There used to be an old joke in New York City that if you wanted to have good barbeque you needed to drive to Queens -- then go to LaGuardia Airport and get on a plane to somewhere else. Like Kansas City. Things have since become a bit better when it comes to finding decent restaurant barbeque in New York, but there's no question that this is one food that's done much better elsewhere.
Even if you live where there's a great local BBQ chef at work, cooking barbeque at home is not very city friendly. Some city dwellers have houses and yards, or back decks where you can set a grill and do your own. But A) most of us do not and B) the weather doesn't always cooperate with outdoor cooking.
I love a challenge and thought I couldn't be the only city cook with a craving to make barbequed pork ribs. There was little else that I hadn't figured out how to do in my little kitchen. I've done canning, stovetop pan grilling, confits, stock and broths, made pizzas and five-hour lamb roasts, corned my own beef, reduced sauces and raised soufflés. Still, barbeque stayed beyond my reach.
But after experimenting and trial-and-error, I've found a foolproof way to make perfect falling-off-the-bone-make-your-fingers-messy pork ribs. The flavor will depend on both the ribs you buy and the barbeque sauce you use, and this cooking method won't keep you from your favorite pit masters -- nor should it. But if you want to make your own ribs and have them be big flavored, very tender, and charred with taste, this works. This is a recipe to make when you're home for a day because it requires about 4 hours in a slow oven, but it's very easy to do. As with much of good cooking, it's all about technique and good ingredients. Let's start with the ribs themselves.
All ribs are not the same and terms like "baby back" get thrown around pretty easily. Here's what you need to know before you go buy your pork ribs:
- Pork ribs may come from the shoulder, back or side of the animal.
- Baby back ribs are not from a baby. They're just small. These ribs, also sometimes called loin ribs, come in a rack or slab containing at least 8 ribs that have been cut from alongside the animal's backbone.
- Country-style ribs are from the shoulder end of the loin and have more meat than the back ribs. Sometimes these are sold boneless (it's easier for a butcher to remove the bones because there's more meat) and usually come three to six ribs to a piece.
- Spareribs are the most popular pork ribs used in barbeque and they're cut from the pork belly. They come in racks or slabs with a dozen or so bones and have more fat and more meat and are less expensive than baby back ribs.
- Kansas City ribs are spareribs with the rack's front bone removed.
- Being what they are -- a series of bones that work together simultaneously in the animal's body -- there is a lot of connective tissue between the ribs that must be slow-cooked in order to become tender.
Buy about one-half pound of country ribs and three-quarters of a pound of baby back or spareribs per person. At least. Because it takes so much time to cook the ribs I rather do more than less. Also, if in the unlikely event there are any leftovers, I pull off the cooked meat from the bone and use it in a pasta sauce or on a sandwich.
If in doubt of how much to buy, eye-ball the ribs themselves and count the bones -- thus counting the serving size. I aim at 4 to 6 ribs per person.
Buy from a good butcher. In some cities, including New York, we have butchers who are specialists in pork, like Esposito's in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. In the past year some of the best pork ribs -- at the best prices -- I've found at Whole Foods, which usually sells both baby back and Kansas City ribs.
Some butchers will ask you if you want the ribs "cracked." This means the butcher will use a hammer to make sure the rib has been cracked to be malleable and not still rigid as a rib cage. If he asks, say yes. Most grocers and butchers sell ribs that are already cracked.
This recipe makes 4 to 6 servings. If you don't need that much, I'd recommend you still cook the whole amount because the leftovers are excellent.
The cooking takes two steps: first the ribs are cooked a long time in a slow oven. This lets the fats and collagen break down, leaving the meat soft and tender without getting dry. This is the step that duplicates what's done in a 250° F gas grill over wood chips. Most of this cooking is done just with salt and pepper, with a basting of sauce added for the last hour of slow cooking. Step two is to finish the ribs under your broiler to give a surface char to the ribs.
2 slabs baby back ribs or spare ribs or Kansas City pork ribs, about 3 to 4 pounds
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup barbeque sauce plus more for serving
- Pre-heat oven to 275° F.
- Put the ribs, side by side, on a large rimmed baking sheet or use the large, shallow broiling pan that may have come with your oven. There's no need for a rack --put the ribs right into the pan. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil on each piece and season both sides with salt and pepper. Rub to make sure the ribs are completely seasoned. If the ribs are too large to fit in your pan, just cut each piece in half and proceed with the recipe in the same way.
- Place in the oven -- with no cover -- and bake for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. If you're using meatier spareribs or Kansas City ribs, cook for the longer period of time. Turn the ribs over every 45 minutes or so.
- After 2 1/2 to 3 hours the ribs will be cooked and some of the fat will have been rendered out, which you can leave in the pan. Take the pan out of the oven and brush the top of the ribs (i.e., the curved side up) with barbeque sauce and return to the oven to cook 1 more hour, basting again after 30 minutes. Your total cooking time will be 3 1/2 to 4 hours but don't worry about over-cooking: if in doubt, it's better to cook more than less time.
- Remove from the oven. You can let the ribs sit like this at room temperature for a while until you're ready to eat.
- When ready to serve and eat the ribs, pre-heat your oven's broiler for a few minutes so that it's very hot. Broil the ribs, curved side up, positioning the pan so that the ribs are about 3 to 4 inches from the heat source for 3 to 5 minutes. Watch them carefully while they broil -- your goal is to crisp and char the surface, not burn them.
- Remove from the oven, cut into 2-rib pieces and serve immediately with additional sauce passed on the side. And lots of napkins!
Now this is a personal matter. Many barbeque fans can wax for hours about what makes a good sauce and since I'm a Yankee, I don’t think I have the cred to join that debate.
But I will tell you what I like and what I use. I prefer sauces that are more tangy than sweet and are slightly more tomato and vinegar than smoke. That's just my palate. When I want to make my own I use the recipe we have here at The City Cook given to us by my friend Larry Eustis who lives in New Orleans. It has a bright, clean acidic and heated flavor. See the link above for the recipe.
I also love a bottled barbeque sauce made by a famed restaurant in Savannah, Georgia called Johnny Harris (see link below). I first read about this sauce in an interview with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik who is reputed to be quite the home cook. He mentioned this sauce in passing as a pantry staple and how could my curiosity not lead me to order three bottles? It's now a pantry staple for me, as well. Like Larry Eustis's recipe, this sauce is tangy not sweet and it has complexity -- despite the full volume blast of taste.
Everyone has their own favorite side to go with ribs. I want something that works well with any spillover of sauce but doesn't compete with the ribs' big flavor. For me that means little roasted potatoes or a cole slaw dressed with a mayonnaise-based dressing, not an acidic one. I also love to have ice cream or sorbet after a meal of ribs. That way I can almost pretend it's summer.