The fine art of ribs

Los Angeles Times

Purists insist there’s only one way to cook ribs: Rub them with a salt-and-spice blend and let them smoke and smolder over live coals for a little less time than it takes to sit through “Gone With the Wind.”

Purists must have charcoal to burn.

In an ideal world, all ribs would be slow-smoked into another dimension. But there’s a reason so many smart cooks take shortcuts. Ribs are very adaptable. As long as you wind up with smoke, you can cheat on the fire.

The quick secret of ribs with that singular contrast between sweet and smoky, crusty and tender is to tackle them in two stages: precooking with plenty of seasonings, followed by only the briefest touchdown on the grill for heat and char. Lots of cookbooks will tell you to just parboil or bake them as the first step, but that doesn’t go far enough. All it does is shorten the cooking time without adding any flavor — you might as well fire up the microwave. And slathering one one of those commercial barbecue sauces wno’t help. It just leaves the meat cloying and one-dimensional.

Pork plays well with an amazing array of seasonings, from curry blends to chilies. The trick is getting them onto, and into, the ribs in the first place.

You can start by either cooking the ribs in liquid — steaming, braising or poaching — or by marinating and baking them. Any of those techniques will leave the meat cooked through safely but not to leather. But the liquid or the marinade has to be aggressively spiced. Plain old parboiling leaches out flavor. Cooking with aromatics adds nuance and fragrance.

For classic ribs glazed and served with a good American ketchup-based sauce, I started by steaming them over a little water with a lot of sliced sweet onion, fresh thyme and bay leaves. You could also start with beer and the same pungent complements.

For ribs with a Mexican accent, I simmered the racks in a riff on an enchilada sauce, made with three kinds of chilies (guajillo, ancho and chipotle), that could be recycled as the table sauce. (Because it’s cooked, you don’t have to worry about cross-contamination as you would with a marinade.)

The liquid for Chiu Chow ribs is almost as intense: soy sauce spiked with ginger, garlic, star anise and pepper. I borrowed the idea from a recipe for goose I discovered in Hong Kong, where I got hooked on Chiu Chow cooking, a regional style best described as Cantonese with serious flavor. Usually a whole bird is poached in the soy base, then served cold in slices with a sweet sauce of vinegar and garlic for dipping. But it works just as well with ribs to be grilled and eaten warm.

A tandoori-style marinade has somewhat the same effect. Ribs are not usually associated with curry, but I once had them in a maverick Indian restaurant and have been haunted by the way the sweet-hot spices crusted to the meat. I adapted a recipe for tandoori chicken using yogurt with cayenne, ginger, turmeric and three kinds of jazzy seeds: mustard, cumin and coriander. The mixture almost tenderizes the meat as it marinates overnight and then as it bakes for an hour or so.

All but the traditional ribs need one more step, right out of the purists’ playbook. The meat should be treated first with what’s called a dry rub, either plain salt or a combination of salt and spices, and left for at least 20 minutes. It’s a way of preseasoning, or laying down another layer of flavor.

No matter what the method, cooking ribs is pretty much best done by feel. When the meat starts to pull back from from the bones, it’s ready to grill. (If you’re the nervous type, a reading of 155 to 165 degrees on an instant thermometer puts you in the safety zone.) It can take as little as 30 minutes or as long as 90.
The type of ribs you choose will also affect the cooking time, and results, too. Babybacks are the meatiest, and the priciest. Because they are smaller, they will cook quicker. Spare ribs — the kind butchered for grilling and labeled barbecue ribs or St. Louis style ribs — are mostly bone but still have great flavor and taste.

Ribs of either variety come pretty close to ready to cook when you buy them, but you can still improve on them. The membrane on the underside should definitely be removed. Not only is it a flavor barrier, keeping seasonings from the meat, but it also makes eating ribs, and looking at them, less pleasant, to put it daintily.

To get rid of it, lay the rack of ribs meat side down on a cutting board and slide a small sharp knife under the membrane over the rib at the thickest end. Slip your finger under and carefully slide the film loose, working your way from rib to rib.
Any excess fat should also be carefully pared off to minimize the grease.
Once the meat has been precooked, you can hold it overnight if you let it cool slightly, then wrap it tightly in plastic bags, film or foil and store it in the refrigerator. Next day, you can just toss it on the grill and no one will know you haven’t been slaving over hot coals for hours. And hours.


Total time: About 2 1/2 hours
Servings: 4
3 ancho chilies
3 guajillo chilies
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 whole cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt
3 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
4 cups beef stock or water
2 racks spare ribs, about 3 1/2 pounds, fat trimmed, membrane removed

1. Toast chilies in large dry skillet until softened and aromatic. Set aside. Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, oregano, cumin and about 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until soft, about 10 minutes. Break chilies into pan and saute briefly. Add 2 cups stock and simmer untl chilies are soft, about 10 minutes.

2. Transfer mixture to blender, add chipotles and puree until smooth. Press through a sieve into a deep, wide saucepan. Add remaining stock and mix well, then bring to a simmer.

3. Rub ribs on all sides with salt. Lay meat side down into sauce. Cover pan and cook 15 minutes, then turn ribs over, cover again and cook 15 minutes longer. Add more stock or water if necessary. Repeat until ribs are tender, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Transfer to a platter. Strain sauce to remove fat and keep warm.

4. Heat grill. Lay ribs on and cook, turning, until crispy/charred, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with sauce on the side.




Total time: 90 minutes
Servings: 4
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 sweet onion (like Vidalia), half minced, half sliced
2 jalapenos, seeded and minced
1/4 cup bourbon or rum
1/2 cup ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup pure Vermont maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste
4 racks babyback ribs, about 4 pounds, fat trimmed, membrane removed
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 bay leaves

1. Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add minced onion and jalapenos and saute, stirring, until soft and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Blend in bourbon and cook 2 minutes to reduce slightly. Add ketchup, vinegar, mustard and Worcestershire sauce and mix well, then add maple syrup. Simmer, stirring often, for 30 minutes, until flavors are melded. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. While sauce is simmering, fill a large steamer with water. Strew thyme sprigs, bay leaves and sliced onion over bottom. Bring to a simmer. Lay ribs onto rack over simmering water. Cover and steam 30 minutes. Transfer to shallow dish and pour hot sauce over. Let stand 15 minutes.

3. Heat a grill until smoking. Brush excess sauce off ribs. Grill, basting lightly with sauce, until done, turning often to keep from charring too much, about 10 to 15 minutes total. Serve additional sauce on side.


Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Servings: 4
2 racks spare ribs, about 3 1/2 pounds total, fat trimmed, membrane removed
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups light soy sauce
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
6 whole star anise
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 4-inch piece ginger, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons sugar

1. Rub kosher salt into all surfaces of ribs. Set aside for 1 hour.

2. Combine soy sauce, brown sugar, star anise, peppercorns, ginger and garlic in stockpot. Add 10 cups water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and add ribs. Simmer 45 to 60 minutes, until flesh starts to pull away from bones. Set aside to cool while heating grill.

3. Combine vinegar with minced garlic and sugar and set aside.

4. Lay ribs on grill and cook 10 to 15 minutes, turning often, until charred and tender. Separate into ribs and serve with the vinegar sauce for dipping.




Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes plus overnight marination
Servings: 4
4 racks babyback ribs, about 4 pounds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 teaspoons cayenne
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
Oil for grill

1. Using sharp paring knife, cut tiny slits into meat of ribs and set aside in a shallow dish. Combine salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne and lime juice and rub into meat on both sides. Set aside at room temperature for 20 minutes.

2. Combine mustard, cumin and coriander seeds in small skillet over medium heat and cook just until mustard seeds pop and others release their fragrance. Transfer to blender and add yogurt, garlic, ginger, turmeric and remaining cayenne. Process until smooth. Pour over ribs in dish and turn to coat top and bottom. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lift ribs from marinade and lay on a rack in a baking dish, flesh side up. Scrape remaining marinade over and smooth out. Bake 30 minutes, then turn over and cook 30 minutes longer.

4. Heat grill. Brush rack lightly with oil. When hot, remove ribs from oven and transfer to grill, flesh side down. Cook until charred/crisp on both sides, about 15 minutes total.