Every year about 30 of my family and friends go up to Michigan in the middle of July. The weather is amazing. Go to the pool or the beach during the day, wear a sweatshirt at night. The place is rustic. Not many frills, but it’s a great time. Particularly if you like to eat food cooked on the grill. We rent five cabins and each cabin has a grill. We line up the grills next to each other and about 5 of the 7 nights a few of us grill for all 30 people. Last summer we decided to have a rib off between my cousin, my dad and I:

Yeah, that’s the three of us after many hours of grillin and a little too much chillin considering we posed for this pseudo Iron Chef type picture. Gotta love my Dad’s farmer’s tan!?!

First off I have to mention a couple issues we had. My dad (Fool’s Pappy) got an amazing “deal” on some baby backs. Well, they weren’t baby backs. They were a little bigger than BB’s and a little smaller than spares. Second. The membrane would not come off of these things. All three of us had issues. So we just scored them really well with a sharp knife to keep the membrane from making the ribs tough which worked quite well. And the biggest obstacle was the grills we were using. I mentioned this place was rustic. These grills are uber cheap Wal Mart specials. They are not ideal for smoking at all. You’ll see the pics in a minute and understand what I mean.

Now on to the Rib Off. So for the couple of months leading up to vacation we were talking about this Rib Off. All three of us were experimenting with different rubs, marinades, smoke woods, etc. My dad has some crazy Chipotle Rasberry Marinade he planned to. I used Mussleman’s apple sauce as a marinade and my cousin applied his mainly brown sugar rub the night before and wrapped in cling wrap.

But the night before my cousin is saying that he wants to skip the Rib Off and just grill the ribs and not have a competition. He’s making excuses left and right and just wants to have fun. Dad and I aren’t having any of that. Dad’s got his marinade and I’ve got the apple sauce that I heard the guy who owns 17th street grill (and winner of the Memphis Rib Contest 3 different year) uses. I later found out that they do not use apple sauce to marinate ribs so this was a huge waste of time.

I also had my secret weapon. Penzey’s. I tell everyone that will listen that Penzey’s are the best. They are far and away better than anything you can get at the grocery store. Part of the reason they are so good is they are much more powerful than anything from the grocer and much less of the spice is needed. I did not know that little fact prior to using them for the first time during the Rib Off. More on that later.

My cousin and I used apple and my dad used cherry. All of the wood chunks were baseball size. My dad also soaked his cherry wood. My cousin and I did not. This is why I never soak wood chunks. Chunks just don’t need to be soaked as the water doesn’t penetrate all that much. Of the 5 grills we used one of them had the soaked cherry chunks. Guess which one:

Yeap, that would be Grill #4 with no smoke. And now do you understand what I mean about the grills being not well suited for smoking?

About 30 minutes into the process my cousin has to leave to go take care of something. I’d had a few beers at that point so I cannot remember what that was so Dad and I are cooking his as well as ours. So here I am, my cousin is AWOL, my dad has no smoke. I’ve got a perfect 235 degrees and billowing smoke rolling out of my grill. 30 minutes in and I think I’ve got it in the bag already.

But this is no short cook. There is plenty of time for the tables to turn. My dad settles in to pick up a few tips from the real master while we wait:

With no smoke for close to an hour from Dad’s cherry we decide to throw all of his wood onto the grill (not in the fire) to essentially kiln dry it on one of the community grills to get the moisture out so it will smoke when it is eventually added to the fire:

Of course Grillin Fools can’t live by beer alone. We need to maintain our strength. During the process the rib tips were munched on as appetizers for us:

90 minutes in. Let’s check the process. Dad finally has some smoke:

And here are my ribs:

About 2 hours in, my ribs are ready for the foil:

I placed them bone side down, slathered the top with syrup and for half of them added more rub to get a really nice bark. Then I sealed them up in the foil and back on the grill. The better of the two kinds I will submit for judging:

Tom was back at this point and here are his ribs which are looking great:

And here are some of his foiled. Not sure why he didn’t foil the one slab:

And my dad decides to add a little wine to his foil. I use the term “wine” loosely:

BTW, remember me mentioning that we had to score the membrane on these ribs as the membrane just wouldn’t come off? Here’s what it looks like when cooked. Sorta looks like inverse cross hatched grill marks!?!?!

Here is my dad and cousin looking over dad’s ribs:

Here are my dad’s. Some sauced, some not:

Here I am tending to my Ribs. If you are a Chicago Cubs fan look really close at my shirt:

Here are mine. The slabs on the right had more rub added for a really nice bark:

And here are the winning ribs:

Who won?  Tom.  The guy who disappeared for about 3 hours won. He was there for 30 minutes to start and the final 30 minutes.

What went wrong for Dad and I. Penzey’s that’s what went wrong for me.

See, when someone like me who has used obviously very mediocre spices all his life gets a hold of Penzeys for the first time bad things can happen. Sorta like only driving a V6 all my life and then getting into an Enzo Ferrari and attempting to win a road rally without ever test driving the car. I did two rubs. And both were WAY too spicy for the crowd I was cooking for. I loved them. My cousin’s wife gave me the nod for best ribs as well as a few others who enjoy spicy food but for most of the people they were just too spicy. My idea of Chipotle spice is very different than that of Penzey’s idea. My biggest mistake was not testing the rub ahead of time.

My Dad’s were really good to me but he used that Chipotle Rasberry Marinade that happened to be very spicy as well. So, guess who wins? The guy who won was the guy who rubbed in brown sugar, slapped his ribs on the grill and I cooked them.  But there’s something beautiful with that. Grilling doesn’t have to be complex or over the top.  Sometimes simple and steady wins.  Tom made a great rib that appealed to the other 27 people there more than ours.  Props to him on some great ribs.

Click here to see more detailed rib recipes done by the Grillin Fools

Also, you can follow the Grillin Fools on Facebook and post your own grillin pictures, or keep up with us on Twitter@GrillinFool (no S).

Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas

Scott Thomas, the Original Grillin’ Fool, was sent off to college with a suitcase and a grill where he overcooked, undercooked and burned every piece of meat he could find. After thousands of failures, and quite a few successes, nearly two decades later he started a website to show step by step, picture by picture, foolproof instructions on how to make great things out of doors so that others don’t have to repeat the mistakes he’s made on the grill.
Scott Thomas


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