I smoked some BBQ ribs the other day in my trusty little Charbroil Silver smoker and I just wanted to show you some of the problems that I encountered and how I adjusted for them to produce some pretty good BBQ ribs - they probably would not win any competitions, but would place very high. It would be hard to win a competition on a Charbroil Silver due to the heat fluctuations and hot and cold spots, but if you know what you are doing you can still smoke some great barbecue.
What: 2 full racks of BBQ spareribs. Membrane pulled off. Not trimmed to St Louis cut and I just used a good commercial rib rub with a little brown sugar and chili powder added to taste. Since I am using whole spareribs, I know I will have to smoke them just a little bit longer than St Louis cut or baby backs.
Outside Temperature: About 50 deg F. That's not too cold, but cool enough to require some adjustments to the standard BBQ rib cooking procedure described in "Competition BBQ Secrets".
Heat & Smoke: Charcoal for heat and soaked mesquite chips for smoke flavor (about 3 handfuls). Target cooking chamber temperature: 230 deg F.
In this small smoker, I just went from the 3-1-1 method to a 4-1-1 method. If you don't know what that means, get the book. It's basically 4 hours smoking followed by 1 hour in foil and one hour finishing. There are also more advanced techniques in the book like glazing that I did not use on these spareribs. Sometimes I just like a good smoked rib with a light rub that does not overpower the smoke flavor.
The first thing I did to adjust for the cooler outside temperature was make a bigger fire. I just started with one charcoal chimney as usual and then threw on about 15 briquettes every 30 minutes instead of 5-10 on a hot day. I threw on a handful of soaked mesquite chips once an hour during the first 3 hours of smoking. The handy Maverick Redi-Check thermometer comes with a cooking chamber probe that has a grate clip - I just hooked the grate clip on the underside of the grate just below the middle of the ribs. This way it was positioned perfectly near the meat and it was completely out of the way. You just can't smoke good barbecue in my opinion without one of these thermometers.
If you don't believe me, just look at the thermometer in the lid of the Charbroil Silver and then look at the Maverick dual probe remote thermometer...
There's a 60 deg F difference!
And... there's only about a 12 inch difference between where the lid thermometer is and where the Maverick thermometer probe is located under the grate right below the meat. If I were to go by the lid thermometer temperature, it would read the proper 230 deg F, but the temperature at the grate would only be 170 deg F. It would take about 12 hours to cook these ribs at 170 deg F! And most people would pull them off way before 12 hours. The result would be tough ribs that you would have to gnaw on to get the meat off the bone. But... your dog would love them! What you are shooting for is tender and juicy meat that sticks to the bone but pulls clean when bitten - and does not fall off the bone.
Of course, the temperature at the grate eventually rose to about 230 deg F after about an hour. Note here that it took a whole hour for the cooking chamber temperature to come up to the proper temperature. So that's your second adjustment - just give it more time. It will take more time to get your smoker up to the proper temperature and every time you open the lid (only when absolutely necessary), you'll lose more heat than usual. And it will take more time to recover.
I also took some pictures of proper smoke examples... the first picture below shows what bad smoke looks like. It's a white billowing smoke. This usually happens when you smother your fire by throwing too much new fuel on at one time. It can also happen if you close your vents too much and smother the fire. Proper smoke is showed in the second picture - it's a light blue in color and almost invisible. Bad smoke...
Since you can't always go by time in cold weather, you'll have to know what signs to look for when the smoked ribs are done... notice the meat pulling away from the bone in the picture below. That's a sure sign that your ribs are getting done. You can also use a toothpick to check for tenderness between the bones. And... if you pick up one end of the slab with tongs and the other end bends down 90 deg, you'll know for sure they are done. Note that done full slabs of spareribs don't bend as easily as St Louis cut or baby backs so maybe a bend somewhere between 45 deg and 90 deg is OK.
Results (judging): The ribs had a great flavor. Sort of a spicy sweet combination. There was more "bark" than most people would like, but I don't mind a good tasting bark - and remember, these were cooked "Memphis Dry Rub" style and this style is going to naturally produce more bark. The meat was tender and juicy and stuck to the bone but pulled clean as it should. Overall, I would say they were pretty darn good!