As someone who lives in a tiny studio apartment, I don't get to do a lot of grilling, smoking, or any other outdoor cooking. This makes me very sad, because I do love smoked and grilled meats. (Grilled vegetables are also fantastic, but we're not talking about those right now.) Fortunately, a sous vide setup - which I happen to have! - can help you come close to the texture and flavour you get from low and slow smoking.
Maybe it's because I've watched this haunting video way too many times, but I recently found myself in the mood for ribs. (Just kidding, I'm always in the mood for ribs.) Of course, I am not the first one to make sous-vide ribs, and I would never claim to be, because I'm not a liar. There are a lot of recipes out there, and all of them are just a little different. A lot of them, however, recommend the use of liquid smoke.
The Food Lab add theirs in little drops, directly to the bag, and ChefSteps mixes theirs with molasses before painting it on like a glaze. Both seemed like pretty viable options, so I wanted to taste and test.
Another thing I wanted to take for a spin was the addition of "pink salt." The curing salt is supposed to help replicate that "smoke ring" you get from hours in a smoker, but I also suspected it would impart a cured flavour. (Nothing gets passed me!) Then there was the matter of when to apply the rub. Before sous vide-ing? After? Somewhere in the middle? And, of course, I wanted to test out at least two temperatures.
Take this off to avoid unpleasant toughness
There were a lot of variables in play, so I needed a lot of ribs - four racks, to be exact. I divided those into four portions and - after removing the papery membrane by pulling it off with a paper towel - and treated them with various salts, glazes, and rubs. I used a store-bought rub, but there are a lot out there you can make yourself. You probably already have a favourite, so just use what you like.
- Batch 1: These ribs were lightly coated with a mixture of one gram of curing salt with 10 grams of table salt. They were then rested for ten minutes, and brushed with the ChefSteps smoky glaze, which is made by mixing 25 grams of liquid smoke with 50 grams of molasses. These were then sealed in a vacuum bag and cooked in a 65-degree water bath for 24 hours.
- Batch 2: These ribs were lightly coated with a mixture of one gram of curing salt with 10 grams dry rub. They were then rested for ten minutes, and then sealed in a vacuum bag with five drops of liquid smoke, and cooked in a 65-degree water bath for 24 hours.
- Batch 3: No curing salt here. The ribs were simply brushed with the ChefSteps smoky molasses glazed and cooked in a 65-degree water bath for 24 hours.
- Batch 4: Again, no curing salt. Just a good sprinkling of dry rub, with five drops of liquid smoke added to the bag, and a cooking time of 24 hours in a 65-degree water bath.
- Batches 5-8: These batches were exact repeats of 1-4, only these guys were cooked for 12 hours in a 75-degree water bath, or at least they were supposed to be.
Batches 1 & 2
In what scientists are calling "infuriating, but quite typical," I set the temperature of the second bath to also be 65 degrees Celsius, and didn't realise it until eight damn hours of cooking time had elapsed. I had been so smug about how organised I was being with this particular experiment. I had made a table. I had bought a new sous vide bucket (a four-dollar paint bucke, but still). I was Kevin Sorbo levels of disappointed, and my poor friend Ryan got to witness a full-on tantrum, but don't worry; it all turned out deliciously in the end.
I posted a photo like this on Instagram. One smartass asked me if it was a sandal, another "thought" it was a large, preserved bug.
But before we get to that, let's talk about batches 1-4. They were all perfectly good, with a nice tender, but still meaty texture and a perceptible, but not overbearing smoky flavour. There was, however, a huge difference between those ribs that were made with curing salt and those that weren't, and I bet you can guess what those differences were, because you are very smart.
As you can see above, the cured ribs are noticeably pinker in colour, which makes sense, as they were effectively cured. Before I could taste them though, they needed finishing, so I brushed them with some barbecue sauce - again, pick your favourite - dusted them with another layer of rub, and popped them under the broiler to get that crust.
Then it was time to taste. Just as I suspected, the batches made with curing salt, had kinda corned, kinda ham-like flavour to them, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I also found that the ribs that went into the bag with a rub and few drops of liquid smoke - batches 2 & 4 - were a bit more flavorful than their glazed counterparts. If I had to pick a favourite, I would go with the fourth one, but I also kind of liked the hammy quality of 2, particularly when paired with a sweet sauce.
Now, about batches 5-8: Once I recovered from he realisation that they'd been cooking at the wrong temperature for eight hours, I bumped up the temperature to 75 degrees and let those babies hang out in the hot tub overnight for an additional 12 hours while I slept off my residual self-loathing.
They. Were. Great. After finishing them the same way I had finished the first four, I pulled a single rib from batch 5. The bone pulled away so cleanly, and with such little effort on my part, that it was frankly startling. The meat had that more traditional, shreddable texture, and it was tender and rich without being mushy.
But while the texture of the higher-temp batches were different from the 65-degree batch, the flavours were pretty much the same. Those prepped with curing salt had that ham quality, those cooked with a rub were more flavorful than those cooked with the molasses-smoke glaze, and all had a hint of that smoky flavour you would get from a spell in a smoker. My personal favourite was batch 8 (rub, five drops of smoke in bag, 75 degrees for at least 12 hours), but all were good, especially when you consider they were (very easily) made in a tiny apartment with nothing more than an immersion circulator and a tiny, weird European oven.