Q: This backyard cooker of meats has always considered the parboiling of ribs before exposing them to the grill or smoker an act akin to putting beans in chili—just something honest, law-abiding Texans wouldn’t ever do. Is parboiling cheating? Do regular people parboil in public, or is it something only done behind closed doors? How does the Texanist feel about parboiling?
Hank Franks, Notrees
A: The Texanist probably need not waste words on the sacrosanctity of barbecue in Texas. The same goes for grilling. Suffice it to say, the cooking of meats with fire and smoke is something with which Texans don’t mess around. This stuff is serious business here.
Parboiling, for the uninformed, is the boiling of a food as a preliminary step in the cooking process. Think of it as precooking. A person might take a rack of pork ribs, for instance, and plop them into a big pot of boiling water for a period of time in order to soften the tough connective tissues before finishing them on the smoker or grill. The technique allows a chef to quickly achieve a level of tenderness that would take much, much longer with either direct (grilling) or indirect (smoking) cooking. And in certain circles, circles that include folks who are just fine with oven-cooked, so-called “barbecued” pork ribs, this is perfectly acceptable behavior.
In other circles, however, parboiling is indeed looked down upon. The Texanist is now speaking of the circles for whom the ancient art of cooking with fire is taken quite seriously. These grilling and barbecue purists eschew such shortcuts and rely on little more than their hot coals and Father Time. No pitmaster, even one of middling repute, would be caught dead submerging their meats into a pot of boiling water, for at least two very good reasons: 1) while parboiling does soften up meat until it achieves a fall-off-the-bone state, it can also leave it gooey, and 2) it depletes the meat of flavorful fats, which is not good. Boiling water, after all, is for potatoes and shrimp and noodles and eggs and, as we’ve learned from so many westerns, frontier baby delivery. “Hey, y’all want to come over for a rib boil?” Nobody would ever say this. And if anyone did ever say this, the authorities would likely be called. The fine and honorable people who toil over their pits and cookers for hours upon hours upon hours are known as pitmasters, not potmasters.
A long time ago, the Texanist had a job flipping burgers at a joint on Lake Austin whose weekend menu featured barbecue, which was tended to by the renowned pitmaster C-Boy Parks. So famous for cooking was Parks that the legendary Austin blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds immortalized him in song with “C-Boy’s Blues.” Give it a listen. The Texanist learned many things from C-Boy, but parboiling was definitely not one of them.
The Texanist mentioned parboiling to Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, who put it this way: “Ribs can be cooked by lowering them into boiling water just as a brisket can be braised in the oven, but no matter how much barbecue sauce you add to the finished product, it isn’t barbecue. Parboiling ribs and calling them barbecue is like microwaving a cucumber and calling it a pickle. It’s a shortcut for backyard cooks who don’t have the patience, equipment, or know-how to properly smoke a rack of ribs.” Further, Vaughn says that there are a few barbecue joints out there that engage in parboiling, but like the chupacabra, it is, thankfully, a rare thing to witness out in the open.
Parboilers, whether professionals or weekend warriors, do a disservice to the customers, friends, and family upon whom they foist their gummy and flavorless ribs. There’s just no place for shortcuts in the barbecue trade. The old saying, after all, is not “Good things come to those who cannot wait for good things to come” or “Good things come to those who don’t want to wait” or “Good things come to people who are so impatient that they are willing to put a perfectly good slab of pork ribs into a big pot of boiling water just so they can shave some time off the fire tending.” Barbecue is too important be fiddled with like this. Down with the potmasters! And hooray to the pitmasters, the barbecue chefs who do it right.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
A version of this is published in the November 2018 issue.