The “dinosaur” Texas beef ribs of the Texas barbecue trail really left a mark. More than big, they are beefy, smoky, crusty, tender and juicy, dressed with simple but earthy salt and pepper. That’s it.
We visited more than a few spots along the trail, and loved them all, but at the end of the road Louie Mueller Barbecue of Taylor, TX, delivered the knock-out punch.
That afternoon in the very still, smoky, friendly room of Louie Meuller Barbecue is crystal clear to me. Even the wait in line was ethereal. Normally, I get fidgety in a line, but not here. I felt lucky to be standing in it. behind the counter the carvers worked steadily in an easy rhythm. They smiled a lot, and took turns giving each other breaks from reaching into the smoky hot holding oven filled with grease-soaked butcher paper-wrapped meat and sausages on hooks. The counter staff folks seemed happy to serve us and they handed out bits of burnt ends to us as we made it to the front of the line.
Unable to speak as I ate, my wife, who had toured the trail before and insisted we get to Meuller’s, knew I was in a kind of shock. I’ll spare you any guru-worship “out of body experience” bluster that today’s food writers indulge in, but sitting at that booth with Mindy and that spread before us was about as “living in the moment” a moment I’ve ever had. I was beginning to rethink barbecue completely.
Layers of overwrought guy-driven barbecue complexity stripped away, bite by bite. This food was perfectly straight-ahead simple. No gimmicks, no “secret ingredient” nonsense, no “judges” or teams, no TV cameras, and no annoying, overdriven blues guitar soundtrack. The brisket, the ribs, and the sausages were intensely delicious and satisfying. I returned to Nashville a changed man.
So, I had to get at it as soon as we got home. The challenge of making beef barbecue in middle Tennessee is finding good beef ribs and whole briskets with a big fat cap. Tennessee is pork country and our beef is limited traditionally to steaks, roasts, and burgers. And if I saw beef ribs they were trimmed so neat there wasn’t enough meat left to bother with. Ribeyes fetch a handsome price per pound, so why leave it on a $2.99/lb rib? We figured we’d have to wait for the holidays and buy a bone-in ribeye roast and butcher our own ribs.
Thankfully, Florida-based Publix Super Markets colonized Nashville and brought a decent meat counter who cut their own, usually generous, beef ribs. These ribs are about half the length of a Louis Mueller rib, but you work with what you have.
Like any tougher meaty cut, beef ribs do best with lower heat over longer time (like a roast), not the quick high heat for steaks and chops. That fat needs time to melt and disperse throughout the meat for a much more tender bite. Plus, the extra time that lower temperatures allow lets a nice crust develop on the Kosher salt and pepper exterior.
Here’s how we make our Texas Beef Ribs in Nashville:
1. Make a batch of simple Texas beef rub — combine Kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper — we use more pepper than salt, about a 60/40 blend — just eyeball it but make the pepper the majority stakeholder. Rub a generous amount onto the ribs. You can include whatever else you like in the rub, but anything beyond salt and pepper covers up the natural beefy flavor that is the point of this effort. Simple is best. And nothing sweet whatsoever, or we can’t be friends. Same goes with “Montreal” seasoning, whatever the hell that’s all about.
2. Put the ribs on a medium-low heat grill – gas or charcoal it matters not – and be sure to leave the cover cracked an inch or so to let the smoke from dripping fat escape. You don’t ever want to trap smoke in a grill. Whatever you are cooking will take on a bitter taste if the smoke cannot escape. There is such a thing as too much smoke and one day I hope the “experts” in this field will figure it out and back away from the “chair leg” method of over-smoking.
3. Put some space between the heat and the meat. Check the ribs periodically to be sure they’re not burning or blackening. If you can’t keep your heat gentle enough to protect the ribs from charring, put the ribs on the gas grill’s upper shelf or, in a charcoal grill, move the coals away from under the ribs and and let the ribs cook indirectly.
NOTE: a sheet or two of heavy duty aluminum foil under the ribs gives them a little protection and makes it easy to move them around as necessary. As they cook the fat will render into the foil which pools at the lowest spot. Use caution whenever moving the ribs and foil around so as not to accidentally pour off the collected fat onto the fire below. This can create quite a sudden flare-up while your arms are over the cooking grates.
A safe move is to pour off the fat periodically as it collects and do not let too much accumulate. Use a metal pan or anything that makes the pouring job easy and smooth. Heavy duty aluminum foil under the ribs gives you something to hold onto as you do this important task. I like to double-up the HD foil and reduce the chance of poking a hole in it. Some rib bones can have a sharp edge or two which allows the fat to escape and cause flare-ups.
4. Be patient and let that beefy cut cook slowly. Ribs are not a steak, a chop, or a burger so they’re not cooked through and tender in 8 to 12 minutes. They need a good 45 minutes to an hour before they are tender enough to fall in love with. Keep the heat medium-low and the grill cover down (but cracked open an inch) and check them in 20 minutes, and pour off the fat periodically. Rushed ribs are over-grilled on the outside, and just plain tough inside.
If you do this successfully, that quick salt and pepper rub will accent the beef taste in a truly exotic way and you will not have mucked up the flavor with unnecessary pantry seasonings. Leave that for the amateurs. You won’t think about sauce, either, not one second. These ribs don’t need a sauce.