Learn the science behind:
Ribs had never really been my favorite meal. Too much bone, too much sauce, too much salt, too much fat and too little good taste. That was, until we made spare ribs at home: tender meat, falling off the bone, with tons of flavor. I must have never gone to a place previously that made them well (or to my taste)!
To say I’m a huge fan of ribs now is quite an exaggeration, but I have come to appreciate ribs for what they are. Tender, flavorful meat, that’s just a little messy to eat, but in a positive way!
So what’s the secret and science behind these ribs? Aside from care and patience, there are a few basic principles to follow when preparing your ribs.
It starts with the meat
Whenever you’re cooking meat, the quality and cut of meat will determine how best to prepare it. Some cuts only require quick hot blast of heat, whereas others need hours of simmering. Understanding your meat will improve the quality of your meat cooking. So let’s have a look at those ribs.
Pork ribs of course come from the ribs of a pig. The ‘cage’ that encases their lungs. The ribs protect the lungs during its life, but they shouldn’t just be strong, they should be able to move, to allow for breathing! Connecting the ribs are intercostal muscles that keep the ribs together and allow them to expand and contract upon breathing.
As you might imagine, the muscles around the ribs were very active during the life of a pig, continuously facilitating breathing of the pig. As such, the muscles are a little tougher than muscles that haven’t had to work as much (similar to the oxtail!).
To support these muscles in their work ribs also contain a decent amount of connective tissue. Connective tissue supports the muscles and can be found more in actively used areas of the animal (a loin e.g. contains barely any, whereas a should contains a lot of it).
The most important part to remember here is: ribs come from an actively used area within the animal. As we’ve seen for other similar parts of meat (e.g. beef stew) these types of cuts tend to need a longer time to cook, and we’ll get into that in the next section!
The role of bones
It’s not just the muscles and connective tissue that determine how to cook your cut of meat. The bones play and important role as well. Bones serve as insulators in the meat and slow down cooking of the meat next to it. It’s why meat closest to the bone is at most risk of undercooking.
But bones do offer a lot in return as well. Bones also contain connective tissue which transforms into gelatin during cooking, contributing to the mouthfeel of the meat. Aside from texture, it also contributes to the meaty flavor thanks to the marrow within the bone. The diffusion of flavor does take a while, another reason to cook these cuts more slowly.
Three rib cuts – Baby back, Spare & St. Louis
Before we dive into the preparation methods for making pork ribs, it’s important to realize there are different cuts of ribs made from pork. When butchers process a pig they will cut the large pig into smaller and smaller pieces of meat, following natural muscles in the meat. How your butcher processes your pig depends a lot on where you’re from. Different countries will tend to cut and process meat slightly differently.
The cuts we’ll be describing below are those used in the US and are the ones that are mostly commonly discussed online. The good thing: how you prepare the slightly different cuts doesn’t differ that much!
The first common US cut are baby back ribs. They come from the part of the ribs that are closest to the loin, the back, of the pig. These ribs were closest to the spine. Because of how they’re cut out, the length of the ribs isn’t identical for the whole cut. Those on one side may be shorter than those on the other side. Because of their location these ribs tend to contain a bit more meat than the types below.
Next up are spare ribs. Spare ribs come from the lower part of the ribs, close to the belly of the pig. The pork belly, used to make bacon sits next to these ribs in the pig. Because of this, these ribs contain less meat, butchers prefer to leave this meat on the bacon/belly. Spare ribs are considerably wider than baby back ribs and do tend to cook a little slower than baby back ribs.
Lastly: St. Louis ribs. These are actually that same as spare ribs, however, some of the sides have been cut off to shape the ribs into a rectangular shape!
If you’re interested to learn more about breaking down a whole pig: those two butchers do a great job in this video. Ribs are explained around the 4 min and 13 min mark.
Spare rib quality
As with any type of meat, the quality of your meat will depend a lot on the pig it came from, how it’s been treated and processed.
It’s worth it to invest in your meat and put quality above quantity. There are a lot of resources that go into raising and processing the animals.
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Most pork rib recipes start by pre-seasoning the meat with a blend of spices, sugar and salt. This pre-seasoning does several things for the meat.
The sugar on the outside helps the meat to caramelize when it’s cooked. High temperatures cause the sugar to react with proteins (Maillard reaction) which gives the meat its brown colour, but also create a lot of flavour compounds.
Spices are there to add flavor to your meat. Most spices improve in flavor or develop new sensations if they’re heated (which is why for a lot of cuisines you roast spices before you use them). Since spare ribs aren’t cooked in a sauce, you have to add them straight onto the meat!
Salt also adds and strengthens existing flavor. If you’re only pre-seasoning the meat for a short while in advance, the salt doesn’t do much otherwise. However, if you do pre-season your meat hours in advance, the salt might withdraw a little bit of moisture and soften the outer part of the meat.
The secret to good ribs: patience
Pork ribs contain a lot of intensely used muscles, connective tissue and some fat. The meat is tightly connected to the bones and needs to be softened to become nice to eat.
The only way to break down this harder undesirable connective tissue is through enough time and heat. The connective tissue, which is made up of collagen, needs to break down into the softer, soluble gelatin. Exposing collagen to enough heat over an extended period of time will break it down.
The time span for preparing ribs can vary considerably though. You can make and soften them in a pressure cooker, using as little as 30-40 minutes! Or, you can place them in a lower temperature oven or grill and take more than 6 hours to cook them. We’ll discuss recipes for both instances!
Balancing Heat vs. Time
If you want to cook your spare ribs for hours at a time, let them go soft slowly, you do not want to use extreme heats. If you would, you’d burn the outside before the inside is cooked properly. On the other hand, lowering the temperature too far down will stop various chemical processes from occurring, requiring a theoretically infinite cook time. So, as with almost any food, you need to balance heat with time.
Method 1: Preparing spare ribs in an Instant Pot
Enough time and heat will cook your meat. However, using too high temperatures might risk you to burn and dry out the outside of the meat, without having cooked the inside. A way to prevent this, and still have your ribs ready within an hour or so is by making them in a pressure cooker.
Water has a boiling point of 100°C (212°F) at atmospheric pressure. However, if you increase the pressure the water is under, its boiling point goes up. A pressure cooker uses this phenomenon to speed up cooking. A pressure cooker can increase the pressure by as much as 1 bar (15 psi) which increases the boiling point of water by about 20°C, greatly speeding up the cooking process.
Even though an oven or grill can become a lot hotter than a pressure cooker, the steam in a pressure cooker transfers heat far more efficiently than the air in an oven or grill. As a result, a lot more energy is transferred in the same time span. Another advantage of that moisture filled enivornment is that the spare ribs don’t burn or dry out.
It is why cooking pare ribs in a pressure cooker only takes about 30-40 minutes. For that to work, the steam should have easy access to the ribs, so they shouldn’t be stacked on top of one another. It doesn’t matter which side is up or down, it’s the same temperature throughout the whole cooker!
Method 2: Baking spare ribs in the oven
If you use an oven, or grill for that matter, your main challenge is to cook the meat without burning it or drying it out. The two most common ways to control this is by lowering temperatures and to add a source of moisture. The moisture cools down the meat and prevents it from burning.
You can increase the moisture content around your ribs by covering the ribs, as we do in the ribs below. It prevents the moisture from the ribs to disappear. Other methods might add a lot of ribs together in an enclosed space. By there mere fact of there being a lot of ribs that each lose moisture, the moisture content increases. If you’re using this method, the door or lid shouldn’t be opened often!
Another method is to regularly add additional moisture to the meat through basting. When basting you coat your meat in a thin layer of a liquid. This can be a marinade, but also a very simple vinegar or flavored water. The moisture in the baste will cool down your meat. It is thought that adding an acidic baste (e.g. one containing vinegar) helps to soften the meat further. However, since most of the baste evaporates quite quickly after apply, we’d doubt it will reach very far into the meat.
Cook’s Illustrated, The science of good cooking, p. 90-97, 2012 ; read our review here
NPR, Do try this at home: hacking ribs, 2015, link
Serious Eats, Why Anything Slow Cookers Can Do, Others Can Do Better,
2016, link ; nice article on differences between slow cookers and pressure cookers, very interesting read if you want to understand better what happens during these longer cooking processes.