Deeply seasoned meat
Crisp, chewy texture
Chinese barbecued spareribs are typically associated with Cantonese buffets and pupu platters, those medleys of finger food that have been fixtures in Chinese American and Polynesian restaurants for decades. But spareribs have real roots in Chinese cuisine. Their lurid red glow, lacquered sheen, and flavors redolent of hoisin and soy sauces, ginger, garlic, and five-spice powder indicate they are a form of char siu, the Cantonese-style barbecued pork you can find hanging in the windows of meat shops in any Chinatown. Their appeal is obvious—the meat is salty and sweet, with a deeply caramelized exterior and a satisfying resilient chew—and recipes for them have appeared in American newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks since the mid-20th century.
The distinct chew of Chinese barbecued spareribs sets them apart from the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of most American styles. They're also cooked very differently, since they're not actually barbecued. Like all forms of char siu, the ribs are marinated and then slow-roasted. In restaurants, this happens in large, boxy ovens where the meat hangs from hooks—a setup that allows fat to drip and hot air to circulate all around the meat so that it achieves its hallmark burnished finish. But this method also makes Chinese ribs tricky to replicate in a home oven, something I've always wanted to do in the winter months when I take a hiatus from the grill or when I don't feel like traveling to Chinatown for the real deal.
Spareribs are cut close to the belly of the pig. A whole rack can weigh more than 5 pounds since it includes the brisket bone and surrounding meat. To make smaller, evenly rectangular racks that are easier to fit on a grill or in the oven, butchers lop off the brisket portion and call this more svelte cut St. Louis–style spareribs. They're meaty and flavorful and are our go-to cut for most rib recipes.
I started with two racks and mixed up a char siu marinade: soy and hoisin sauces, Chinese rice wine, garlic, ginger, five-spice powder, white pepper, and red food coloring (traditionally this color came from fermented rice or bean paste).
The recipes I found recommended marinating the ribs for many hours or even for days. In most cases, marinating meat for anything longer than an hour is overkill, since we've found that very few flavors penetrate much beyond the meat's surface, no matter how long it soaks. But here a longer marinade would be worthwhile, since the char siu marinade contains soy and hoisin sauces—powerhouse ingredients packed with salt and flavor-boosting glutamates, both of which we have found can penetrate deep into meat.
Since the layer of meat on ribs is thin, a 2-hour soak seemed like plenty of time. I went with that and tried three common cooking methods. The first re-creates the conditions of a Chinese barbecue oven by cooking a whole slab of ribs on a rack in a low oven, flipping it and basting it with a reduction of the marinade so that all sides of the rack get good exposure to the marinade and the heat. The results were chewy yet tender and had a lacquered coat, but this method required 3 to 4 hours of closely attended cooking in addition to marinating time—more of a commitment than I wanted.
The second, a speedier variation on that method, turns up the heat to about 350 degrees so that the ribs cook in 1 to 1½ hours. Unfortunately, the time savings came at the expense of the meat, which tended to dry out in the hotter oven. And the third, more common approach is to cut the rack into individual ribs and roast them in two stages: covered for 1 to 1½ hours so that they steam and tenderize and then brushed with a reduction of the marinade and roasted in a hot oven (or broiled) uncovered for about 15 minutes to dry out and color their exteriors.
The third method, moist heat followed by dry, was the most promising. Cutting the racks into single ribs speeds cooking and creates lots of surface area for painting on the flavor-packed glaze. And moist heat is a very efficient way to cook meat, since water conducts energy faster than air does. The drawback is that you don't want to baste ribs that you cover, since the steamy environment doesn't allow the first coat to dry and set, so you never get a substantial buildup of glaze. I'd have to get all my glazing done after I uncovered them, so I had to pack a lot of flavor into the glaze.
Braised and Glazed
My next move was to intensify the marinade so that when it reduced, a single coat of glaze would taste robust. I mixed up another batch with more soy and hoisin, more garlic and ginger (it was now more efficient to pulverize them in a food processor), and more spices. I also added honey, another typical char siu component that would lend the basting liquid more body.
But as I mixed up my new marinade, something occurred to me: If the ribs needed to soak in the marinade and moist heat was the most efficient way to cook them, why not do both at once by braising the ribs in the marinade before roasting them? Heat would also help the flavors penetrate the meat more quickly, so the cooking time wouldn't need to be long for the flavors to soak in. Then I could further reduce the braising liquid and use that to baste the ribs.
I made another batch of my marinade but this time thinned it with a little water and placed it in a Dutch oven. I added the ribs, brought the pot to a simmer, turned down the heat to low, covered the pot, and let the ribs cook on the stovetop until they were just tender, which took about 1 hour and 15 minutes. After straining and defatting the braising liquid, I returned it to the pot to simmer until it had reduced to a thick glaze; at this point, I also added some toasted sesame oil for further complexity. In the meantime, I heated the oven to 425 degrees and set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet that I'd lined with aluminum foil and partially filled with water to catch the drips of fat and glaze that would otherwise cause the sheet to smoke (see “Prevent Oven Smoke with a Water Bath”). I tossed the ribs in the glaze and then placed them bone side up on the rack.
After 15 minutes, with a flip halfway through to brown the other side, they were done. The braising liquid's salty-sweet flavor had penetrated into the exterior of the meat, and the glaze had dried and left a lacquered sheen that gave way to the meat's satisfying chew. It was char siu reminiscent of the best I'd had in Chinatown, but it was easy to make in my own kitchen.
Keys to Success
Deeply seasoned meatSlicing the racks into individual ribs creates more surface area for the soy and hoisin-based braising liquid to cover the meat and for flavorful browning. Simmering the defatted braising liquid turns it into a full-bodied, highly seasoned glaze for painting onto the ribs.
Braise in marinadeBraising the ribs in a soy-and-hoisin-based mixture seasons the ribs at least as much as marinating does and takes far less time. The moist heat softens the ribs faster than dry heat alone and keeps the meat moist.
Crisp, chewy textureThe moist heat of braising softens the ribs faster than dry heat alone and keeps the meat moist. Roasting the ribs in a hot oven dries out and concentrates the glaze, creating an exterior with a dark sheen and crisp chew.
Efficient methodSlicing the racks into individual ribs helps them cook more quickly. Braising the meat in the marinade seasons and softens it much faster than marinating and roasting would, respectively.