Even though I am not American I am a massive fan of big, hearty, smoky American cooking. I love eating with my fingers, any chicken on the bone, and of course sticky baby back pork ribs in smokey BBQ sauce, so much so that I have even bottled my own rib sauce.* There really is something special in the combination of tender ribs with the meat almost falling off the bone and a spicy, sweet, sour, sticky finger-licking sauce. Like chicken wings, ribs were once thrown into the stockpot or added to soups and casseroles to add body and flavour. We now know them to be very adaptable and a staple of Asian and BBQ cookery. They used to be relatively cheap in relation to other cuts of meat but are now very much in demand so the price is at a premium. Riba are either served whole on a rack, which may have been trimmed ( see below ) or cut into individual ribs. So I can suggest on July the Fourth that we all get American and ribs are the thing.
* Very handy when you are short on time
Types of Rib
Pork Spare Ribs – These are from the lower part of the pig, around the stomach. When the cut which will become bacon is removed there is a thin layer of meat remaining over the ribs and between each bone. A whole rib will weigh between three and five pounds and is normally cut into individual ribs.
St. Louis Style Cut – when the sternum bone, cartilage, and rib tips have been removed. The shape is almost rectangular, these are a classic, big meaty rib.
Baby Back Pork Ribs – are taken from the top of the rib cage and start at around six to eight inches long then curve and taper off in shape. They are normally sold trimmed to around ten to thirteen baby back ribs.
Beef Short Ribs – range from three to five inches thick, which can be then butchered in a variety of ways. They can be flash fried or grilled which is very popular in Korea as well as slow cooked.
So how do the Experts cook Ribs
If you travel across America especially the southern states you are bound to experience some serious barbecuing and if you are lucky to meet a Pitmaster or two. A Pitmaster is responsible for the delicious food often using recipes and techniques handed down for generations. For larger pieces of meat like a whole brisket, they may work through the night. A pit is basically a large hole filled with charcoal and aromatic wood such as apple and used to slow smoke and cook food. Not everyone can build a pit on their apartment balcony or small garden but the secret for you to learn is the length of the cooking process, slow, slow, slow. If we look in a little more detail the professional Pitmaster process involves four steps, parboiling, a marinade or rub, slow cooking, and sauce.
The first stage parboiling is quite an old-fashioned technique to begin to soften any tough connective tissue on the ribs and blanch off any impurities that will rise to the surface of the pot as scum, perhaps particularly in poorly butchered meat in the past. One of my favourite films ‘ Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café ‘ includes a scene preparing for a big barbecue with the ribs simmering in a pot. I won’t spoil the plot but the ribs have quite a strange origin! Many more modern recipes skip this step but I think it can still be valuable if you are preparing a large number of ribs with a lot of meat on them.
Rubs and Marinades
Rubs and marinades add depth of flavour to the ribs and help tenderise the meat. Depending on where you are in America will influence the choice of dry rub, a mix of salt, sugar, herbs, and spices or a liquid marinade with mustards, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, and spices. There is a mind-numbing variety of both rubs and marinades from Hawaiian with pineapple to Oriental style with ginger, chilli, five spice and soy sauce. I like to use a dry rub and believe in keeping it quite simple.
The sugar is important to create a sticky, caramelized crust but the sweetness needs to be tempered with some chilli heat or sharpness from vinegar. Pineapple contains Bromelain, an enzyme that acts to tenderise the proteins in the meat. Many commercial rib rubs contain similar enzymes, colourings and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate and are best avoided. The salt and sugars in dry rubs will have a mild curing effect and should be used both carefully and left on the ribs no longer than a day before cooking otherwise you will start to have bacon ribs.
Kansas City Rub
This is my version of a versatile general barbecue rub recipe based on the traditional smoky Kansas City-style, Kansas City is widely regarded as the home of the barbecue. The recipe is very high in sugar, so while it is a very delicious sweet rub it will burn at high temperatures and is suited for lower temperature, slow cooking.
Kansas City Rub
- Mix ingredients together and store in an airtight container out of direct sunlight.
What to Drink? With so many potential flavour variations pair BBQ ribs with a palate-cleansing crisp Continental lager or a dry New World sparkling wine or fruit packed rosé.
How to cook the Perfect Ribs
You can roast your ribs quite quickly at around 400 F / 200 C / Gas mark 6 for an hour. You will get a nice caramelised result but the meat will not fall off the bone. Pitmasters will use the low heat and smoke from the embers of their charcoal fires to smoke and roast their ribs at the same time in covered pits or barbecue broilers. So exactly how long do we need to cook our ribs?
Harold McGee is a scientist who has done more perhaps than anyone else to bring empirical science to the kitchen and analyse recipes and correct many cookery myths. In his of the ‘ Curious Cook ‘ column, in the New York Times, he advised the slow cooking of ribs to reduce moisture loss, baking them for six to eight hours at an oven temperature of ninety-five centigrade. The downside to this technique is it uses specialist equipment, so in a home kitchen, we need to find a compromise.
So the secret is slow cooking and the result incredibly tender meat that falls off the bone. If you do not have a huge, fancy American all singing and dancing grill and broiler that slow smokes and cooks your ribs do not worry you can braise them in the oven with the following recipe. This recipe is cooked a temperature a little higher than the really slow cooked ribs and uses just about any flavourings you wish, just substitute your personal choice for rub and barbecue sauce.
4 Racks of Baby Back Pork Ribs
200 ml your favourite BBQ Sauce
4 tablespoons of all-purpose rib rub
Ask your butcher to remove the membrane on the back of the racks which is often left on and can be tough. Wash off your ribs and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Place in a large tray and liberally sprinkle on both sides with a dry rub or just plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper if you prefer. Work the rub into the meat with your fingers and cover and refrigerate for two to four hours to allow the flavours of the rub to develop, you can leave them up to twelve hours preparing them the day before cooking.
Preheat your oven to 275 F / 140 C / Gas mark 1. Transfer the ribs to a deep baking tray and pour in sufficient water to cover the bottom of the tray to a depth of about one centimeter. Place the ribs, meat side down, in baking dishes. Cover the baking dishes with silver foil and place in the oven. This will cook the ribs by braising them in the own juices with the rub flavourings and help keep the meat moist.
If your racks are trimmed and quite small check them after about three and a half hours. The meat should be very tender, if not replace the cover and return to the oven for another half an hour. Carefully drain off the cooking liquor, which can be used as a stock in spicy bean soup and cover the ribs with barbecue sauce. Turn up the oven to 350 F / 180 C / Gas mark 4 and cook for twenty to thirty more minutes so that the sauce is bubbling and sticky and nicely caramelised. Alternatively, when the ribs are cooked you can let them cool in the barbecue sauce then reheat them under a grill or on a chargrill or barbecue, turning often to prevent the sugars in the barbecue sauce from burning. The barbecue gives a wonderful smoky finish.