The Food Lab’s Guide to Sous Vide Ribs
Perfecting any recipe is a challenge for me. I am, shall we say, a little obsessive with my testing. Perfecting a recipe like sous vide barbecue-style pork ribs, where there’s not only dozens of variables (temperature, time, cut of pork, the rub, the sauce, smoking, grilling, etc.), but also a huge built-in expectations (barbecue-lovers are the most exacting crowd around), is an even bigger project. What normally takes me a few days of testing ended up taking me over two weeks and a several dozen individual tests to finally nail.
Still, once you get the basics down, it’s easy to see the advantages of cooking sous vide ribs. The biggest challenge when cooking ribs over live wood using traditional methods is temperature and moisture control. You have to account for exactly how much smoke is getting to the meat, how much ventilation the fire is getting, how the heat is getting trapped inside the smoker or the grill, all while using an inherently unpredictable live-fire heat source. It’s no wonder that it takes years of practice for the best barbecuers around to hone their craft. Sous-vide methods eliminate that unpredictability.
When I bite into a good barbecued rib, there are a few things I look for. First is texture. The ribs should be tender, never greasy, and the meat should still have a definite bite to them. If the meat slips and falls off the bones as you’re trying to eat, they’ve been overcooked in my book (and, for the record, in the book of any competition barbecue judge). I want my ribs to have a nice gently tug to them. Next, I look for flavor. Barbecue ribs should be smoky, but not overly so. Too often I taste ribs that remind me more of an ashtray than serious eats. Smoke, just like any other seasoning, should be there to enhance the meat, not overwhelm it. Similarly, a robust but balanced spice rub or sauce should bring out the best in the pork, not cover it with gloppy sweetness.
For my recipe, I tested combinations of temperatures ranging from as low as 140°F (60°C) to as high as 180°F (82°C), with timings ranging from 4 hours and up to 48. Unsurprisingly, I found that the lower the temperature, the longer it takes for tough connective tissue to soften, and the more moisture the meat retains. Ribs cooked at a higher temperature have a more traditional texture than those cooked at a lower temperature, but both have their advantages. For extra meaty, succulent and tender ribs: I like giving my ribs a good rub with a homemade spice blend, letting them rest for 4 to 12 hours to allow the salt to penetrate the meat, then cooking them at 145°F (63°C) for 36 hours for an extra-meaty bite. For tender, traditional BBQ ribs: At a higher temperature, you can recreate the classic, backyard BBQ rib texture with well-rendered fat and meat that shreds as you eat it. To get this style, I cooked the ribs at 165°F (74°C) for 12 hours which resulted in a traditionally tender, slightly shreddy texture that pulls easily from the bone with just the slightest bit of resistance.
And what about that smoke? Well you could start or finish the ribs on a smoker to get that smoker flavor into them, but then you reintroduce that unpredictable element. It’s much easier and more consistent to simply use a few drops of liquid smoke added directly to the sous vide bags before sealing. A good quality liquid smoke like Wright’s or Colgin are nothing more than wood smoke that has been condensed and captured in water and stuck in a bottle. It’s literally the exact same stuff that gets deposited on your meat when you smoke it in a smoker, and there’s no reason to shun it or be afraid of it. I finish my ribs by either cooking them over moderate heat on a grill, or set on a rack in the oven. If I’m adding a sauce, I’ll paint it on in a few layers towards the end of cooking to get a nice, thickly reduced coat of it.
The only thing missing from sous-vide ribs is that pink smoke ring, which is a purely cosmetic detail. It offers no flavor or textural differences in traditional barbecue. If you must have that pink ring, adding pink curing salt to the rub before applying it to the pork will help set its color. Use about 2 grams of pink salt for every kilogram of pork (about .03 ounces per pound).
Get the recipe for these ribs on the Anova recipe page, and don’t forget to download the Anova Culinary app for the full guide on ribs. Keep an eye out for the next collection – coming soon!