I’ve always thought of ribs (whether of the beef, pork, spare, or baby back variety) as something that Other People cooked — you know, people who weren’t cut until the fourth episode of Top Chef, or got a culinary degree like my brother, or had a grandfather with a little store out on US 78 near Bamberg. At the very least, I assumed you needed either a restaurant kitchen, or a pit in the sand, or an oil drum cut in half and a stack of artisanal Long Island willow branches, along with a bunch of knowledge I didn’t have the benefit of.
Obviously in a Mason-Dixon world, I’m a Yankee. But I lived in Atlanta off and on for years, and during that whole time I was dating a Southerner — not the sort of Southerner that lives out in Powder Springs and drives a pickup with a gun rack and listens to this, but the sort whose family is still living out in the rural Lowcountry of South Carolina, near where they’ve been for generations. And during that period I also spent months in Arkansas (which we’ll talk about another time), and driving back and forth via Birmingham and Memphis. And, besides, I came to Atlanta with an open mind (it’s a lot more fun that way), and so broadened my tastes in such close-to-the-heart matters as music, home decor, religion, politics, and food (come to think of it, that last link could have worked for “home decor,” too).
My childhood memories of “barbecue” were mostly of “ribs,” and with few exceptions, those were all of either the “Tony Roma’s” (i.e., charred and sinewy) or what New Yorkers would recognize as the “Dallas BBQ” (i.e., boiled and soused in what is essentially syrupy ketchup) variety. Meh.
I learned better barbecue habits when I came South: the sauce-ingredient loyalties that identify one as a partisan of a particular region, state, or in some cases county; what good ribs taste like, in about 40 incarnations in eight states; and what side dishes are worth bothering with. (Cole slaw, rarely, except at Newt Gingrich’s favorite Williamson Bros. in Marietta; cornbread, never within 10 miles of the Georgia State House except in restaurants established before 1950; collards, everywhere that bothers to offer them.)
However, until this week I never tried cooking ribs at home. By “never” I mean I tried it a few times when I was a young adult; the results were always absolutely awful; and I gave it up for 20 years. Let’s face it, ribs are tricky. You start with a rather intricate hunk of raw animal matter. You may need to do a bit of prep to trim off bits here and there, which is a turnoff for the squeamish (e.g., almost everyone under 70 living within a 10-mile radius of Times Square). You need a long cooking period, at a low heat, that keeps the meat moist enough but not too wet. And then there’s the near-religious question of rubs, seasonings, infusions, and/or sauces. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and put a box of Trader Joe’s frozen macaroni and cheese in the oven.
But when I saw this story in the Times (for what it’s worth, the print paper) — and, in particular, this recipe — I decided to give it a shot. I’ve always had a weakness for a caramelized exterior on a rib (one reason I’m such a fan of Whole Hog, which fortunately was about a 2-minute drive from my Little Rock apartment, aka “Bates Motel Rock Vegas,” right around the corner from a real-live murder house!… but again I digress), and I wanted to see if I could pull it off.
Guess what? I could! And the recipe was not hard to follow, and is hard to ruin and easy to adapt to your taste and/or the sauce ingredients that happen to be on hand, and is so uncomplicated that once you’ve done it a first time, you can do it again from memory. Photo of part of the fresh-out-of-the-oven results at top (click for larger). Here’s what I learned:
Follow your instincts. I wanted something much spicier than the recipe called for, and because I had them on hand, I added both ajvar and Vietnamese chili-garlic sauce (in place of ketchup, which I don’t bother keeping in the house because I don’t go through a whole bottle of it in 3 years). I worried about the ajvar, since it’s full of eggplant and peppers, but with so much sugar and balsamic vinegar as the base, you could probably mix in half a cup of mucilage and the sauce would come out okay. The caramelized coating was a little lumpy, but who cares? I wasn’t cooking for the Queen. Similarly, I like sauced ends, so I cut the racks in smaller pieces so there would be more of them.
Cook longer, and slower, than you think you have to. The ribs came out delicious, but they would have been even better with another 30 minutes in the oven. Similarly, I had to boost the oven for a while because I had other dishes in there too; that probably inhibited my collagen liquification just a bit.
Caramelizing the surface of a rack of ribs is not brain surgery. It is a matter of “put something sweet and greasy under a hot fire for just a little longer than you normally would, keeping your eye on it.” That’s it! The crappy broiler in my run-of-the-mill gas oven did the job just fine.
Like so many other things you cook, ribs are better 3 days later. Not much to say here, except that they were perfectly fine right out of the oven, but that by the third day the flavors had melded such that I could have eaten them cold out of the fridge.
Try a drip pan. The recipe as written kept the ribs tightly sealed in the packet; that essentially braised them in their own juices, which is fine, but it yielded a slightly wetter final product than I like. (The Whole Hog product is dry, which I note is not the same thing as “dried out.”) I think next time I’ll try cutting the underside of the foil for the final 30 minutes and letting the excess liquid fall out the bottom.
Thank God for my heavy saucepan, which I seasoned properly early this year after reading this post from the Clever Cleaver and now use four or five times a week, more than any other item of stoveware that I own. In fact, as you can see at right, it’s sitting on my stove right now. You can make a sauce like this without a heavy saucepan, but you’ll be happier if you use one, and you need one anyway. A good seasoned saucepan is like nature’s Teflon; it can get much hotter and holds heat much better than industrial-coated pans do, which lets you cook more gently and more effectively.