Corncobs may seem like an odd choice for smoking meat, but they impart a sweet, subtle smokiness that more assertive hardwood can’t offer. Cornmeal gives these ribs an initial blast of smoky flavor, while the fresh cobs offer long-lasting smoke and a nutty aroma. Starting with a bed of unlit coals and topping them with lit coals gives us a constant heat source without the hassle of reloading the grill.
Serves 4 to 6
A gas grill can't do these corncob ribs justice, so please use charcoal. The test kitchen's favorite ketchup is Heinz Organic.
corncobs, kernels removed and reserved for another use
1. FOR THE SAUCE: Whisk all ingredients together in medium bowl to combine; set aside.
2. FOR THE RIBS: Combine sugar, salt, and pepper in bowl. Pat ribs dry with paper towels and rub with sugar mixture; set aside. Using large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, wrap cornmeal in foil packet and cut several vent holes in top.
3. Open bottom vents of charcoal grill halfway. Place 13 by 9-inch disposable aluminum roasting pan on 1 side of grill and fill pan with 2 quarts water. Arrange 3 quarts unlit charcoal briquettes on opposite side of grill. Place cobs on top of unlit briquettes. Light large chimney starter filled halfway with charcoal briquettes (3 quarts). When top coals are covered with ash, pour over cobs and unlit coals. Place cornmeal packet on coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent halfway. Heat grill until hot and cornmeal is smoking, about 5 minutes.
4. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place ribs, meat side up, on cool part of grill opposite coals. Cover, positioning lid vent over ribs, and cook until ribs are deep red and tender, 3½ to 4 hours, rotating ribs and switching positions every hour. (Do not flip ribs.) During last 30 minutes of cooking, baste ribs every 10 minutes, rotating and switching ribs each time. Transfer ribs to carving board, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Cut ribs in between bones and serve, passing remaining sauce separately.
Layering the Fire
In South Dakota, they smoke their ribs on huge custom barbecue rigs using dried corncobs as the sole fuel. It makes sense—corn is what's around, after all. To adapt the method to a backyard kettle grill, we had to figure out how to configure the fire to get four hours of steady, corn-tinged smoke. Here's what we did:
Failed Corncob Tests
In South Dakota, bushels of dried, stripped corncobs impart a special flavor to ribs. To replicate it, we left no kernel unturned. It was A for effort, but these attempts were a bust.