Behind the Recipes

Sweet-and-Sticky Baby Back Ribs: The Story Behind Our Front Cover Recipe

We custom-made these sweet, sticky baby back ribs just in time for game day or any day.

Published Feb. 1, 2019.

If you've ever hosted or been to someone's house for game day there's a likely chance that your food selection consisted of wings, chili, dipping sauces, pizza, potato chips and—my favorite—baby back ribs. To make the ideal indoor baby back ribs I had to find the perfect method and sauce. For the method, I found that the oven was my best friend. For the sauce, I opted for a version that wasn't too sweet nor harshly sour. Keep reading to learn how I created juicy, tender ribs and what surprising ingredients helped me create the perfect, saucy balance. 


Sweet-and-Sour Baby Back Ribs

We bake some sauce onto the racks, cut them into individual ribs, and then toss 'em with more sauce.
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Growing up in the South, I always associated ribs with sweet, tangy barbecue sauce. But for a midwinter game-day rib feast in my adopted hometown of Boston, I decided to look for something a little more surprising: something sticky, glossy, and tropical, with sweet and spicy notes of citrus, ginger, and jalapeño. (Read “Getting to Know: Heat” to see where jalapeño’s rank on the scale of hot chilies.)

Hand out plenty of paper towels when you serve these ribs. They make the most beautiful kind of mess.

My first decision was to use baby back ribs. I chose them because they cook relatively quickly and pack tons of pork flavor. A couple of 2-pound racks of baby backs would be plenty for a crew of four to six people, so I started there. Some people get finicky and pretreat their ribs with a rub, a marinade, or even a brine (I do that sometimes, too). But I wanted to give this a swing without the extra time and effort of those steps.

Instead, I simply spread the racks on a rimmed baking sheet, seasoned them with salt and pepper, brushed on a healthy coating of sauce (more on this later), and popped them into the oven. A few rounds of experimentation showed me that I would have to be precise about the temperature: Too low and the ribs didn’t achieve a beautiful burnished color before drying out; too high and they turned black before cooking through.

A 325-degree oven was just right. After 2½ hours, the ribs turned a beautiful, rusty shade of brown. When I tugged at the meat with a pair of tongs, it slipped off in juicy chunks. Perfect. A quick check with the digital thermometer identified this sweet‑spot internal temperature: 205 degrees (shown left).

As for the sauce, getting the balance right—neither overly sweet nor harshly sour, with just enough heat and salt—took some doing. I relied on a cup of orange juice for a vibrant citrus base. For fresh, aromatic bite and bright, spicy heat, I sautéed garlic and ginger with sliced jalapeños. A half-cup of white sugar and 1/3 cup of tart cider vinegar delivered the sweet and sour portions of the promise.

But I needed some complexity, so I turned to savory ketchup, salty soy sauce, and, surprisingly, fish sauce. This addition was a revelation. The fish sauce (a cousin of Worcestershire) introduced a strong savory background flavor that played well with the other ingredients, and it tasted nothing like fish on the ribs.

Matthew Fairman

Brushing the sauce onto the ribs in two stages—once before roasting (below left) and again 10 minutes before they came out of the oven (below right)—gave me beautifully lacquered racks. I cut them into 
individual ribs and then, because I wanted supremely sticky ribs, tossed them in the remainder of the sauce.

Baby Back RibsBaby Back Ribs
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With a final gilding of bright green scallions, these ribs were an irresistible sight. But take my advice: Hand out plenty of paper towels when you serve these ribs. They make the most beautiful kind of mess.

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