis. We’re guessing these aren’t the type of ribs you grew up with?

Well, you obviously get a lot more meat with the beef ribs than pork ribs, though pork ribs are a little easier to deal with. Pork ribs don’t have all the connective tissue and membranes running through them, so they’re a little easier to successfully cook. St. Louis barbecue and Texas barbecue are both fantastic, but they are worlds apart. St. Louis is more about the sauce, where Texas is more about the meats. Myself, I prefer Texas barbecue.

 

 

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