Test Cook: Pit Barrel Cooker Baby Back Ribs (via patiodaddiobbq.com)

I've had my Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC) for just under six months and it has become my go-to cooker for most of my outdoor cooking -- especially tri-tip and chicken. The thing is just so easy to use and the food it produces is simply outstanding. I decided to see how good of a rib cooker it is, and the results honestly blew me away.

Not only is the PBC an outstanding backyard cooker, but I've used them twice in as my sole cooker in competition, including helping the Pit Barrel Cooker Company team beat the venerable Johnny "Godfather of Ribs" Trigg in both ribs and pork at a recent competition at Craig, Colorado. That is a huge testimony to the versatility and results that you get from this cooker.

For competition I always use a fairly complex process for my ribs that entails cooking them "bare" (just seasoned with rub) indirectly in smoke for a while, then I wrap them in foil with a liquid for a while. I then unwrap and sauce them, and I cook them directly over the coals for a few minutes to "set" the sauce (so that the sauce caramelizes a little and get sticky). This is a very common method for cooking competition ribs, but it's admittedly a huge hassle.

What follows are my precise results from a recent test cook where I explored how the PBC would deal with a no-nonsense rib cook that is as close to set-it-and-forget-it as I could make it.

Meat:
  • 2 Racks (2.73 lbs each) "enhanced" loin back ribs (same thickness and length)
    • Seasoned heavily with a 50/50 blend of Pit Barrel All-Purpose and Beef & Game Pit rubs (about 1 Tbsp of each per rack)
    • Let sit, seasoned, at room temperature for 20 minutes while the coals started
  • 2 Chicken halves (5.08 lbs total) for cooker load ballast

Fuel:
  • Full basket of Kingsford Original (from a fresh unopened bag). Doused the coals with lighter fluid (about a cup), lit and waited 20 minutes.
  • No wood chips, chunks or pellets were used.

Weather/Conditions:
  • 86º / No wind / No rain / Cooker in the shade

Process:
  • 7:20 - Lit the coals
  • 7:40 - Hung one rack of ribs and one chicken half on each rod with the bones of each facing the inside barrel wall (about 2 1/2" from the wall)
  • 9:40 - Removed the chicken (it was done)
  • 11:10 - Ribs done and removed (perfect probe test between the bones)
  • Total cook time: 3 1/2 hours

Notes/Observations:
  • Average temperature: 290º (measured simultaneously at each rod with my Thermoworks TW8060)
  • The ribs were never foiled, basted or spritzed.
  • The ribs had excellent color, were juicy, and had perfect tenderness/texture.
  • The thin ribs at the end above the basket were crispy, but not burnt.
  • The ribs were salty, as I would expect with store-bought "enhanced" ribs. I'd recommend using un-enhanced ribs and just a moderate coat of rub.

Test Cook: Pit Barrel Cooker Baby Back Ribs (via patiodaddiobbq.com)

As I said earlier, the results simply blew me away. I hit them with a light coat of sauce after they came off and they were some serious competition-grade ribs. I'd happily serve these to a judge any day! The brain-dead-easy simplicity makes me kick myself for jumping through hoops for all these years.

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23 Comments:
Anonymous David Fish said...
John, for some of the proud (and newer) Pit Barrel Cooker owners, can you share with us your method for cooking Pork Butts? I haven't tried it yet but will be this weekend. I might be totally wrong, but I assume that the butts would eventually fall off if left through the entire cook process.
Blogger John Dawson said...
Hey Dave. Cooking pork butts on the PBC is really no different than on a typical smoker, except that you hang the meat (obviously). I hang mine until it reaches about 165-170* internal. I then wrap it with some liquid, and finish it (about 200* internal) on the rack. I use this same process for my brisket.
Anonymous David Fish said...
Thanks John! That was my plan for this weekends cook. Thanks for being the trailblazer!
Blogger John Dawson said...
You bet. I'm always happy to help.

John
Blogger John Dawson said...
Hey Dave, please swing by and share your pork butt cook results. Thanks.
Blogger Trey said...
John, I'm new to the world of competition grade bbq and am a bit confused. What do you mean when you say wrap it with some liquid?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Trey - Just Google "321 ribs" (without the quotes) and you'll see what the common process is. The 3-2-1 method is geared toward spare ribs, so for loin/baby backs it's usually modified to closer to a 2-2-1 method, because babies are smaller and more lean.

I hope that this helps.
Blogger Chris said...
When you first said enhanced, my face did a Calvin & Hobbes wonk-eye look. But then I saw you recommended non-enhanced for standard practice and was relieved. I hate those hammy "enhanced" ribs.

If I'm going to compete on my own any next year, I'm going to have to look into a barrel cooker. Much easier to haul around than a ceramic kamado cooker!
Blogger John Dawson said...
Chris - I'm totally with you about "enhanced" ribs being ham-on-a-stick. Unfortunately I was pressed for time for this test cook and all I could find nearby were "enhanced" ribs. I'd never use them for competition, or even at home unless I'm in a real jam.
Anonymous David Fish said...
So last weekend I put the Pit Barrel Cooker through some serious paces. I cooked 6 racks of ribs (3 baby, 3 spare), a 12 lb. brisket, and a 10 lb. pork butt.
This was the first time I had cooked these three meats on this cooker.
The ribs were cooked basically following your direction from above. The baby backs finished in about 3 hours 15 minutes and the spares about 15 minutes later. This was by far the easiest time I have ever had cooking ribs and they turned out GREAT. I strayed from your method however. Once the ribs were done, I took them 2 at a time, coated with sauce and placed them in the oven for a quick 2 minute broil. Once removed I gave them another coat of sauce, sliced and served. They were a big hit, 8 adults and 5 kids ate all but one rack of ribs. I only ate 2 ribs out of the batch (I'm not a big rib fan) so we can almost exclude me from the adult head count.
The brisket was an Angus Certified cut. I was pressed for time so it was trimmed, rubbed and in the cooker in about 30 minutes. I used 4 hooks, 2 on each end, so it hanged fat side down, horizontal in the cooker. It took only about 2.5 hours to reach 165 degrees when I wrapped in foil with some beef broth. I pulled it at about 196 when it felt soft and ready. It then sat in my heated cooler resting for about 1.5 hours. It didn't turn out the way I wanted, it was a little dry and not as soft as it felt when it was pulled. I will try this again very soon, bother me that it wasn't up to my expectations.
The Pork Butt I cooked turned out really good. Again, I hung it horizontal, fat side down using 2 hooks on either end. It cooked for about 2.5 hours before I wrapped it in foil with some pork marinade I had laying around the house. Another 1.5 hours and it was ready. After a 20 minute rest it was pulled and I added some of the marinade juice back into the mix. Great flavor, probably better than what I've accomplished so far "low and slow" on my WSM's. I was pleasantly surprised especially since I have never cooked a butt "hot and fast".
Well, back to the drawing board on the brisket.
Blogger John Dawson said...
Dave - Thanks for your very informative and detailed feedback. It's pretty neat hangin' meat, huh? ;-)
Anonymous David Fish said...
It is...However, today I am cooking your BBQ Gyro recipe on the Pit Barrel Cooker. Smells awesome, can't wait!
Blogger John Dawson said...
Ironically I just had a gyro at Mazzah on Parkcenter just this afternoon.
Blogger John Dawson said...
FYI, for those interested, here is the gyro recipe that Dave mentioned above.

Gyros On The Grill
Blogger LT72884 said...
Question. I am still trying to figure out what the PBC is. all i have available to me is videos and images from you and the site. I have no hands on with it. So i can not tell the difference between a UDS and this. From what i CAN see is that its different by the way you let all the coals burn at once. no minon method at all. The meat is hung and i dont think i have noticed and air control at all. haha. I have hung meat before. I had to write a research paper for english class and it was on fat cap up or down. Paul kirk contacted me and said he hangs his meat like the chinese do. so thats where i learned it from. Anyway, the PBC looks really nice, i just cant tell a difference between it and a uDS with just images. What makes the PBC so different than a UDS to you? Is the the flavor any different if you are using the same charcoal in the PBC as the UDS? Thanks john and best of luck to you all.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I don't know the author of this review at all, but I DO know that anyone who uses "lighter fluid" to start their charcoal has absolutely NO credibility whatsoever and richly deserves to be put in the category of 'Grill POSEUR'. Enjoy your chemically infused fodder, and if you ever want to become a serious griller/smoker, buy a chimney starter. It ain't hard....
Blogger John Dawson said...
Anonymous (gotta love that courage) - Would you also call Myron Mixon a "grill poseur"? You might be interested to know that the Pit Barrel Cooker team, of which I was a part, beat the venerable Johnny Trigg in ribs and pork last summer using lighter fluid. Let me see your list of awards. ;-)
Anonymous Brock said...
Just received my PBC yesterday. Did one rack of back ribs for the first cook. Followed the PBC instructions (full basket of Kingsford, 20 minutes, etc.). Here's some thoughts/observations.

1. Nice that the PBC guy puts his phone # on a little plate attached to every barrel. Mine peeled off 10 minutes after I hung the meat. Oh well. There's not powder coat all over the barrel, it's exposed steel all around the two ridges of the barrel, hopefully they don't rust eventually. Theres some pretty large scratches on the barrel, exposing some steel, like someone took a steel wool like thing to it. Other than that, built like a tank.

2. I kinda want to wait for the coals to burn longer than 20 minutes in the future. The thing just ran hot as hell for awhile, and it ended up charring my entire rack. I noticed in your pictures of PBC ribs (beef and pork), they have the same thing. Black may be beautiful, but not on meat. Its burned, not caramelized. I've never been crazy about placing meat over still black charcoal on other grills, not sure I want to do it on this one either.

3. That's a hell of a lot of charcoal for a rack of little pork ribs! I mean, theres gotta be about 8 pounds in there! I would maybe use 1/3 this amount for back ribs in a 18.5" Weber kettle. Why do I need so much in the PBC, especially since the meat is hanging directly over the coals? Have you played around with lesser amounts of charcoal?

4. I'm not down with the PBC rub. Too much sugar. I'm sure that contributed to our black meat? I cook for a living, and didn't get home from the restaurant until 11 pm last night and was just itching to set up and cook on the PBC. I just slapped the All Purpose rub on the ribs for time's sake. It almost has a MSG like quality to it. Not that I'm opposed to that...

I realize that is not the cooker's fault for food that comes out like this. Its usually a result of the cook not knowing the rig. It was my first time on the PBC, I'll keep playing with it and learn about it. The design makes sense to me and I'm sure I'll be turning out good meat on it. I mean the smaller ribs (closest to the coals) were just crispy and black and crappy. THe high initial heat is cool if I want to sear something quick like a beef that is going to be mid rare in the middle, but I'm not going to put an expensive brisket in there and char the hell out of it in the first 30 minutes when it still has 5+ hours of work to do.

Your thoughts?
Blogger John Dawson said...
Brock - Here are my thoughts:

1. I'd contact Noah about any quality problems. I guarantee that he'll make it right.

2. I've never had any charred/black meat come out of my PBC, and I follow the standard lighting procedures.

3. Yes, I've used varying amounts for smaller cooks and it works well as long as you realize that it will tend to burn hotter.

4. The PBC rubs are VERY low in sugar. You can verify that with Noah, as they are his recipes. I really dig both of the rubs.
Blogger Unknown said...
Lighter fluid? Your cred just went out the window for me, then again, you probably don't give a crap what I have to say. :)

Blogger John Dawson said...
Unknown - Your opinion is of untold value to me.
Anonymous Brock said...
Just wanted to check back in after I've done a few more cooks on the Pit Barrel Cooker. With some adjustments, I've been getting some real nice food out of this unit!

First, for smaller cooks, like tri tip, I've been using about 3/4 basket of charcoal. It doesn't run hotter, as stated above, but the initial hot period is less, and the overall burn time is shorter, which makes sense. It's actually pretty impressive how long the PBC retains heat. I have a cheap offset smoker which cost more than the PBC and can't retain heat like the PBC can. And I can fit more meat in the PBC. Cook time was just about exactly what Noah recommends in the videos, I like em bloody as all so even less time.

Chicken is money, this thing is a chicken cooking machine.

Did more ribs. Filled the basket just under full, waited 35 minutes instead of 20. I actually used the method recommended for brisket where you hang it for a few, them wrap it and place it on the included grill. Really came out nice. I'm always searching for the better rib, so I'm sure I'll be tweaking the method further in the future.

As for the powder coat finish, my first cook was done in the dark, with a headlamp. I actually do much of my cooking at this hour. Turns out the exposed steel on the ridges was just steel dust residue left over from manufacturing. Anyone who has ever worked w steel knows how that stuff just clings to everything. It comes off with a good wipe down.

As for the rubs. I'm a cook. I like making my own rubs to suit my own taste. It's part of the fun of cooking.

I would definitely recommend the PBC. The heat retention is awesome, I can't wait to use it in winter. Like any other rig, its imperative that you use it and learn it. My above post was merely my experience from the first time using it, and the results have gotten better since then. And they are going to get even better.
Blogger Mike Tann said...
Has anyone done more than one pork shoulder in the PBC? I going to attempt 3-9lb ders on Saturday for a reunion. Wondering how much time 27 lbs of meat will take? Any suggestions welcome.Thanks

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