Chinese Barbecue Baby Back Ribs

I love Chinese food. I have many childhood memories of a lazy Sunday with my family complete with Chinese take out for dinner. Unfortunately, my husband does not share my affinity, so I don’t get to eat it too often anymore. That is probably just as well, since for the most part the food is pretty unhealthy.

However, I have begun to dabble in some simple Chinese inspired recipes. Besides take out fried rice and spring rolls, this is the only way that he will eat this type of food.

There are so many wonderful flavors in this cuisine that I don’t normally use and I like that by making it myself I can eliminate some of the fat and preservatives that you get when you order out.

So, a few weeks ago I made some BBQ spare ribs. I found the recipe here, at Epicurious. I did not deviate from the recipe for the sauce, and it includes the usual suspects of hoisin, ginger, garlic, soy, and honey.

I bought some excellent quality pork baby back ribs from the butcher. I think the quality of meat here will really make a difference since they are not slow cooked. What I also did, that was not called for in the recipe but will make a huge difference in this application, is brine them. To give credit where it is due, this was the idea of my handsome and intelligent husband.

Brining is so effective because salt in a solution can rapidly penetrate and flavor meat right down to the center of the cut via osmosis. Salt will always seek equilibrium, so it will travel all throughout the meat and find all the nooks and crannies that need salt. The salt also changes the shape of the protein in the meat so that each cell can actually hold more juice, it basically plumps up the cells. As a result, you can overcook your meat to some extent and still have a tender, juicy final product. This is especially helpful when you are roasting a whole chicken or turkey. It is a safeguard against overcooking the white meat while the dark meat is still cooking. Well, that was my attempt at a partially scientific explanation of brining, I hope it made sense. If it didn’t or you want to learn more about this process, buy the above book or go here.

In the Ruhlman/Polcyn method, the water is divided and only half of it is heated to infuse with the salt, sugar, and flavorings. The water must be heated to make sure the salt and sugar is dissolved and that the brine is nicely infused with any additional flavors. Then, it must come to room temperature. If you were to put your meat in immediately, you would end up with unappetizing partially boiled meat. Allowing the water to come to room temperature also allows all the flavors to further steep in the water like a tea. Then you add your chilled water which now gives you the proper ratio of water, salt and sugar, and ensures that your meat will not cook in the brine.

Here is my recipe for the brine and how I cooked the ribs:

4 quarts water (divided)
a bunch of sage leaves
1 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup sugar
6 cloves of garlic, smashed
1 T ginger, cut in chunks
1 T whole black peppercorns, toasted and smashed
Measure out 2 quarts of cold water in a large Tupperware or pot and place in fridge to chill. The receptacle must be big enough to hold a total of 4 quarts of water and the ribs. It is recommended to use a container that is taller than it is wide because it will require less liquid to submerge the meat.
Place the remaining 2 quarts of water in a pot with rest of ingredients.
Bring to a boil and let it boil for 5 minutes.

Take off heat and let sit until it comes to room temperature (about 1 hour, but test the water to make sure it is cool enough). Then combine this mixture with remaining 2 quarts of chilled water and place the ribs in the mixture.

Cover and refrigerate for no more than 12 hours. Brining time is important because you can end up with overly salty meat if you leave it in for too long.
Drain the mixture, rinse the ribs in cool water and dry well. Place them back in the fridge uncovered for at least one hour. As I said above, the salt with always seek equilibrium. Allowing them to rest again at this point ensures that the salty brine is not concentrated in some areas and lacking in others. It will do it’s thing inside the meat until the level of saltiness is even throughout.

Reserve 1/2 cup of the sauce, as the recipe states. Slather the ribs with the remaining sauce.

I cooked them meat side down for first 20 minutes and then turned them over after the basting, so the meaty side would have a nice crust of sauce. Mine were cooked perfectly after 40 minutes, with an internal temperature of about 150F. Baste again and place them under the broiler on high for 5-7 minutes. You want them to begin to char.

Going through the brining process may seem too complicated or time consuming, but it’s really not. It does take additional effort and planning, but it is worth it. You can start the night before after dinner and rinse them quickly in the morning before work. Then let them sit all day in the fridge and they will be ready for you when you get home.

These were flavorful, tender, and quick weeknight ribs. When you have the time, I am a huge proponent of slow cooked BBQ ribs, but I mostly leave that to the boys. This was the first time I made ribs on my own, and I will definitely be making them again and experimenting with different sauces.