How the Chinese Do Sticky, Crispy Spareribs

These crisp, delectable spareribs use Chinese black vinegar to give them a sweet, tangy, sticky glaze.

Published Oct. 25, 2023.

Let's talk about these spectacular spare ribs. They're sticky and crispy, a bit sweet, and a bit tangy.

You pop these bite-size ribs in your mouth whole and use your teeth to separate the meat from the bone.

Ideal as a starter or a main course, this recipe was developed by my parents, who spent years reverse engineering the dish.


A Very Chinese Cookbook

From American Chinese classics (General Tso’s Chicken) to Hong Kong dim sum favorites (Shu Mai), A Very Chinese Cookbook is ideal for both the Chinese food-curious and experienced cooks seeking a weekend soup dumpling project.

My mother first tasted this dish when her Shanghainese great-grandmother cooked it for her. My mom was too young to consider asking for the recipe. Years later, when she finally asked, her great-grandmother was well into her 90s and had forgotten how to make them.

And thus began my parents experimenting with this dish, cooking it over and over again, tweaking ingredients 1 teaspoon at a time.

The flavor engine of this dish comes from Chinkiang vinegar—a distinctive Chinese black vinegar that shares similarities to balsamic. Unless you lived near an Asian grocer, this vinegar used to be difficult to source. Now, you can get Chinkiang vinegar delivered overnight online.

Watch how this recipe gets made in the latest episode of Hunger Pangs below.

Sticky Spareribs with Chinkiang Vinegar 鎭江糖醋排骨

Serves 4 Total Time: 1 hour

  • 1½ pounds pork riblets, trimmed, cut between bones into individual ribs
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) crushed rock sugar
  • 1 (2‐inch) piece ginger, sliced into thin rounds
  • ½ cup Chinese black vinegar
  • cup Shaoxing wine
  • 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
  • 1½ teaspoons chicken bouillon powder (optional)
  • 1½ teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted 

Note: These ribs aren’t tender to the bone; they have a purposeful chew. Eating them involves a bit of mouth maneuvering to remove the bones and cartilage. But that’s the joy of the dish. Pork riblets are spareribs cut flanken-style, across the bone, into 1- to 2-inch-wide strips. They are sold in Asian markets and elsewhere; check with your butcher. Chinkiang (Chinese black) vinegar and rock sugar give the ribs a complex, subtly earthy sweet-and-sour flavor. 

1. Bring ribs and 2 quarts cold water to boil in 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or large Dutch oven over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Drain ribs and rinse well, then pat meat dry with paper towels.

2. Heat empty wok over high heat until just smoking. Reduce heat to medium-high, drizzle vegetable oil around perimeter of wok, and heat until just smoking. Add rock sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until sugar has melted and is amber-colored, about 1 minute. Add ginger and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 15 to 30 seconds. Stir in ribs, ½ cup water, vinegar, Shaoxing wine, dark soy sauce, and bouillon powder, if using, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover; and simmer until ribs are just tender but still have slight chew, 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Uncover; increase heat to high; and vigorously simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce is thickened and coats pork, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in sesame oil and pepper. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve. 

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