It used to frustrate me that I could never produce falling-off-the-bone spareribs at home. I knew I must be doing something wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. You barbecue them, right? Then I watched an old Good Eats with Alton Brown, and I learned how to cook ribs. As with my previous post, this one is more about the method than it is a recipe. Producing good spareribs at home without a commercial smoker is a three-step process: rub and rest, braise, then glaze on the grill.
Rub and Rest
You can use any kind of rub you like. Montreal Seasonings makes a good pork rub. I also like the barbecue rub I’ve found in the bulk spices section at WinCo. I’m sure there are others. But my current favorite is the one I used for my recent post about pulled pork. I’ll post the rub recipe again here. It can be made without the dried tomato skins, of course.
Pork Rub (with Dried Tomato Skins)
1 tablespoon dried tomato skin powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher or coarsely-ground sea salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, adjust to taste)
2 teaspoons hot smoked paprika (optional, regular paprika can be used)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Sprinkle all sides of 3-4 lbs. of spareribs with 2-3 teaspoons of the rub, and . . . you guessed it . . . rub it in.
Create a packet from heavy duty aluminum foil that will hold your ribs, and leave one edge loosely sealed to create a place where you can easily uncrimp the foil to add your braising liquid later. Place foil packet of ribs into a baking pan (not cookie sheet, just in case a bone punctures the foil) large enough to hold them, and put in fridge for 4-8 hours. Then, it’s on to the next step.
You can braise meat on the cooktop, in a crock pot, or in the oven. For meat that needs to marinate first (which is what a dry rub does, even though it’s dry), I prefer the oven. You can use a crockpot if you put the rub on the ribs and stash them in the fridge overnight, then put them in the crock pot in the morning for 6-8 hours, depending on hot your crock pot cooks and what temperature setting you use. You can also braise in a Dutch oven on the stove top, keeping the braising liquid at a low simmer. But the dry heat of the oven that surrounds your foil packet (or Dutch oven) produces, in my opinion, the best flavor in the ribs. And using foil makes for easy clean-up.
To oven-braise, remove the foil packet of ribs from the fridge about 3 hours before you want to serve dinner, and let them sit out on the counter to warm up for about 15 minutes while you prepare your braising liquid. Turn your oven on to 350 degrees.
You can use almost any liquid or combination of liquids to braise the ribs if you remember a few simple guidelines. The braising liquid should be flavorful (so plain water isn’t a good choice), slightly sweet, and slightly acidic, but it should contain little to no added salt because of the salt that’s already in your rub. This is where you can get creative and have some fun. Here are some possibilities for braising liquids. You’ll only need about 2 cups unless you are cooking more than 3-4 lbs. of ribs.
Lemon-lime soda, 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
Cola, ginger ale, or root beer with 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
Weak coffee, slightly sweetened with honey, brown sugar, or molasses
Lemonade or orange juice, 2 tablespoons ketchup, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
Tomato juice, 2 tablespoons of molasses or brown sugar, 2 tablespoons Worchestershire
Beer, 2 tablespoons of molasses, and ¼ cup of tomato sauce or 2 tablespoons of ketchup
Sake, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce (1/2 teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder is good with this one, or it can be added to the rub)
The variations are pretty much endless, depending on the flavor profile you want to create. It isn’t often you’ll see me using an item like a can of soda in my cooking, but it really does work well in this application. I used the first mixture on the list above for the ribs in my pictures this week. I added to it a pinch of my Nigerian pepper (and I could have used more, but I have to watch the heat level for Dennis), and a ¼ teaspoon of espresso powder, and it smelled really good going into the meat. It sounds like a strange mix, but it was really tasty, which is my point about getting creative with your braising liquid.
You can also add a drop or two of liquid smoke to mimic the flavor of a smoker, although you will get a bit of smoke flavor from the finish on the grill. Because the braising liquid is going to become the barbecue sauce or glaze, and because I like a chunky sauce, I add a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, minced, to whatever braising liquid I use. The sauce can be smoothed out in a blender or with a stick blender before glazing the meat, if desired.
Heat the braising liquid and any flavor additions, like sweeteners, more spice, onions, garlic, in a small saucepan that you can pour from (or as I did, heat it in a glass measuring cup in the microwave). When all the ingredients have mixed, set it aside to cool slightly. It should be warm, not hot, and the meat should be cool, not cold. Open the foil packet of ribs just enough to pour in the braising liquid, and then close the foil up tightly.
Place in oven at 350 degrees and cook 2-3 hours or until ribs are fork tender but not quite falling apart. Remove the ribs from the oven, pour off the braising liquid, and leave ribs in foil packet to rest while you create the glaze and fire up the grill.
Glaze and Grill
If you have a fat separator, you’ll want to use it here to pour off the braising liquid and eliminate some of the fat that has cooked out of the ribs. If you don’t have a fat separator, use a large spoon to skim as much of the fat off the top of the braising liquid as you can. Then put the braising liquid back into the small saucepan and start it boiling. You’ll probably have about 1 ½ cups of liquid. If you have less than that, you might want to add a little more of whatever liquid you used to start with. To the braising liquid, add about ½ cup of ketchup or tomato sauce, or ¼ cup of tomato paste. Let this reduce a bit, and then check for seasoning and sweetness. I almost always add some more molasses or brown sugar to my sauce because I like a fairly sweet sauce. I think the flavor profile of a great barbecue sauce is spicy/tangy/sweet. Think about the flavor profile you like and taste the sauce as it reduces, adding more sweetener, salt or pepper, liquid smoke (this can be very strong, so go easy, a drop at a time), or other flavors to get a sauce that tastes good to you. Add just a bit at a time and keep tasting. Reduce the sauce until it’s the consistency you like (some like thick, some not). Blend the sauce if you want it smooth.
The ribs are done, so there’s no actual cooking left to do. All you’re going to do is glaze your meat with the sauce. You’ll want your grill at medium, not hot, so that the glaze doesn’t burn. (You could do this under the broiler if you’re careful, but you won’t get the same flavor.) The sauce has sugars in it, so if the grill is too hot, the sugars will burn instead of caramelize. Paint one side of the ribs liberally with the sauce, place sauce side down on the grill and allow the sauce to bubble and brown on one side before turning. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes per side to glaze the ribs. Watch them carefully. As I tell Dennis, do not walk away from the grill!
Serve your tender, braised and barbecued pork spareribs hot off the grill with the extra sauce for dipping. If you accompany your ribs with the traditional sides–cornbread, coleslaw, greens cooked with bacon, onion and vinegar, and beans or black-eyed peas—you’ll think you’ve been transported temporarily to the South. And if you still have leftover sauce after the meal, save it for barbecued chicken later in the week, or put it in the freezer. It’s too good to throw away!