"Ribs" mean different things to different people -- there are braised ribs and broiled ribs, lamb ribs and beef ribs (even swordfish ribs) -- but say "ribs," and most Americans think pork ribs and grilling. But ribs are not like steaks, burgers, kebabs, fish, or vegetables: You can't just throw them over some coals or gas heat for a few minutes and expect them to become tender, crusty, and tasty.
Even baby back ribs, which come (no surprise) from the pig's back and are small and relatively tender, require a good 45 minutes or so of slow grilling if you want a decent shot at having them become other than tough. And spare ribs -- what most of us think of when we say "ribs" -- need low heat and lots of time to become falling-off-the-bone tender.
Spare ribs come from the belly side of a pig's rib cage. They're cheaper, bigger, fattier, and less sexy-sounding than back ribs; they're also better. If you remember that bacon is cut from the belly -- right below the spare ribs -- you'll recognize that these come from the single tastiest area of the pig.
There are just two good ways to grill spare ribs without sacrificing tenderness, flavor, or a crisp brown crust. (I must note that by "grilling" I mean cooking over a fire, not barbecuing, which is a special kind of low-heat, moist-heat cooking that is special, fabulous, and necessarily a topic for another column.)
Option one takes place entirely on the grill, and when the weather's nice, this is the way to go. You start the ribs over low, indirect heat and cook them there for a long time -- up to several hours. Wood chips are optional, but they're easy enough and add an incomparable smoky flavor; they're also completely compatible with gas grills. (One of the great things about slow-grilling ribs is that gas grills make the entire process quite easy, and -- especially given the presence of wood chips -- there are not really any disadvantages.) When the ribs are super-tender, you transfer them to direct heat for a few minutes of crisping.
Even though this process requires several hours, you have to check the ribs only twice an hour or so, so the effort is minimal. (You can even refrigerate the mostly cooked ribs, taking them out and crisping them up when you're ready to eat.)
You can flavor slow-grilled spare ribs any way you like-traditional American barbecue sauce is obviously an option, but I love this addictively sweet and salty Chinese version made with hoisin sauce, honey, and soy sauce. In any case, don't put any sauce containing sugar on the ribs until near the end of the cooking process, because these have a tendency to burn.
The second option requires a bit more work, but it's faster and more reliable, and it delivers supremely tender ribs: You first braise the meat in a flavorful liquid, which tenderizes them. Again, after this is done you brown them on the grill for just a few minutes. Braising is faster and more foolproof than indirect grilling, and it lets you really infuse the meat with other flavors -- in this case, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. (Feel free to vary the braising liquid as you like by using other spices or herbs or substituting wine, beer, or juice for some or all of the stock.)
These, too, won't suffer a bit if you braise them ahead of time and refrigerate them before grilling, which makes them a great make-ahead option. And if the weather is iffy, you can make these entirely indoors if you do the final browning step under a broiler instead of on a grill. I love serving them with a rich and tangy tahini-yogurt dipping sauce, but you can also strain the braising liquid, skim the fat off of it, reheat it, and serve it as an impromptu gravy.
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