Is this mainstay of the American barbecue canon overrated or a porcine classic?
Thu 30 Jun 2011 07.00 BSTFirst published on Thu 30 Jun 2011 07.00 BST
Felicity’s perfect ribs
Felicity’s perfect ribs. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
We just don’t love bones like we used to. While I’m sure that every reader of this column has a freezer full of homemade stock, is well au fait with the lamb shank and never plumps for breast when there’s thigh on offer, the real joy of bones – “picking [them] up … and chewing the sweet juicy meat still clinging to them”, as Jennifer McLagan frankly puts it in her fabulous book on the subject, Cooking on the Bone – is a sadly rare treat these days. She reckons they “satisfy a deep primal urge to eat with our fingers”; I suspect that gnawing on bones is one of the few purely textural pleasures left to us in western cuisine.
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Ribs are, of course, supreme proof of the attraction; given each serving is three-quarters bone, if we didn’t enjoy stripping off those sparse morsels of flesh, then they would have gone the way of other less meaty cuts – for who, apart from a few Fergus Henderson types, fancies chewing on a pig’s ear?
It’s not just about texture though: not only does meat cooked on the bone tend to be more flavourful, but, in marked contrast to much modern pork, that around the ribs is marbled with fat, which means it’s always succulent – even more so with spare ribs, the larger, meatier kind most familiar to us as the obligatory meat element of Mixed Starter number 2. For cooking at home, however, I prefer baby back ribs (also known as loin rack in this country: a shorter, curved cut from up near the backbone. Not only does a whole rack look more impressive but – and, at the risk of infuriating barbecue experts everywhere – I’m convinced they taste better.
We tend to think of ribs as a barbecue classic – but actually, as anyone who’s ever found themselves still desperately chewing on one long after even the wasps have given up on the party, this is a myth. Or, at least, something that’s been lost in transatlantic translation. Racks of ribs are a speciality of southern barbecue – food cooked long and slow in a pit – as opposed to British barbecue, which refers to food cooked very quickly over a hot grill. (To underline the difference, you’d be hard pushed to burn a sausage on the former.) You’re better off cooking your ribs, a cut of meat which, with its sinew and its fat, demands more than a token toasting, in the oven – something which suits the British summer down to the ground.
A simmering debate
Nigella ribs. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
Many older rib recipes call for the racks to be gently simmered in hot water before roasting, presumably in order to relax the tough connective tissue which holds them together. However, posters on online food forum chowhound.com are indignant at the idea, protesting that “parboiling any meat is a crime against humanity” and suggesting that such a step might make a tasty “pork broth”, but does nothing for the flavour of the ribs themselves.
The new cookbook from renowned Yorkshire butchers, the Ginger Pig, however (worth buying for the sausage roll recipe alone) boldly flies the face of such naysayers, with a recipe which calls for a half-hour pre-simmer before the racks are marinated and baked. The resulting liquid is porky smelling enough for me to doubt the wisdom of this approach, even before I taste the finished article, which is distinctly tougher than any other recipe I try – perhaps it would work better with meatier spare ribs.
How low should you go?
Food science god Harold McGee is an advocate of the long, slow cooking of ribs, baking them for 6–8 hours at an oven temperature of between 95 and 80C – “the lower the meat’s temperature, the less moisture it loses,” he says in his Curious Cook column in the New York Times, “but the longer its connective tissue takes to dissolve, too”. Ribs cooked at 60C will thus be very juicy, but, on the flip side, will take “several days” to become tender – so his method is a compromise between texture and time.
Sadly my oven won’t go low enough to give his recipe a try, but Jamie Oliver’s “truly incredible” 5-star pork ribs, from Jamie’s America, adopt a similar, if slightly faster approach, by cooking the ribs for 4¼ hours at 135C. As a contrast, I follow them up with Nigella’s Finger Lickin’ Ribs, from her book Feast, a deliberately quick recipe designed, apparently, for eating “oozy and sticky” in bed, which cooks at 200C for an hour. Jamie’s ribs are certainly far more succulent, but Nigella’s nicely caramelised, slightly crisp top is undeniably seductive.
Best of both worlds
Leiths ribs. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
The Leiths Meat Bible suggests a cunning third way, which has something in common with McGee’s suggestion of giving his slow-cooked ribs “a brief finishing hit of high heat or smoke on the grill”. After cooking the five-spice barbecue pork ribs in a moderate, 170C oven for 2 hours, I allow them to cool in their marinade, then finish them off on a hot barbecue “until browned and slightly charred”. This seems like the best of both worlds – the meat is tender (if not quite so silky as Jamie’s), with the kind of smoky, crunchy crust that’s barbecue at its best.