When taken on a low ‘n’ slow journey, smoked beef short ribs are about as close as you can get to barbecue Nirvana. Nail this dish, and your guests will happily anoint you with the title of pit-master or mistress as the case may be. Incredibly rich, tender, and flavoursome, the beef short rib is a must for anyone that wishes to take their barbecue game to the next level.

Due to the “heavy” fat content, beef short ribs need to be given just the right amount of heat/time ratio to break down the collagens and with every piece of meat not being created equally, there is no real “cook by numbers” approach to executing the perfect short rib. What follows will serve as a guide, but the rest is up to your look, feel and smell sensors.

The Meat

I suggest selecting a rack of grass-fed beef short rib that has at least three bones present, has good marbling (fat striation), is meaty and weighs in at approximately three kilograms, uncooked.

The Trim

There is often more than enough intermuscular fat within the rib itself, so I like to expose as much of the beef as possible by removing pretty much all of the fat and silver skin present on the top layer of the rib. Some of the fat seams will run fairly deep down in the meat, but only trim down to the meat level otherwise you run the risk of the ribs separating and turning into a bit of a mess.

Unlike pork ribs, there is no real reason to remove the underside rib membrane. In fact, I advise leaving it on to hold the rib bones in place as it makes good chewing when rendered.

The Rub

The natural flavours of quality beef short rib don’t need disguising and, in my opinion, it’s a case of less-is-more. Choose a rub that doesn’t overpower those natural flavours and allows the beef to shine through. A simple homemade salt, pepper, garlic (SPG) or an off the shelf Kiwi rub like those from Rum & Que or The Four Saucemen are great options, or get creative as seen in the photos.

A light spritzing with plain water onto the surface of the rib followed by an even covering of your preferred rub is all that is needed. The water will help the rub adhere to the beef throughout the cooking process. Do not forget the edges and if leaving the membrane on, there is little point in applying rub to the underside.

Set aside the ribs for approximately one hour to allow the salts and flavours in the rub to begin to work their magic. 

The Smoke

Set your smoker/barbecue up to sit around the 275°F mark for six or so hours and be sure to create an indirect zone. This means the rib will be away from the heat source (this is the basis for all low ‘n’ slow barbecuing).

Indirect barbecuing can be achieved in many ways. It can be as simple as having lit coals on one side of the barbecue and meat on the other, but if you have never done this method of barbecuing, I suggest using Google or YouTube to search up your specific smoker/barbecue and getting more precise directions online.

Briquette style coals will provide a more uniform and consistent temperature range than hardwood style lump coal and should be set up as a slow burning “fuse”. This means that the lit coals at the start of the coal “fuse” will slowly ignite the next and so on (such methods are described as “snakes” or “minions” in various styles of barbecues).

The thermometer on the grill shows the temperature. Close-up.

Next, add your preferred smoking wood chunks along the unlit coal ‘fuse’. This step ensures your barbecue has consistent smoke throughout the first three hours or so of the cook and will give your ribs that lightly smoked sweet and natural flavours and aromas. The idea is to let the smoke kiss the meat, rather than smother it, which will be a turn off for most tastes. My favourite wood pairings for beef are well-seasoned pohutukawa, apple, oak and cherry.

Once your barbecue is up to temperature (275°F or thereabouts), place the short rib bone side down on the grill away from the direct heat of the coals.

Close the lid, take the kids to the park, mow the lawns, go back to bed or enjoy a beverage or two while the earthy smells of your fire and wood gently caress some of the tastiest and lush meat you and your guests will ever eat.

Around the two hour mark, I like to check the progress of the cook by visually inspecting how the “fuse” is burning, the rub is setting, the colour is forming and the aromas are rising. Before closing the lid, I give the ribs a gentle spritz with plain water to introduce some moisture back on to the surface of the protein. Repeat this process every hour or so from here but remember that if you are looking, you’re not cooking! Opening the lid can prolong the cook by a decent margin.

Between five to six hours in, the meat will be well and truly pulling back from the bone, exposing its “teeth”, and puffing up. The bark should also be nicely set (it won’t scratch off easily). Using a digital instant-read thermometer, spot check the internal temperature of the rib – we are looking for around 205°F now. This is also a good time to check the fuse, add more coal if needed, and give the ribs another light spritz.

From here on, keep a regular eye on the internal temperature – somewhere in the vicinity of 204°F to 207°F is the goal.

No two pieces of meat are created equal, so it is worthy to note that any times and temps provided in this article are loose guides only. The one and only test to confirm if it’s ready is whether it probes like butter – which means that a probe/toothpick will easily penetrate the meat with little effort and it will have a slight jelly-wobble feel to it.

From there, the serving suggestions are many: bone out, bone-in, sliced, on mashed spuds, in burgers, on pizza, in a pie, braised with a rich red wine sauce, over southern style slaw or as part of a traditional Kiwi Sunday roast – they are all real crowd pleasers.

So there it is, the long and short of barbecued beef short rib.

Article by: Kerren Packer