There are two ways to make BBQ Beef Short Ribs, Chicago Style (left) and Texas Style (right).
Remembering Bobby Mueller
Bobby Mueller (above), legendary pitmaster and son of the founder of Louis Mueller's Barbeque in Taylor, TX, died way too young at age 69 on September 6, 2008. I had the pleasure of meeting this artisan and maestro of barbecue and especially beef short ribs in 2008 and photographed him and his restaurant.
Louie Mueller Barbeque looks just about the same today as when Louis moved his business into the cavernous old gymnasium in 1959, 10 years after he started it in the alley and parking lot next to his father's grocery store just a block away. All 18 tables and several of the original chairs have been there since the opening, and it is doubtful the place has been painted since then because the walls and ceilings are all sepia from smoke and soot. Even the business cards on the bulletin board are brown.
Bobby came to work there in 1965 and he was known to put in 90 hours a week. It paid off. Word of mouth carried his reputation around the world and barbecue fanciers came to this tiny dot on the map to taste his handiwork. In 2006 his restaurant won a James Beard Foundation Award as an "American Classic". Beard Awards are often called the "Oscars for food".
His wife, Trish, and his son, Wayne, are now running the show. Wayne says "fans of our beef ribs seem to be creating a mythos regarding them, an interesting phenomenon to witness unfolding." Count me among the mythologizers.
Their home-made sausages are also a draw, not to mention the beef brisket, ribeyes, chicken, turkey, pork spareribs, pork tenderloin, and pork shoulder steaks. Here are some pix of the legendary home of transcendent Texas beef ribs.
The well worn chopping block.
Overhead window covered with soot.
Barbecue Beef Ribs
"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time." Bertrand Russell, English Philosopher 1872-1970
People make pilgrimages from all over the world to the tiny dusty town of Taylor, TX, home to 15,000 people, the National Rattlesnake Sacking Championship, and a classic old American pit stop, Louis Mueller's Barbeque.
More than a few wayfarers come to Taylor just to worship the beef short ribs at Mueller's. The technical butcher name is "short ribs", but these bones are not short. The meat on these 6" long "Dino Ribs" is at least 1" thick with each bone weighing anywhere from 1/3 to 1.5 pounds! They are smoky, tender, juicy, cooked thoroughly, and sold by the pound.
There are plenty of fancy French influenced restaurants in this world who made their reputation on short ribs braised in flavorful liquid for hours, and every Korean restaurant serves Kalbi, marinated slivers of short ribs, but smoke roasted low and slow is pretty much a Texas exclusive. But with a decent cooker (even a Weber Kettle will do), and a good meat thermometer, you can serve tender, juicy, flavorful, shorties better than most pit stops in Texas.
The problem with beef ribs
Short ribs have more meat than beef back ribs, which I discuss further down the page. You can buy slabs of shorties with more than one bone connected, or individual bones, or even riblets, 2-3" long. Some grocers will have one or the other or even all of them.
Beef short ribs have little in common with pork ribs. They have much more flavor, meat, fat, connective tissue, and they can be much tougher. But if cooked properly, they don't have to be tougher.
What short ribs do have in common with pork ribs, is that they are best cooked at low temps so the connective tissue and fat can melt, and the protein doesn't knot up and get even tougher. One nice feature of short ribs is that they have a built in heat shield, a thick bone.
But short ribs have a lot of fat and connective tissue. Undercooked fat is waxy. But when it melts at about 130-140°F, much of it drips off and what remains lubricates the muscle fibers, and carries flavor to the taste buds. Connective tissue (collagen), when undercooked is tough and sinewy, but when it melts at about 160-170°F, it forms a succulent gelatinousness that also, pardon the pun, beefs up the flavors and rounds out the texture.
Short ribs Texas style
Texas barbecue is all about smoke roasting. Them's shorties at Cooper's in Llano, TX above, pahdner. The goal is to get the meat to the temp where both fat and collagen have melted. They treat the meat just like pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket, by taking it up past well done, as high as 190°F. The sweet spot seems to be 180-190°F.
At that temp much of the fat renders off, the melted collagens replace the water as moisturizer, and the seductive flavors of smoke and spice rub carry the tune.
Texas barbecue restaurants have to balance quality with the realities of a production environment. Mueller's, Cooper's, and many of the best are still using old-fashioned brick pits burning post oak. They have to cook everything from pork ribs to sausage to brisket, even if there's a line waiting to be served. To handle commercial production demands Mueller's cooks at 275 to 300°F for 1.5 to 2.5 hours in racks of four ribs.
To make killer style Texas style short ribs at home, I recommend you cook a bit lower and slower to reduce shrinkage (why do I always think of George Costanza when the word shrinkage come up?). I do them at 225°F, and bring the meat up to about 180°F internal, a process that can take up to 5 hours depending on the thickness of the meat.
Short ribs Chicago style
I call this alternative method Chicago style because that's where I live, and in Chicago beef is never cooked well done.
Here's the problem I struggled with in developing this technique. Most beef is most flavorful, tender, and juicy when cooked rare to medium rare, in the 125-140°F range. Now that's just not the guy on the bar stool next to you starting an argument. It's a fact measured by food scientists with instruments that can test for moisture content and resistance and other stuff that beef eaters can tell with just one bite.
At about 160°F beef is well done, starts to dry out, and turns gray. But there is a sweet spot at about 150 to 155°F where short ribs are still tender and juicy and pink. Beyond this they begin to lose moisture and toughen and they don't get back to soft for an hour or two and another 20°F when the collagen has dissolved.
Chicago style ribs are done in 1 to 2 hours. The only downside is that not much fat renders out, so your guests will have to trim it as they eat. But they won't complain.
BBQ Beef Short Rib Recipe
Here's how to make big, rich, juicy succulent BBQ Beef Short Ribs both ways.
1) Begin by removing the fat and the very tough silverskin from the top of the meat. All of it. No need to remove the membrane from the exposed side of the bones as you do with pork ribs. Then cut slabs into individual bones if they did not come cut up. Inevitably some bones in a package have little meat and lotta fat. Trim them anyhow and cook them. There are several nice bites of meat on the sides of the bone, and they will finish in about an hour and you can munch on them while you wait for the thicker slabs to cook through.
2) Lightly coat the meat with vegetable oil so the oil soluble spices in the rub will dissolve and penetrate a bit. Flavor the meat with a rub that contains salt but very little sugar. Try my Big Bad Beef Rub. Lawry's Seasoned Salt is good too. Meathead's Memphis Dust is too sweet. Do the tops and sides, and coat them generously. If you can, let the rub sit on the meat in the refrigerator for an hour or three or even overnight.
3) If you wish, you can tenderize the meat with Jaccard. The narrow blades sever long tough strands and do a pretty good job.
4) Setup your cooker for indirect cooking and preheat to 225°F, hot enough to kill bacteria but not too high to evaporate all the moisture.
5) Put the meat on, bone side down, and add the wood. Oak is traditional in Texas and it makes sense because it is mild, but other woods work fine. I like cherry. Beef ribs seem to absorb smoke more quickly than other cuts, so remember, as always, go easy on the wood on your first cook. Too much smoke will ruin the meal. Add no more than 2-4 ounces on a tight cooker, double that if it leaks a lot. Put the lid on.
You will not need to add more wood and you will not need to turn the meat over. Cook bone down all the way. Keep the lid on and resist peeking until about 3/4 of the way through the cook, based on the guide below. The exact length of the cook depends on variables such as the composition of the meat (each steer is different), and if you chose Texas style or the Chicago style.
1" thick meat should hit 150°F (Chicago style) in about 1 hour and 180°F (Texas style) in about 3 hours.
1.5" thick meat should hit 150°F in about 1.5 hours and 180°F in about 3.5 hours.
2" thick meat should hit 150°F in about 2 hours and 180°F in about 4 hours.
Skip the sauce. A lot of folks like barbecue sauce on everything they grill, but sweet tomato based sauce just clashes with smoky beef. Save it for pork. I serve my beef ribs nekked. If you must use a sauce, try what they use in Texas, a thin beef stock based sauce, like my Texas Barbecue Mop-Sauce.
BBQ beef back ribs
Back ribs are usually cut from the rib roast, a very desirable and expensive cut. This thick muscle is used for roasting whole, or cut into boneless ribeye steaks. For that reason the rib bones are removed so there is very little meat on the surface. As much as possible goes to the much more expensive rib roast.
But there is some tasty stuff between the bones, and often back ribs can be found in slabs of 8 or more 8" long bones. I prefer the meatier short ribs, but when I see a deal on back ribs, I grab them. They are quite spectacular when served in a slab.
I treat them much the same as short ribs, described above. Depending on how much meat is on them and the thickness of the bones, they cook faster and can be finished in as little as three hours. Some folks like to sauce them. Not me.
This page was revised 4/6/2009
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