Low heat is the secret to tender, succulent barbecued ribs
The best barbecue gets its melt-in-your-mouth tenderness from long, slow cooking over very low heat — and its smoky flavor from burning wood, such as hickory or apple. It’s a challenge for backyard grillers like me (and probably you).
“Traditional” Q requires specialized equipment (ideally a smoker) and some fragrant hardwood. Not to mention a live fire, and lots of time. Oh, and with that “live fire” thing, don’t even think about leaving the premises. Accidents happen, and it would be a bummer if one happened to you.
Luckily, however, we can produce excellent barbecue without all that muss and fuss. Cooking meat (we’re doing ribs today) in a slow oven for several hours achieves a luscious tenderness that rivals the best live-fire barbecue. And using a smoky-flavored barbecue rub (a mix of spices and sugar that you literally rub on the meat to help flavor it) produces ribs with that hint of hardwood. Of course, nothing replaces the flavor of real smoke, but you’ll be pretty happy with what you can achieve by using an aromatic rub.
With Memorial Day coming up soon in the US, many of us are thinking of summer grilling and barbecue. These oven-cooked spareribs will fit right into the festivities. They’re easy to make, and they pack flavor that will have your guests begging for seconds. Who knew your kitchen was the next great barbecue joint?
We often use the term “barbeque” for anything we cook outdoors on a Weber. But what we’re actually doing most of the time is grilling — i.e., cooking meat or fish over relatively high heat. This process is ideal for cooking cuts that are naturally tender. But most barbecue meats (like pork shoulder, spare ribs, and beef brisket) have lots of connective tissues that make them tough. So even if you cook them over high heat until they’re “done” (160 degrees F in the case of pork), the meat will still be decidedly chewy.
Barbecuing is very different from grilling. When you barbeque meat, you cook it at low heat (typically 200 to 225 degrees F) for several hours. This slow-cooking process allows the connective tissues and fat to melt away (which typically happens around 190 degrees F), achieving flavor and texture nirvana. In the process, the meat will pick up an enchanting aura from being cooked in a cloud of smoke. But this process takes time – you can’t rush it.
Fortunately, you can achieve the same degree of tenderness in your oven. And because you don’t have to keep a live fire going at a constant temperature, you can let the barbecue cook largely unattended. The meat will come out tender and flavorful. You’ll miss the smoke but, as mentioned up top, a good rub goes a long ways towards remedying that. You can also use liquid smoke — an all-natural hardwood smoke product that’s pretty good stuff (for more info about it, see the post on Smoky Salmon and Cream Cheese Dip, where it’s discussed in detail). I don’t use liquid smoke when I’m cooking ribs, but I sometimes add a teaspoon or two to barbecue sauce.
BTW, charcoal briquettes (the fuel used by most home grillers, and many contestants in barbecue competitions) don’t produce any aromatic smoke of their own. They’re popular because they provide good heat and burn at a fairly constant rate, making it easy to control the fire. For smoke, most people add chunks of aromatic hardwood (such as hickory) to the briquettes.
Recipe: Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Spare Ribs
Pork spare ribs have loads of flavor. And because we eat them with our hands, they bring out the inner caveman in all of us. What could be better?
Most supermarkets sell ribs by the slab, typically weighing 3 pounds or so. Many slabs contain parts of the sternum bone and rib tips, which may make the ribs somewhat harder to cut apart when cooked. If you can find “St. Louis” style ribs (sometimes called St. Louis cut ribs), they’re worth buying IMO, even though they’re usually more expensive. When preparing St. Louis ribs, the butcher cuts away the sternum and rib tips, so you’re left with more of the good stuff (and less waste).
The rub for these ribs contains both pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika) and dried chipotle chile powder (made from smoked and dried jalapeño peppers). The naturally smoky flavor of these ingredients helps flavor the ribs. I always rub the ribs the night before, so they’ll have more time to pick up flavor.
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wrapped ribs in aluminum foil for cooking; other times, I’ve left them unwrapped. Both methods achieve good-flavored, tender ribs. When working on this post, I tried both methods again, and I’ve finally decided that I prefer wrapping the ribs in aluminum foil, so that’s the method I outline in the Procedure. But in the Notes, I discuss the unwrapped method, too.
There are many recipes available for slow cooking foil-wrapped ribs in the oven, but the best explanation of the process I’ve seen is by Harold McGee in a June 29, 2010 New York Times article. My procedure is adapted from his.
I usually consider a pound of ribs to be one serving (people often eat more of these than you think they will — so buy ribs accordingly). The recipe for the rub yields enough to coat 3 (maybe 4) three-pound slabs. You can store leftover rub in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a month or two.
Preparation time for this recipe is about 20 minutes. Cooking time (mostly unattended) is 5 or 6 hours.
For the rub:
- 1 cup brown sugar (I prefer dark brown but light brown works fine too)
- 3 tablespoons pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
- 2 tablespoons dried ground chipotle or ancho chile powder (ancho doesn’t have a smoky flavor, but it’s milder than chipotle)
- 1½ tablespoons garlic powder
- 1½ tablespoons onion powder
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 rack of spare ribs, preferably St. Louis Cut (or as many as you need)
- barbecue sauce of choice for garnish (technically optional, but mighty tasty)
Steps 1 through 3 should be accomplished several hours before you plan to start cooking the ribs. Ideally, the rub-coated, uncooked ribs should rest in the fridge overnight.
- The night before you want to barbecue the ribs, prepare the rub: Combine all ingredients, and mix thoroughly until well blended.
- Then coat the ribs: Remove the spare ribs from their packaging. Rinse the ribs and pat them dry. Cut off any excess fat. To make the ribs easier to handle, you may want to cut them in half (just slice between two ribs). With your hands, pat the rub onto both sides of the ribs, going heavier on the meaty side. You’ll want to use at least ¼ cup of rub, but you can use more if you wish (see Notes).
- Place the ribs in a heavy food-storage bag (I use freezer bags), squeeze out as much air as possible, and fasten the top. Refrigerate overnight.
- Half an hour before you want to begin cooking the ribs, preheat the oven to 225 degrees F and remove the ribs from the refrigerator to warm up.
- Wrap the ribs in aluminum foil (see Notes for an alternative, unwrapped cooking method). Place the ribs on a sheet pan, bone side down (meaty side up), and put them in the preheated oven. Set the timer for 3 hours.
- When the timer goes off, remove the sheet pan with the ribs from the oven. Gently peel back part of the foil, and insert the probe of an instant-read thermometer in the fleshy part of the ribs between a pair of bones (don’t touch the bone with the probe; it will read hotter than the meat). If the thermometer reads 170 degrees F, proceed with the next step. Otherwise, cover the ribs and return them to the oven. Check them again in half an hour or so. (You need to use your judgment as to how much extra time to give them. Obviously if the ribs are 165 degrees they’ll need much less extra time than if they’re 150.)
- Once the ribs reach 170 degrees F, reduce the oven temperature to 180 degrees and set the timer for 2 or 3 hours. (The ribs are “done” at this point, but longer cooking melts away more cartilage, making them more tender.)
- When the timer goes off, remove the ribs from the oven. Turn the oven to the broil setting. Remove the aluminum foil from the ribs (be careful — there will be some juices), apply a thin coating of barbecue sauce, and place the ribs under the broiler until the barbecue sauce just begins to char — perhaps 10 minutes or so. If you really like charred ribs (I sometimes do), you may want to keep the ribs in a bit longer.
- OR skip the broiler part if you wish: When the timer goes off, just proceed to the next step.
- Remove the ribs from the oven, place them on a cutting board, and chop them into individual servings (the meat should almost be falling off the bone at this point, so this will be easy). Serve with barbecue sauce. And loads of napkins — eating ribs is a messy, but thoroughly pleasurable, experience.
- You can use a similar method of oven BBQ to prepare Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Pulled Pork or Oven Slow-Cooked BBQ Beef Brisket.
- I tend to use a lot of rub — as much as half a cup per slab of ribs. It adds a nice, spicy crust. In fact, the flavor is so good that I often don’t bother to coat the ribs with barbeque sauce when cooking (Step 8). Instead, I just pour some barbecue sauce on my plate, and use it as a dipping sauce. And I speak as someone who’ll put barbecue sauce on just about anything!
- Cooking ribs in aluminum foil makes them exceptionally tender. The one downside is that the surface of the ribs sometimes becomes a bit soft — which is why I like to run them under the broiler for a few minutes (it tightens up the surface texture, and adds a bit of char, which I often find pleasant).
- If you don’t want to encase your ribs in aluminum foil, just cook them unwrapped. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F, and place the ribs on a rack in a sheet pan (or another pan with a raised lip). I normally put the ribs meat side down for an hour or two, then flip them so the meat side is up (bone side down). Cooked this way, the ribs are usually ready to eat in about 5 hours. “Ready” means tender, with a temperature of 190 degrees F or so.
- BTW, even though most of us don't want to heat up the kitchen with the oven during the hot summer months, modern ovens are well enough insulated that very little heat escapes when cooking at a low temperature like 225 F. Even when you have the oven on for 6 hours.
- You need a decent thermometer when cooking ribs (or any barbecue) because you really need to know what your meat is doing temperature-wise. I like the (pricey) Thermapen. The temperature sensor is at the tip of its probe, so you can position it accurately, and it records a reading within 3 seconds. It’s also exceptionally accurate — within about one degree. I received one of these as a gift several years ago, and find it indispensable. BTW, I have no connection with the Thermapen people, nor do I gain financially (or in any other way) from mentioning them — I’m just an extremely happy user of their product.
- When barbecuing ribs over fire, many people use a mopping sauce to keep the ribs moist (and to add extra flavor). You don’t really need to do this when you prepare them in the oven. However, if you’re cooking ribs without aluminum foil and you notice that they’re starting to get too dry, then maybe a mopping sauce would be appropriate. Alternatively, halfway through the cooking process, you can loosely drape aluminum foil over the ribs to help prevent them from drying out.
- Barbecue sauce generally does not make a good mopping sauce. Many barbecue sauces contain sugar and/or tomato, which tends to caramelize and char. When I baste ribs with barbecue sauce, I do it right at the end of cooking, and then only for a few minutes. If you leave the sauce on too long, the meat turns black with char (something I sometimes want, I admit — I love the flavor).
Serve with Barbecue Sauce – and Napkins
“Mmmm, super ribs,” said Mrs Kitchen Riffs, after several minutes of talk-free chomping. Eating ribs is like that — it requires two hands and lots of gnawing, so not too much conversation takes place early in the meal.
“They’re great,” I said, wiping barbecue sauce from my chin with a napkin. “Which do you like better — the ribs I cooked in aluminum foil — the ones we had a couple of days ago? Or these, which I cooked without foil?” Yes, I made two batches of ribs over the course of a weekend, just to test!
“I think I like the ones in aluminum foil better,” said Mrs K R. “They both have great flavor, but the foil-wrapped ones were a bit more tender. The meat was practically falling off the bone!”
“They both taste wonderful,” I agreed. “And it’s been way too long since we’ve had them.”
“We need to do some pulled pork too,” she said. “Maybe cook it the traditional way — low and slow with real wood smoke? That’d be wonderful.”
“I’m planning to,” I said, “sometime this summer. I also need to perfect my barbecue sauce. What I made today is good, but it could be better.”
“You should get on it,” Mrs K R agreed. “This is terrific stuff. Maybe for your next post?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. I noticed Mrs K R pointing at her chin.
“Oh, thanks,” I said. And wiped away more barbecue sauce.
Good thing we stocked up on napkins.
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