When my friend Pam’s daughter Maya was very young she used to call spareribs “steak on the cob,” which killed me. Still, I was always intimidated by cooking spareribs. They seemed likely to turn out tough and chewy, instead of tender and juicy. And once I started reading about different theories and methods of cooking spareribs, it was easy to become even more unsettled. Barbecue has such hard-core followers that any friendly question can turn into hours of heated debate.
Barbecue genius Steven Raichlen opened my eyes to the magic of rubs, and since then I’ve been massaging all kinds of foods with flavorful herb and spice blends. This one is the result of many racks of happy experimentation and calibration, cooked low and slow, either in the oven or on the grill. Sometimes I go with just a rub, no sauce, which makes a less sticky rib but one that still has lots of flavor. Then I pass a heated pitcher of homemade or store-bought barbecue sauce on the side. Or for a shiny glaze and an even deeper flavor I brush the ribs with the sauce for the last twenty minutes or so of grilling or baking. Even when I am grilling, I find it less chancy to start the ribs in the oven where the temperature is more even and controlled.
As for all of the other rib-related topics, sometimes I like a healthy culinary debate on technique . . . but what I really like is making something delicious and not having to take a graduate course in the subject to get there.
Step 1: Make the spice rub: Mix together the salt, brown sugar, paprika, black pepper, garlic, oregano, adobo seasoning, if using, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Set the spice rub aside.
Step 2: Rinse the spareribs and pat them dry. Rub them with about ¼ cup of the spice blend and place them meaty side up on a wire rack set on a rimmed baking sheet. If the rack of ribs is too big for the wire rack, cut the rack in half and arrange the 2 pieces so they overlap slightly but do not overlap the meatier parts. Let the ribs sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a few hours (if you have to skip this step don’t worry; the ribs will still be great, the flavors just won’t permeate the meat as deeply).
Step 3: To bake the ribs and finish cooking them on the grill, preheat the oven to 250°F.
Step 4: Place the baking sheet with the ribs in the oven and bake until tender, 2½ hours (see Notes).
Step 5: When ready to grill, preheat the grill to medium.
Step 6: Arrange the ribs on the grill meatier side down. If you want more glazed ribs baste them with the barbecue sauce. Grill the ribs for 15 minutes with the grill lid closed. Turn the ribs over, baste the meaty side with the barbecue sauce, and grill until the ribs have good grill marks, 15 minutes longer with the lid closed. Check the grill frequently; once the barbecue sauce is added, it can cause a flare-up.
Step 7: Remove the ribs from the grill and let them sit for 5 to 10 minutes or so. Warm the remaining barbecue sauce in a small saucepan over medium heat. Slice the ribs and serve them passing a pitcher of the warm barbecue sauce on the side.
Notes: Adobo seasoning is a dried spice blend popular in Mexican cooking, available in most supermarkets. The spices vary, but blends traditionally include garlic, onion, oregano, and pepper. A hit of adobo in the rib rub ups the flavor nicely.
After 2½ hours, if you’d prefer to finish cooking the ribs in the oven, increase the oven temperature to 400°F and continue baking them for another 30 minutes, until nicely browned, basting them with barbecue sauce, if desired.
Cooking tip: You can use this spice rub on really anything: chicken, steaks, pretty much any meat you like. This recipe makes twice as much as you’ll need for the ribs here because you’ll be very happy to have the rest on hand for another round, but you can make it with half measures of the ingredients if you prefer.
Conversely, you can multiply the recipe to make as much rub as you like. Keep in mind the rule of approximately 1 tablespoon rub to 1 pound of meat (and you might use less if your crowd prefers a less intensely seasoned rack of ribs).
Make ahead: If you use fresh garlic the spice rub will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, but if you use powdered garlic it will keep for months in a tightly sealed container in your spice drawer.
Especially handy when guests are coming, you can bake (or grill) the ribs for two and a half hours and leave them at room temperature for an hour or so, then finish them at the higher heat—grilled or in the oven—for the last thirty minutes just prior to serving.
What the kids can do: Kids can measure the ingredients for the rub and massage the rub into the meat if that appeals to them (wash hands!).
To grill the spareribs start to finish: If you’d like to grill the ribs from beginning to end, preheat to medium-low a gas or charcoal grill set up for indirect grilling. Arrange the ribs on the hot grill, but not directly over the fire, with the meatier side up and cook them for 2¼ hours with the grill lid closed.
Then, increase the heat to medium (if you are using charcoal, add fresh coals), baste the meaty side with the barbecue sauce, if desired, and turn the ribs meaty side down. Close the lid and grill the ribs for 15 minutes. Baste the underside, turn the ribs, and grill with the lid closed until nicely browned, 15 minutes longer. Be sure to watch for flare-ups.