On Thursday morning I was sitting at my computer with my morning coffee reading the day’s news. I was on The Guardian’s website and, in an experience that is no doubt familiar to many Guardian readers, found myself enraged at the headline for one of their articles. Was it some provocative but thick-skulled analysis of the conflict in the Middle East? A woefully misinformed and patronising article about Canadian politics? Anything ever by Madeline Bunting? No, it was the headline for the following article by Felicity Cloake on the site’s sidebar: are ribs, this “mainstay of the American barbecue canon overrated or a porcine classic?”
Ribs overrated? They’d pushed me too far this time. I ranted to Anna about how stupid the Guardian is and how they only publish things with extreme views that will divide and anger people who will then repeatedly click on the article to leave vengeful comments on it. Such is the world with print media declining.
To be fair, once I calmed down enough to read the article, it wasn’t actually bad at all. Basically Cloake’s point is that the British are terrible at barbecue and so their idea of barbecuing ribs is to throw them on the grill for a few minutes on each side and then wonder what the big deal is about ribs as they joylessly gnaw on tough and barely edible meat. You would think that I’m exaggerating here, but barbecue is an unknown art in the UK. We tried it when we lived there and had poor results. You can easily find a cheap charcoal grill, but good luck finding decent charcoal. And when I say “decent charcoal”, I mean charcoal that will actually heat up enough to be useful for cooking. It’s like the British state and its perverse obsession with all things health and safety carried out a risk analysis and determined that not only is barbecue potentially carcinogenic but also that hot things can burn and so people should be denied the primal pleasure of cooking things over fire. Balls. I digress. Anyway, Cloake goes on and tries different methods of cooking ribs to find the best possible recipe.
Not that a recipe for ribs is really necessary. To me, ribs are one of the quintessential “cook from the heart” foods. As long as you’re cooking them for a long time with low heat and making sure that they don’t dry out, you can do pretty much whatever you want with them and you’ll end up with great meat. I prefer to give the ribs a slow bake in the oven and finish them on the grill, which is, I know, anathema to the purists who insist that you can only do proper ribs if you smoke them, but I don’t have a smoker, and I’m not confident enough about my barbecue’s temperature control to be able to cook them for hours at a low temperature on the grill. When it’s all said and done, the ribs are tender and delicious and that’s good enough for me.
I prefer spare ribs to back ribs because they have more fat on them. I always get mine from my butcher. The night before I cook the ribs, I first remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. You can find out how to do that here. With the membrane removed the rub and the sauce can better penetrate the meat. I use a rub, which consists of sugar, salt, and spices, though how I make the rub varies each time. I’ll post the rub I used this time below, but I normally improvise it based on whatever seems good at the time. I apply (rub?) the rub onto the meat, wrap it in plastic, and keep it in the fridge overnight.
About four or five hours before the planned dinner time I start baking the ribs in the oven. I only did it for about three hours this time because I had a band practice that went a little bit late. They still worked out great, and there are plenty of baked ribs recipes that call for a two hour bake, so I guess that two hours is probably the minimum? But generally speaking, the longer you can bake them, the better. I brush them with sauce before they go in the oven–Anna made the sauce from from Sheila Ferguson’s Soul Food, which she posted about here–and put them into a 250F oven on a broiling pan. I put some water in the broiling pan with the idea that the water would steam and keep the meat moist. I’m not actually sure this works, but the idea seems to make sense. I’ll occasionally reapply the sauce and turn the ribs. The sauce should bake nicely onto the meat and as the meat cooks it should pull away slightly from the bone. When they’re cooked and tender, they can be taken out of the oven and kept until you’re ready to grill them.
When the guests arrive and you’re ready to eat, brush some more sauce onto the ribs and grill them on the barbecue to get the sauce nicely caramelised, and then serve. We had ours with grilled corn, spoonbread, and a potato and vegetable salad. The meat was tender and flavourful. We had a couple of friends over for dinner and over drinks and conversation we devoured the two racks over the course of the night. It was what summer eating should be about.
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder (I use Colman’s)
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Mix everything together and generously rub it into the meat.