Ask Peter: Ribs
Where can you buy spare ribs with a bit of meat on them like American ribs? Our butchers are so skilled the ribs are real lean pickings. Do you have some suggestions to make allstar Southern barbecue-tasting ribs that don’t need hours and hours on a hickory-wood burner? Thanks, Mike
As I don’t know which city you live in it’s impossible for me to suggest where you could buy meaty ribs. If your local supermarket or corner store isn’t stocking them, then you probably need to make friends with a good butcher and ask them to help you find what it is you want. Something along the lines of ‘'I want some nice meaty ribs please!'’ should do the trick.
Ribs of course could come from beef, pork or sheep, and depending on the age and breed of these mammals, and from where exactly on the carcass they come from, they will either be thick and fatty, or lean with slim pickings.
If you can’t find meaty ribs, then that’s possibly because the butchers (and fair enough) can get more money for the meat that would normally cling to the rib bones by keeping it somewhat attached to some other cut of the beast. For example, a beef rib eye steak, my favourite steak, sells for a lot more per kg than beef spare ribs. Beef ribs come from the belly side of the beast’s rib cage. When it comes to pork and lamb spareribs, you have two ‘'styles'’ — one cut from the belly which is flatter in appearance and less meaty. The other is back ribs, which tend to be more curved, have more meat, but less fat — so depending how you plan to cook them, they could end up being far less succulent.
To cook ribs perfectly in order to have them tender and sticky, there are several ways to get there. If you talk to barbecue chefs from around the world it soon becomes obvious that everyone has the secret recipe that makes it foolproof. However, the key to tenderness is the (chewy) protein collagen. This is the main part of all connective tissue in mammals, including you, that needs to cook at a certain temperature, for a good amount of time, that will melt and turn into gelatine (less chewy). If you don’t convert this collagen you’ll always have a tough piece of meat, if the meat was closely connected to a bone. Fillet steak is completely different to a rib or a knuckle in this respect. This is also true for meat cooked as a stew, a steamed knuckle or a slow-roast shoulder — it’s only when the collagen has changed into gelatine that meat becomes tender.
The Peter Gordon guide to great ribs
- Cut them into manageable portions — beef ribs can be separated if really large, smaller lamb or pork ribs might be best joined together.
- Poach them gently (not boiling) for 100 minutes (beef) or 70 minutes (lamb and pork) in a slightly salty, slightly vinegar-ish stock to break down the collagen.
- For the stock, use water plus a quarter cup of vinegar and some salt or soy sauce (or both) and then add whatever takes your fancy. I’d suggest flavourings such as star anise, toasted cumin, fennel and coriander seeds, sliced ginger, hard herbs, chilli, smoked paprika and always a few teaspoons of sugar or honey. There is a local product called liquid smoke which is also quite handy when used here.
- Leave the ribs to cool in the liquid and store in the fridge overnight, still in the poaching liquor.
- The next day, drain and dry them off with kitchen paper, toss in a basting sauce and cook over medium heat on the barbecue (never over a really hot part of the barbecue), or in the oven at 150C until golden brown and sticky. You can’t overcook ribs — just as you can’t a stew.
- A simple basting sauce can be made by mixing tomato sauce, oyster or hoisin sauce, mustard paste, a little sugar or honey, and chopped garlic. Don’t coat the ribs with so much sauce that it simply falls off and burns, but make sure they are lightly coated as you cook them. Having said that, there are folk who swear by a dry method where, once barbecuing, they are simply seasoned with salt, pepper and chilli flakes.
So, I can’t give you a quick fix re: cooking times, and I’m probably not too helpful when it comes to sourcing the ribs, but hopefully understanding why they need to be cooked in such a way is helpful.
In the Southern States of America, barbecue and ribs are hugely popular, and I have to say a pilgrimage there is no less fun than heading to San Sebastian for some delicious pintxos. Although, by their very nature, the rib portions will be somewhat larger and meatier than a lovely tender chunk of octopus on a skewer or an artichoke with anchovy sauce.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.