Recipe: Malted and Hopped Baby Back Ribs

The basic idea for this recipe came from a growing interest in homebrewing. So much of what you’re doing, when you homebrew, is trying to understand how the different flavors from a beer’s ingredients will come together into the final taste. To me, it’s a natural extension to think about how those ingredients could work with other foods.

With that in mind, though, I’ve also been looking for ways to bring out the taste of beer in food, without just adding beer as an ingredient. By the time beer has been added into a sauce, or a glaze, and then cooked down, there’s so little left of the original flavors that you can very rarely taste them distinctly. Once you start getting familiar with the flavors of malts and hops, though, you can start to see how they could play a direct role in the flavors of a recipe. I know it sounds a little goofy, but the way I joked about it with my buddy Phil was that I wasn’t trying to create something that tasted “like” beer, but something that tasted “of” beer — ribs that clearly evoke the key flavors that make beer delicious, without just tasting like they’ve been drenched in beer.

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE: While the basic idea for this recipe was something that I had been wanting to make, the technique — and the equipment — are all thanks to my brewing buddy, Phil. He’s not only made a science of figuring out how to cook ribs beautifully, but he’s got a great grill that he bought specifically so that he could do stuff like this. This was very much a shared effort — I never could / would have managed to make ribs as good as this on my own. Also, we have to thank our friends at our local homebrew supply store, Adventures in Homebrewing (especially Matt), who set us up with the ingredients.

Short and Sweet: Just Like The Ribs!

Here’s the quick version of how to make the ribs:

  • Make a dry rub, using a healthy amount of powdered “Dry Malt Extract”, and put it on the ribs
  • Prepare a glaze, using “Liquid Malt Extract” for part of the syrup, and adding the flavor of some steeped hops
  • Cook the ribs for a few hours, low and slow, basting regularly with apple juice
  • Wrap the ribs in foil, and put them back on low, slow heat for another couple of hours
  • Unwrap the ribs, and cook for a final hour, applying the glaze several times
  • EAT!!!

Using The Building Blocks of Beer

  • Baby Back Ribs: We bought six full racks of baby back ribs, since we were expecting to feed about 12 people. You can obviously use as many ribs as you want, but the amounts of the various ingredients that we used below came out just about right for this number of ribs, so you probably want to try and adjust accordingly.
  • Liquid Malt Extract (1/2 cup): Malt provides most of the body, deep flavor and color of a beer, and so malt extract is an essential ingredient in making most homebrews (unless you’re pretty hardcore). It comes in two forms, liquid and dried — Liquid Malt Extract (“LME”) is a thick, sweetish syrup (kind of like molasses or dark corn syrup), so it’s a great base for a glaze. (We just used the most common extract.)
  • Dry Malt Extract (1/2 lb): “DME” is basically just malt syrup that’s been sprayed and dried into a powder — when you taste it, you’ll immediately recognize the taste of malted milk balls and malted milk shakes. It’s perfect to use in the dry rub, but since it’s a very fine powder, it clumps up really easily. You’ll need to quickly cut it 50/50 with brown sugar when you’re ready to use it. (Again, we just used a very common light DME. Next time, I think we’ll go with a darker one.)
  • Cascade Hops (1/2 oz): Hops give any beer its classic sharpness, and they’re generally added a few different times during the cooking process. The “bittering” hops that are added at the very beginning lose all their aromatic notes, but are what create that real after-bite. Hops that are added towards the end of the cooking process don’t add much bitterness, but they do add floral flavors and aromas. We used Cascade hops, which is again a pretty popular variety.
  • Brown Sugar (1/2 lb): Not only does the brown sugar help to keep the DME from caking, but it provides a lot of great flavor.
  • Spices: We used a mix (in roughly decreasing order) of…salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, ancho chili powder and cinnamon. About a handful of salt, and just a big pinch of cinnamon.

You can find the beer ingredients at any local homebrew store, or you can also order them online from AIH.

Rub and Rest

  • Mix the rub: Break up the brown sugar so it’s really granular, and then gradually mix in the DME. Once you have them combined, add the spices I listed (or whatever else you decide to use).
  • Apply the rub: Shake the rub generously along each side of each rack, first on the silverskin (concave) side, and then the outer side with the meat. Shake it on especially thick on the meaty side (like almost 1/4 inch), and pat it down so that it sticks. Since the DME cakes so easily, you want to keep the “fresh” rub in its own bowl, and apply it to each rack separately. (Any rub that touches the ribs is going to gum up quickly.)
  • Rest the rub: Let the ribs sit for an hour or two, after you’ve applied the rub. They’ll give up a fair amount of moisture, which will turn the rub into more of a glaze, but you’ll also want to make sure that you’ve got the ribs in a pan or some other container where it’s OK if they give up some juices.

Sharp and Sweet

  • Steep the hops: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil, and put about a tablespoon of hop pellets into a tea ball. As soon as the water boils, take it off the heat, and drop in the hops. I steeped them for about 5 minutes, and then ran the liquid through a coffee filter to strain out the stuff that got through the mesh. Drop in a couple of ice cubes to cool it down, and stop the steeping process, and you should end up with a clear, greenish broth that has a pronounced, sharp smell.
    One important point…this step is going to make your kitchen smell a little like a brewery. If everyone who lives with you likes beer, then it’s probably not a problem, but otherwise you might want to do it when you’ve got the house to yourself, or in a well-ventilated space. (If you have kids, they are not going to like the smell.)
  • Start the glaze: Use some combination of the LME and left-over dry rub, plus anything else you want to create a glaze, like honey, molasses, worcestershire, etc. Once it’s starting to simmer, I like to add a good shot of whiskey, and then burn it off — it’s dramatic, and adds a delicious flavor.
  • Add the “bittering” hops: Once the glaze has started cooking, add about 1/4 cup of the liquid from the steeped hops, as well. This is going to give the glaze a sharp bite when you taste it, but remember that it’s going to be cooking down for at least a couple of hours before you use it, which will mellow it out, and it’s going to be applied pretty thinly over the ribs, so you need it to be strong enough to still come through a bit when you eat them. Make sure to reserve some of the steeped liquid for later, though.
  • Cook down the glaze: If you can easily keep it at a low heat, you can cook down the glaze for the entire time that you’re cooking the ribs. You may need to thin it out every once in a while, but just like the meat…the longer and slower, the better.
  • Add the “flavoring” hops: When you’re getting the glaze ready to apply, add in a bit more the steeped hop liquid. This should add in some of the more aromatic smells and flavors that got lost from the first batch.

Low. Slow.

I’m not going to go into a great amount of detail on how we cooked (OK, “how Phil cooked”) the ribs, since everyone’s got a different grill, a different technique they learned, and all the key parts of this recipe still apply, no matter how you cook them. For the record, though, this is basically what we did:

  • Got the grill going at 225F for about an hour before we put the meat in.
  • Moved the coals to the sides, and arranged the rib racks pretty tightly together in the middle.
  • Every 30 mins, we rotated the ribs’ position (like the tires on a car), so that the ones that had been in the middle moved out to the edges, and vice versa. We also flipped them over each time, and brushed on some apple juice.
  • After about 3 hours, we wrapped the racks in foil, and put them back on the grill for a couple of hours. (We had 6 racks, that we wrapped up in 2 packets of 3 racks each.)
  • We unwrapped the ribs, put them back on the grill, and then glazed them for a final hour. (At this point, they were so tender that they were literally falling apart, so we had to handle them really gently.)

Nom nom nom nom.

At that point, it was all over but the eating. We had four adults and six kids, and tore through 6 racks in about 20 minutes. (We actually made two different kinds of ribs, so that if the malted / hopped ribs turned out too “grown up”, the kids could still have something to eat. The malt and hop flavors turned out really nicely, though, and they obviously enjoyed them just as much as the “normal” ones.)
Anyway, we’re already planning on making them again, soon, and continuing to refine the recipe. Let me know if you have any questions, or if you try to make them, definitely let me know how they turn out.

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