June 04, 2011

Tea-Smoked Baby Back Ribs

Last weekend I had hoped to do a lot of grilling and barbecuing, but the weather and our schedules didn't cooperate enough for that to happen.  I did get some grill time in, though, and as part of that, I finally got around to trying out a new barbecue technique I'd been wanting to try for some time:  tea smoking.

I had some tea-smoked duck in an upscale Chinese restaurant many years ago, and as I recall it was delicious, but I had more or less forgotten about it until I read an article about tea smoking in the Aug/Sept 2010 issue of Fine CookingI found the article quite intriguing and put tea smoking on my "things to try" list, but never got around to trying it out last year.  More recently, the February 2011 issue of Cuisine at Home featured an article about Tea-Smoking ribs in the oven, by sealing the smoke and ribs in a pan with layers of foil.   The recipe and related photos looked delicious, but I wasn't about to try that out in the oven, because we don't have a kitchen exhaust fan and I figured the technique was bound to fill the kitchen with smoke when I opened the sealing foil at various steps during the process.   Still, the recipe looked too delicious to pass up, so I decided I'd use that article's ideas and recipe as a starting point for my first try at tea smoking on the grill.

The idea behind tea smoking is pretty simple:  you cook meat with dry heat, using tea and other aromatic ingredients to create flavored smoke that imparts its flavor to the cooking meat.  It really isn't that different than ordinary wood smoking.  This cooking technique has been practiced in China for many centuries. 

This link to the Fine Cooking website features a set of very helpful videos that discuss the tea smoking technique, show how to make a tea smoking packet, and demonstrate how to use the technique to cook shrimp and salmon.   I found them quite helpful and informative, and hopefully you will also find them useful.

In terms of technique, it's pretty much like any other sort of barbecue smoking.   I prepared two racks of baby back ribs a day ahead of time, splitting each into two pieces and rubbing them down with a thick coating of spice rub, then covering them and letting them rest in the refrigerator until a half-hour or so before I was going to toss them on the grill.  Meanwhile, I prepared a packet of aromatic ingredients - Wuyr Shan Red Cape oolong tea from Gong Fu Tea, Szechuan peppercorns, slices of raw ginger, star anise pods, strips of orange zest and a broken-up cinnamon stick - plus Jasmine tea and brown sugar (the first to fuel the burning of the smoking ingredients, the second to provide additional flavor and color to the smoke). 

When the coals were ready, I stacked the coals on one side of the grill, tossed the smoke packet atop the coals and placed the ribs (in a rib cooking rack) on the part of the grill with no coals (indirect heat), atop a disposable aluminum roasting pan.  I added a couple bay leaves and a cup of apple juice to the cooking pan, put the lid on the grill with the lid vents right above the cooking ribs, and let them smoke for about two hours.   This is somewhat less time than I typically cook ribs, but I used a hotter-than-usual fire to compensate, as I'd read in several places that tea-smoked meats that cook for long periods of time tend to develop an off or bitter flavor.  

At the end of that time, I had perfectly smoked, tender ribs, with a spicy, dark exterior and a nice smoke-ring effect.    I then sliced the cooked rib racks into individual-rib portions, dipped these in a sweet-spicy sauce I'd made on the stove top, then tossed them in the oven to broil for just a few minutes.   The result:  Tender, tasty ribs coated in a delicious, sticky, Asian-flavored sauce.   The combination of the spice rub, the tea smoking and the sauce gave these ribs a delightfully complex flavor, as good as any conventionally-barbecued ribs I've ever had but also unlike any other ribs I've ever had.   Juli also liked them a lot, which I consider an accomplishment, as she's not nearly as fond of ribs as I am.  I served them up with rice and a really good Chinese vegetable stir-fry (I'll post that recipe another time).

I would say my first try at tea smoking was a big success.   I ended up with a really nice, memorable meal and lots of tasty leftovers, plus I've got another barbecue technique I can continue to experiment with.  That's time well-spent, I'd say.

Tea-Smoked Baby Back Ribs

Spice Rub
2              tablespoons light brown sugar
2              tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
2              tablespoons kosher salt
1              tablespoon ground ginger
1              tablespoon ground coriander
2              teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

2              slabs baby back ribs

Tea-Smoking Packet
1/2           cup loose oolong tea leaves*
1/2           cup dry jasmine rice
1/2           cup packed light brown sugar
1/4           cup Szechuan peppercorns
5              star anise pods
5              thin slices fresh ginger
1              large cinnamon stick, crumbled
                peeled zest of one large orange

1              cup apple juice
2              bay leaves

Asian-Spiced BBQ Sauce
1/2           cup ketchup
1/2           cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2           cup orange juice
1/3           cup packed light brown sugar
1/4           cup hoisin sauce
2              tablespoons chili garlic sauce
1              tablespoon molasses
1              tablespoon fresh, peeled and grated ginger
2              teaspoons dark (Asian) sesame oil
2              teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

                thin-sliced scallions and additional toasted sesame
                 seeds as garnish (if desired)

Add the spice rub ingredients to a small bowl and stir to thoroughly mix.

Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs.  Cut each rack in half at the midpoint.  Place the ribs on a baking sheet.  Sprinkle spoonfulls of the spice rub over the ribs, pressing and rubbing it in with the fingers to thoroughly cover both sides of the ribs.   Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the ribs (still on the baking sheet) for at least two hours, but preferably for around 24 hours.  Remove the ribs from the refrigerator about 1/2 hour before they're to go on the grill.

Lay two sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil crosswise.  Add the Tea Smoking Packet ingredients to the middle of the sheets and mix them together thoroughly with your hands, then fold the foil sheets together loosely to form a packet, leaving some air in the packet.  Cut several half-inch vents in the top surface of the packet.

Prepare the grill for indirect heat.  Fill a charcoal chimney and ignite the briquettes in the chimney.  Spread a layer of unlit briquettes in the direct heat area.  Clean the cooking grate with a grill brush and either lightly coat it with vegetable oil or spray it with nonstick cooking spray.  Clean and oil the rib cooking rack.  When the briquettes in the chimney are hot (covered with white ash), arrange them on one side of the grill, atop the unlit briquettes.  On the other side of the lower layer of the grill, set a disposable aluminum pans.  Add the bay leaves and apple juice to the pan.  Set the Tea Smoking Packet atop the lit coals, then put the cooking grate in place.  Place the rib cooking rack atop the cooking grate in the indirect heat area, right above the disposable pan.   Cover the grill and let it heat up for 5 minutes.  The fragrant smoke should be rising from the top grill vents.

Place the rib rack segments in the rib cooking rack.  Close the lid, setting the vents at half-open and above the ribs.   Allow to cook without lifting the lid for 90 minutes.  Check interior temperature of the cooking ribs with a meat thermometer.  The ribs are done when they reach an interior heat of 180 degrees Fahrenheit.  Check every half-hour, keeping the lid on the grill in between, until the ribs are done.

While the ribs are cooking, prepare the BBQ sauce.   Add the sauce ingredients to a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes.  Set oven racks and heat up the oven for high broiling.

Transfer cooked ribs to a cutting board and slice into single-rib segments. 

Use tongs to dip the individual rib segments into the sauce, then transfer them to a broiling pan.  Cook the sauced ribs in two batches, broiling them until the sauce thickens into a slightly-charred glaze (about 3 minutes). 

Transfer broiled rib segments to a serving platter.  Serve and enjoy.

*    The tea is a major component of the flavor for this dish, so for best results, use a high-quality oolong tea.  Gong Fu Tea's website has several options, including the one I used.


  1. Looks great... I so wanted to try this last year but could not find a adequate tea. I might be time to thing about it again.

  2. It is definitely worth tracking down a good tea, and based on my results, I'm pretty sure that when you try out this technique, you'll be pleased with the results.