Science of perfect oven baked ribs

Ribs, or spare ribs, have never really been my favorite meal. I wouldn’t order them in a restaurant, too much bone, too much sauce, too much salt and fat, too little good taste. That was, until the moment we made ribs at home: tender meat, falling of the bone, with tons of flavour. I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest rib fan now, but it did made me appreciate another, more complicated piece of meat. And, in all honesty, it wasn’t even that hard to prepare, as long as you know what you’re doing.

It starts with the meat

Whenever you’re cooking with meat, the quality and cut of meat will determine how you should prepare it and how well it will turn out. Every cut of meat requires their own preparation method. Some should be cooked very quickly on a high heat, others can be eaten raw, whereas again others need hours long simmering. Understanding your meat will improve the quality of your meat cooking.

Two muscle types

As we discussed before, there are roughly two types of meats (of course, there are a lot more, but for simplicity we’ll stick to two). The first is made of just about only muscle, it’s the pink or red structure of your meat. It’s the piece that perform the muscle function when it was in the animal. This muscle is mostly protein and has a very organized structure in order to work as a muscle. If the muscle didn’t have to do a lot of hard work, it won’t have a lot of supporting structures around it, this results in a tender, very meaty piece of meat.

The second type are those meats which, apart from the muscle, contain a lot of connective tissue and fats. These are the muscles that has to do a lot of the heavy lifting during the animal’s life. The connective tissue and partly the fat are there to support that muscle in its work. Unfortunately, this connective tissue isn’t as tender and it pretty tough to eat. Unless, you cook it for a longer period of time. Then the connective tissue (which is mostly collagen) will slowly break down into gelatin and become soft and succulent!

Spare rib meat type

A spare rib is an example of the second type of meat. Spare ribs contain quite a lot of connective tissue and fat (besides the bones). This is because spare rbis come from the lower part of the ribs of a pig, the bit closer to the belly. This part of the ribs has had to do more work that for instance the rib section at the top of the pig, at its back. As a result, when you’re preparing spare ribs, you have to take your time.

Spare rib quality

Last but not least, not all spare ribs are equal. As is the case for any type of meat. The origin of your meat does influence quality. The type of pig, the way it has been held, etc. all impact the quality of your meat and thus your ribs. In order for meat to arrive at your table, a lot of time and energy has been put into it, better make sure you choose one that was worth all the resources. So if there’s a butcher, a good meat department at your grocer or maybe even a farm close by with good quality products, go get your meat there!

Take your time

Now that you’ve got your meat and now that you know this is not going to be done within 20 minutes, it’s all about taking enough time. It’s a real waste to take a slow cooking cut of meat and take it off the heat too soon, you’ll still end up with a tough piece of meat. So, if you’re preparing spare ribs, take your time. If you want, you can literally take all day (as Harold McGee would ideally do). But, you can also prepare them in a few hours. During this long cooking time the connective tissue will break down and become soft. The fat melts and enhances flavour and the bones will contribute to the overall flavour as well.

Heat vs. Time

Since you’ll be heating your spare ribs for quite a while, it will be a balance of heat & time (as is almost always the case for cooking, same goes for french fries). If you heat the spare ribs too a very high temperature, they will burn, whereas the inside won’t be cooked yet. On the other hand, if you do it at a very low temperature, the outside won’t become as crispy and brown. Also, a low temperature will make it take longer, so you have to be more careful to prevent your spare ribs from drying out.

raw rubbed spare rib

 

The use of basting

Since you want to cook spare ribs slowly you should prevent the outside from burning. You do this on the one hand by using a moderate temperature to cook your spare ribs at. That way, the outside doesn’t burn before the internal connective tissue has broken down completely.

There’s another trick though that will help here as well, 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 flavoured water. The moisture in the baste will cool down your meat. It does so by evaporating. Evaporation of water takes energy (thus heat). See the basting of your meat as an alternative to sweating of humans.

The power of acid

A lot of liquids you can use for basting are quite acidic. Barbecue sauces for instance, contain quite a lot of vinegar. In the recipe below, you use a pure vinegar, which is acidic as well. This acidity is there for a reason, it helps to soften and tenderize the meat, even though just slightly and shortly (since it evaporates again very quickly). The acid doesn’t really have the time to seep into the meat, so it won’t tenderize the whole meat, but it will probably help just a little to tenderize the outside and help it to retain moisture.

Oven baked ribs recipe

This recipe is based on one developed by Curtis Stone. We’ve tweaked it slightly, not using any barbecue sauce during baking. However, if you prefer sticky ribs you can also baste the ribs with a barbecue sauce.

Science of perfect oven baked ribs
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Serves: 6 portions
Ingredients
Spice Rub
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp paprika powder
  • 2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
Meat
  • Good quality pork ribs, this recipe is based on ribs of a little over 1 kg
  • 100 ml Apple cider vinegar
Instructions
Step 1 - rubbing
  1. Prepare the spice rub by mixing together all the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Take your ribs and place them on aluminium foil. Coat both sides with the spice rub.
  3. Cover the ribs and leave to stand in the fridge for at least 2 hours, you can store them overnight as well.
Step 2 - baking
  1. Pre-heat the oven at 190C.
  2. Take the ribs from the fridge and place them in the oven. Be sure to leave them covered with aluminium foil (or run the risk of getting black ribs as on the photos).
  3. Baste the ribs with a thin layer of apple cider vinegar every 45 minutes.
  4. Leave in the oven for approximately 3 hours in total. The actual time will depend on the size of your ribs. Uncover the ribs the last 20 minutes in the oven to brown up at the top if they haven't coloured enough yet inside the aluminium foil. The ribs are finished when the meat falls off the bones without any trouble.

 

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