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Posted at 02:30 PM ET, 06/04/2012

Spareribs: Barbecue them with or with silverskin?


No skin off my ribs: Both Andrew Zimmern and Michael Ruhlman prefer to cook their spareribs with silverskin intact. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
You know why you should lock your smartphone in a deep mountain bunker during vacation? Because before you know it, you’ll engage in some silly Twitter conflagration, and, as if disconnected from your body, you’ll start typing in words that you may regret, sort of like these fateful characters that I coughed up on Memorial Day:

I have two racks and a barrel smoker. I’ll test the skin on/off theories.

My words were in response to a reasonable Twitter-based give-and-take between Andrew Zimmern and some food writers, who were discussing whether to cook pork spareribs with the silverskin on or off. (See the discussion after the jump.) Before I knew it, I had turned my vacation day into some quasi-experiment that forced my dinner guests to become unwitting guinea pigs. Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Truth be told, my experiment started promisingly enough. It was only when I turned to the aluminum foil — which I had adopted recently to prevent oversmoking the ribs — that the whole affair took a dark turn. Literally. (More on that later.)


The trimmed ribs: The one in the foreground has its silverskin still intact. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
I started with these two racks of St. Louis-style spareribs from Whole Foods, which I trimmed further to remove the skirt meat, rib tips, and, for one rack, the silverskin. For the other, I left that thin, rubbery membrane intact, which I rarely do.

Now, I understand the impulse to want to skip the silverskin removal. The degree of difficulty is high. The membrane’s slippery texture and structural vulnerability — it tears easily — can make the process as frustrating as removing lint from a Velrco surface. Many people, like Zimmern and writer Michael Ruhlman, prefer to let the silverskin suffer the shriveling indignities of the low-and-slow cooking process.


It's taken a long time to perfect my technique, but I now can usually remove the skin in one long pull. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
A couple of years ago, I decided to take a stand against silverskin and remove it with extreme prejudice. It was partly an aesthetic decision and partly a culinary one. I dislike the disfiguring silverskin that clings to the back of the bone; it looks as though a surgical glove has melted onto the back of the ribs. But I also noticed how much seasoning fell from the skin during the course of the wood smoking; the silverskin’s slick surface simply does not allow the salt and pepper (nor the smoke) to penetrate to the meat underneath.

Others, however, think my position is pure ego-driven fantasy, perpetuated in order to establish the supremacy of my silverskin removal skills. I will not discount this opinion. Sometimes habits become ingrained even though the reasoning behind them are only marginally sound. I’m thinking specifically about the myth of slowly incorporating heated broth to make the perfect risotto.


As you can see, the seasoning clings better to the rack in the background without silverskin than the one in the foreground with silverskin intact. The seasoning on the latter sits precariously on the surface. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Interestingly enough, I ran into another issue with the silverskin-on rack: I found it harder to remove that annoying flap of skirt meat on the back of the ribs, which when left intact can lead to uneven cooking. It’s as though the silverskin is the skirt meat’s natural defense against predators.

With the two racks trimmed, seasoned and ready to roll, I threw them in the smoker fueled with a combination of cherry and apple woods. The temperature fluctuated between 200 and 225 degrees, depending on how absorbed I became in the Nats game on TV. The smoke levels were generous, but not gas-mask inducing.


The ribs, before the dreaded foil wrapping. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
I mention the smoke levels, because this barbecue season I have encountered a problem with my spareribs: They’re turning too dark, too fast, making the racks look like something Emeril would produce for a Cajun-zydeco festival. I’ve recently taken to wrapping the racks with aluminum foil, which I’ve since determined only exacerbates the problem. These two racks, for example, ended up looking like oil slicks on the garage floor, even though they were smoked for four hours (wrapped for more than half of that time) and not overcooked.

Smoking issues aside, the racks emerged from the smoker with one wildly unpredictable result: The ribs with the silverskin still attached were more fall-off-the-bone tender; the meat barely clung to the ribs, as though they had been smoked an hour or two longer than the other rack. The only plausible theory at our table was that the silverskin held the heat and moisture better, essentially breaking down the protein faster than the skin-off rack.

The silverskin-removed ribs, by contrast, held their shape; the meat on the bone still had chew and pull, which is how I prefer my ribs. (For those who might suggest that one rack was closer to the heat source, I should note that I carefully rotated the racks to promote even smoking for both.)

With that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the tasters at our table felt that both racks were, essentially, equal in flavor, save for an extra blast of salt and pepper here and there (which I chalk up to uneven application of the seasoning). No one seemed to care about the ribbon of silverskin glued to the back of some ribs; it did not interfere with their enjoyment.

Bottom line: I have to give the nod to Zimmern and Ruhlman. The results of this one simple test lend credibility to their argument for leaving the silverskin undisturbed. Even if you prefer your ribs with more chew, you could simply reduce the cooking time.

I humbly take my hat off to you gentlemen.

By  |  02:30 PM ET, 06/04/2012

Categories:  Comfort Food | Tags:  Tim Carman

 
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