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Jan 12, 2004 06:45 PM

fall off the bone barbecue & chicago barbecue

  • d

Seems that barbecue is a big topic round here lately. Winter denial perhaps? There have been a few longish threads on the Chicago Board as well, one of which is linked to below. We are not claiming any great things for Chicago barbecue, just tasting, cataloging and trying to understand. Chicago barbecue is primarily ribs and rib tips (are these purely Chicago, or do we find them elsewhere? Some places in Chicago do claim to have "invented" them.), light smoking in a more or less direct flame, tomato-based sauce applied, optionally, after cooking. As one of our posters likes to say, "if you are talking about the sauce first, there is something wrong with the meat," or something to that effect. Anyone who wishes, please feel free to correct, add to, or improve that discussion.

As a result of this, we have had a little exchange about "fall off the bone" barbecue, which seems to be recognized in certain quarters as a kind of gold standard. In my experience, however, fall-off-the-bone means something terrible involving water, has been done to ribs to get them there. Usually par-boiling, holding or baking in foil, freezing and reheating or some such. While these increase tenderness, they also take water-soluble compunds that contribute to taste leaving behind a tender, often mushy, and most importantly flavorless piece of meat. Conceal it with sauce, and it can be tasty, but the meat is lousy.

There are dishes made with ribs that are based on baking in foil or even boiling, and I respect those well enough for what they are though my English Dad taught me years ago that boiling meat is a horror and I generally agree (you get great broth and lousy meat). And I also recognize that it is theoretically possible to slow cook ribs in such a way that they come out tender and flavorful, but I have never found a restaurant, or really even a person, that does this. In my world, fall off the bone ribs have always been substantially tasteless ("meat jello" as one poster describes a particularly unpleasant version). If they ain't chewy, they ain't flavorful.

So I ask the collective wisdom of the Board - is "fall off the bone" a genuine and tasteful style of barbecued ribs, or just a vehicle for sauce and a hoax perpetrated by the restaurant industry to sell an easy to prepare and hold product?

If it is real, where and how is it done?



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  1. My understanding is that the judges at the Memphis In May championship barbeque competition will know points off, if your meat is falling off the bone. It is supposed to be tender, but still have some tooth and tightness on the bone. Either way, falling off or not, I'll usually scarfe as much as I can get down my gullet.

    1. ribs and tips are popular everywhere as far as i have seen, tho they usually denote bad northern cue or run of the mill chinese fast food to me. i totally agree with your assessment of 'fall off the bone' and pre-boiled. not a good thing. get thee to texas for real bbq!!!

      1. From South Carolina: I've never heard of "rib tips." What are they? Maybe we call them something else. If they are just the boney ends of the ribs, we'd call that cheating.

        Some places serve their ribs chopped into 2 or 3 inch lengths. I prefer the whole ribs.

        "Falling off the bone" = over-cooking and probably parboiling.

        1. My experience is that rib tips are definitely more popular in Chicago than in any other bbq stronghold. Ribs are generally available anywhere, although they seem to be second-class bbq citizens in North Carolina, where chopped 'cue takes center stage.

          As for falling off the bone, I've never understood why or how this could be considered a compliment. To me, it's a synonym for "mush."

          -- Paul

          1. Falling off the bone is not consistent with good barbecue. I would disagree however with your contention that boiling meat is wrong. Falling off the bone is exactly how you want a pot roast or a beef stew to come out in texture and I would not categorize either as lousy meat.

            10 Replies
            1. re: john clark

              ---Falling off the bone is exactly how you want a pot roast or a beef stew to come out in texture and I would not categorize either as lousy meat.---

              Or short ribs. Or Osso Buco. Or Rogan Josh. Etc...

              Yeah, that statement about 'boiling meat' is just plain wrong. Braising is an essential technique for a number of cuts.

              1. re: Tongo Rad
                AlanH™ (formerly AlanH)

                Yes, but not for BBQ. If you take a rack of ribs, and boil it first, you are essentially making pork soup, which is extracting the flavor out of the meat. I don't think anyone would argue that one should boil a chicken before you cook it. Same thing. When you braise meat, you generally are using the braising juices within the dish, not pouring them down the drain.

                1. re: AlanH™ (formerly AlanH)

                  I agree with that, actually. I don't advocate pre-boiling ribs. I was just responding to what I took to be a general statement about cooking meat in contact with water from the original post.

                  1. re: Tongo Rad

                    Actually, I do boil corned beef a few times a year, but now that I am thinking about it, I should really try more of a braising technigue for that, too. Any suggestions on the best way to cook corned beef/

                    Sorry if boiling was taken by some to mean using any liquid with any meat - I certainly do not consider braising or stewing to be the same thing at all, and I believe the normal cooking definitions of the terms are pretty clear. Boiling would be high temperature, high volume of water where the water is generally discarded and the meat eaten (feel free to refine this expert cooks, if need be). It is perfectly okay in my (and my dad's) book to use some liquid to cook meat when that liquid will be served with the meat as a sauce of gravy.

                    Actually, when he came over here after WWII, he initially expressed surprise that everything tasted so good, which he later said came about because the meat was never boiled and seasoning was used beyond salt and pepper, particularly garlic. His opinion of pre-WWII UK cuisine was overly harsh, but did hold some truth which I have attempted to glean.


                    1. re: dickson d

                      ---Boiling would be high temperature, high volume of water where the water is generally discarded and the meat eaten ---

                      Eegads, people do this?!! :)

                      OK, ok...I'll tone it down, but that reaction probably explains my earlier confusion.

                      I haven't done corned beef but I do braise a lot. I do it in the oven at a fairly low temp (<300)to keep the meat from drying out (I've learned that you can both braise and poach something until it's dry, sadly) but I will have to ultimately pass the buck on the corned beef question.

                      1. re: Tongo Rad

                        I don't care what anyone else says, but I love "fall off the bone" ribs. My husband prefers more of the "tug" described in an earlier thread. But I like to put a rack or two in the slow cooker with a can of coke and some apple cider vinegar or brown sugar, citrus fruits, onion, garlic or whatever else is in my fridge. I usually do about an inch and a half of liquid and let it go for several hours. I find the meat stays flavorful. You can also use the broth left behind in making your barbecue sauce. I also do this with pork shoulder for pulled pork sandwiches.

                        1. re: Gina
                          AlanH™ (formerly AlanH)

                          But that isn't barbecue now, is it?

                      2. re: dickson d

                        Strangely enough my favorite way to cook corned beef is to smoke it. I boil, yes boil, for about 10 minutes in an attempt to lose some salt. And then cover with cracked pepper and smoke over hickory at about 225 until done. Time depending on the size of the brisket.

                        As far as the rib discussion. I have competed in 1 or 2 KCBS BBQ contests every year for about 8 years. What the judges are looking for is the meat to "tug" cleanly away from the bone.

                  2. re: Tongo Rad

                    Boiling is a violent action, braising is a simmer and far gentler then boiling.

                    Outside of cooking pasta and crustaceans, I can't think of anything that needs to boil for more then a very short time before being turned down (and shrimp only need a few minutes.) There are probably some other items I can't think of, but boiling and braising are not the same thing.

                    1. re: muD

                      my bad, I had always thought of braising as a subset of boiling but clearly that is not the case.