On the kind of clear-skied, warm summer evening when people without sleepless, feverish babies to tend to were drinking beers outside and grilling on rooftop decks, we stayed in last night and, for once, did not feel the eensiest bit jealous. We were eating ribs for dinner and we hadn’t even needed to leave our apartment to get them.
I never knew I could make ribs in the oven. I hadn’t even considered it. Ribs were the jurisdiction of trophy-winning Southeastern barbecue gurus, with trademarked rubs and secret mops. They were my friend Molly’s thing, and so we left them to her even though our summer has been woefully short of them since she left us for the mountains again, sniffle. They were not the “thing” of New Yorkers who live in small balcony-less apartments with smaller ovens and absolutely no barbecue tradition or rib religion to draw from, but Harold McGee changed all that. I am giving him a standing ovation as we speak.
McGee found that he preferred ribs cooked in an indoor oven over an outdoor grill and chalked the it up to real estate: there wasn’t enough surface area for large amounts of ribs (estimating 5 pounds for 4 people, or “a couple hundred square inches” of ribs) to keep the cooking temperature even on most home grills. In an oven, he could cook ribs gently and evenly for many hours. And it turned out, so could I. Just shy of six hours after I put them in the oven, these ribs were everything people standing over grills for hours hope them to be: falling-off-the-bone tender, with deeply caramelized crusty edges. We spilled the juices into a saucepan and reduced them until they were a syrupy, intensely flavored sauce and draped it over the ribs and served them with slaw and some porch swings. And sure, we were inside watching
Jersey Shore Pillars of the Earth and not out gallivanting but really, the only thing missing was the ruckus.
My only nitpicking about this recipe is that I found them a little sweet for my tastes. Sugar plays an important part in barbecue, in both flavor and caramelization, so I might be hesitant to dial it back by more than 1/4, but I would increase the salt, and possibly double it. Honestly, you can tweak the rub any which way (add cumin, black pepper or red pepper flakes, more paprike, more chile powder), there’s no way these can come out badly. Last thought: If you’ve got an oven thermometer, watch it instead of your temperature dial. I find that oven temperatures seem to be the most off at the lowest settings (my oven’s “200” was pushing past 250 on the thermometer) and while you can cook these ribs at a higher temperature, you certainly wouldn’t want to accidentally for 6 hours.
5 pounds should serve four people, we halved this and found 2 1/2 pounds to be generous for 2 people and might estimate 1 pound per person next time
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder (ancho is recommended) or paprika
2 teaspoons salt (see Note above about increasing it)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 pounds spareribs, cut into 4 slabs, rinsed and patted dry
2 teaspoons mild or hot pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or red or white vinegar
Heat oven to 200°F. In a mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, chili powder or paprika, salt, garlic powder, cloves and cinnamon; you can do this easily with a fork. Place each slab of ribs on a piece of foil large enough to fold into a packet. Sprinkle spice rub over the ribs, patting it in generously on all sides — you’ll be glad you did. Turn the ribs meat side down and tightly fold the foil to make sealed packets.
Put a rack on a baking sheet (I needed two racks and two sheets; a cookie cooling rack works for this) and place it in the oven. Bake for 4 hours at 200°F, then reduce the temperature to 175°F for another two hours or until a fork easily penetrates the meat. Open each packet carefully and pour the accumulated juices into a saucepan. Boil the juices and reduce them by half, at which point you will have a syrupy sauce that easily coats a spoon. Stir in paprika and vinegar.
Remove the ribs from the foil and either coat them with the sauce or serve the sauce alongside the ribs. (I have friends who consider barbecue sauce on ribs heretic, thus would give them the choice.) For extra caramelization, the ribs can be finished for a few minutes under the broiler, before being coated with sauce.