Making Mouth Watering Ribs
By: Lynn Ogryzlo

With a beautiful winter Sunday ahead of me I want a warm weather meal from the comfort of my oven. I’m in the mood for something savoury, something I can really sink my teeth into, something to satisfy my carnivorous craving for a bone to gnaw on and sticky fingers I can lick. It’s the kind of day only a rack of ribs will satisfy.

In her book Bones, author Jennifer McLagan laments how sad it is that “people opt for boneless chicken breasts, fish fillets and cutlets when good cooks know that anything cooked on the bone has more flavour.” I couldn’t agree more with Jennifer. I like my pork chops on the bone, my prime rib still on the rack and on a beautiful winters day, there’s nothing better than stripping off those tender morsels of flesh from between the rib bones with your teeth while the sticky sauce covers your fingers (and your face).

Not only does meat cooked on the bone tend to be more flavourful, but also the meat around the ribs is marbled with fat, which means it’s always succulent. This is especially true with back ribs, the larger, meatier kind of rib most of us are familiar with.

There are two kinds of ribs; side ribs and back ribs. Side ribs are from the belly of the pig and are often times referred to as sweet and sour ribs because they are mostly used in Chinese cuisine. They are generally smaller with less meat and if you’ve ever eaten Chinese cuisine, you know they contain a lot of cartilage.

Back ribs on the other hand come from the loin, a more tender part of the pig. They hold a lot more meat, are fattier (hence more flavour) and are traditionally more expensive than side ribs because of all the extra meat you’re getting.

“I’ve never eaten a side rib,” claims Linda Ann Vandermeer, butcher at Commisso’s Fresh Foods in Niagara Falls. “Why would you?” Linda declares she only eats back ribs. She portions her ribs into individual servings, roasts them slowly in the oven, covers them with her sweet barbecue sauce and digs into the fall-off-the-bone ribs.

We tend to think that ribs and barbecue are inseparable, but like Linda, I have always cooked my ribs in the oven. The hard-working meat between the bones may be described by butchers as tender, but the reality is, if ribs are not cooked properly, they can be as tough as any other cut of meat cooked improperly. For ribs, they need time to break down the muscle and tenderize. So here is the great rib debate – to boil or to bake?

I have a friend who boils his ribs to tenderize them before he bakes them. While I think this would make delicious pork broth, I can’t see how boiling away the flavour before slathering them with sauce is going to create juicy, meaty ribs your friends will swoon over. It’s a method meant to reduce time but believe me, you’re not fooling anyone when they eat them.

Ribs need slow and steady cooking to tenderize and keep the meaty flavour and the oven is actually an ideal environment to cook them slow enough to melt the meat and make them tasty, After a few hours in the oven, the meat is nearly falling off the bone and you’ll be licking your fingers in no time.

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There are other ways to tenderize ribs. If you like a tropical flavour to your ribs (which I don’t), you could actually marinate them in pineapple juice. The active ingredient in pineapple juice called bromelain is an enzyme well known for its tenderizing effect on all meats. While many like this method, I find it simply makes the meat soft and a bit on the slimy side. Alternately, you could remove the tough, translucent membrane from the back of the rack. If you’re not confident doing this, perhaps you’ll need the presence of a good butcher to do this for you. In any case, it does seem to help the tenderizing process.

Racks of sauce-soaked ribs are a specialty of southern barbecue where they’re cooked long and slow in a pit. This is where pulled pork comes from, as well as fall-off-the-bone ribs. This is opposite to grilling where food is cooked very quickly over a hot grill. You cannot cook ribs by grilling without having them do time in the oven first.

Alternately, you could turn down the heat on the barbecue and flip them often to avoid them burning. But think about it, walking away from the oven while they cook for hours is certainly much better than standing guard over the barbecue to make sure they don’t burn (even though we all know that they will inevitably burn or dry out anyway). The choice is yours, I know some men prefer cooking over an open flame to oven roasting. I think it’s more primeval, psychological and somehow connected to our carnivorous moods than it is a good cooking method for ribs.

So let’s get to the meat of the matter. My method is simple. I love my ribs simply rubbed with an interesting blend of spices. You can buy different spice rubs in grocery stores in a wide variety of flavours from Moroccan to Italian, Caribbean to Indian. Mine consists of (take a deep breath) brown sugar, chili powder, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, dry mustard, Greek oregano, garlic powder and onion powder.

If you want your ribs really smoky, mix mustard (doesn’t matter which kind as you won’t taste it) with a few drops of liquid smoke, you’ll love the results. Rub the ribs with this before applying the rub mix.

Line a shallow roasting pan with aluminum foil (makes cleanup easier) and set a baking rack on top. By elevating the ribs on a rack it ensures the heat will circulate on all sides of the ribs.

If you want a deeper flavoured rib, baste and rub the day before. Just wrap the seasoned ribs in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. When you’re ready, lay the ribs on top of the rack in a single layer. Either way, make sure the ribs are completely coated on both sides and edges with spices.

Preheat the oven to 225F (110C). Place the ribs, meat side down in the roasting pan, cover, place in the middle of the oven and walk away as they cook for four hours. These ribs are as hands-off as it gets. Then remove the cover and very carefully, turn them over. I use two spatulas to do the job successfully without tearing the rack of ribs.

Now slather a layer of barbecue sauce on the ribs, increase the heat to 400F (200C). Return the ribs to the oven without a cover for an additional half an hour or until some browning begins to take place around the edges. The high heat caramelizes the sauce over the ribs. They’re meaty, rich and tender on the inside and gooey, caramelized and finger-licking good on the outside.

Finally, remove the ribs from the oven and let them rest for about ten minutes. Now cut between the bones to make three to four rib serving pieces. By the time these beauties come out of the oven, you’ll be so hungry from the delicious smells circulating throughout your house you won’t even question that they didn’t come off the grill. I hope you were roasting some thickly seasoned potato wedges to go with those ribs. Pour a glass of delicious red wine and you’ve got a summer-like meal in the chill of winter. What are you eating this weekend?