Living in New York City puts me in the heart of one of the greatest food capitals on earth—"The City That Never Sleeps" could easily be renamed "The City With Just About Everything to Eat." But when it comes to outdoor cooking, most of us New Yorkers are at a considerable disadvantage. During the warmer seasons, when the rest of the country begins its months-long ritual of packing firewood into smokers, setting coals ablaze, or even just turning the gas grill's knobs to full blast, I'm stuck in my muggy Queens apartment, full of envy. Womp womp, goes my mind. Guess my fire escape isn't the best place to tend a couple of racks of ribs as they slowly tenderize in a haze of smoke?
That's why, despite what some purists might say, there absolutely is a place for alternate methods that simulate the flavors of barbecue. We've touched on one excellent way before—in Kenji's sous vide smoked pork ribs recipe—but, as perfect as they may be, I'll be the first to admit that I don't often plan as far as a day in advance, which is what sous vide ribs require. My cooking style is much less "What should I make for dinner this coming weekend?" and much more "Crap, I'm woozy from low blood sugar, I need to eat before I faint!" An oven method for barbecue-style ribs isn't quite fast enough for that kind of situation, but it's still quick enough to get them on the table the same day you go shopping.
The best part is that it really is possible to make outstanding ribs in your oven. And, as great as a real smoker is, the truth is that using one doesn't automatically guarantee good results. I've eaten enough dry, stringy ribs from real-deal smokers to know that the equipment alone isn't any kind of promise of quality. With the right method, the oven can produce ribs that are tender and juicy, and that taste like they spent hours mingling with hardwood smoke.
This is how I make them.
We start with a couple of racks of St. Louis–cut pork ribs, which can usually serve about four people (the racks tend to weigh somewhere around two to three pounds each). They're more or less ready to go, except for a membrane on the underside that is best removed before cooking—leave it on and it can become papery and tough. The easiest way to remove it is to use a knife to free a corner of it from the ribs, then grab the loose membrane with a towel and pull it off the rest of the rack.
After that, all the ribs need is a spice rub. Working with our guide to building spice rubs, and also referencing the rub Kenji came up with for his sous vide ribs, I based mine on a 50/50 blend by volume of salt and brown sugar. To that, I added paprika, mustard seed, black pepper, cumin, coriander seed, garlic and onion powder, red pepper flakes, and dried oregano, then rubbed the mixture all over the ribs (reserving some for later).
The salt plays an essential role in the rub, dissolving the pork's muscle proteins and increasing the meat's capacity to retain moisture. The amount of time the meat is left to sit with the salt before being cooked will affect the degree to which this change takes place: Salt the ribs right before cooking and the meat will be noticeably drier, but do it too far in advance and it can start to resemble ham. I tried a few different curing times and found that anywhere from two to eight hours works well, which means you can apply the rub to the ribs the night before and cook them the next day, or put the rub on early in the day and have your ribs in the oven just a couple of hours later.
I didn't find a significant difference between the two- and eight-hour samples, presumably because pork ribs are thin enough that even in a couple of hours, the salt is able to penetrate into the meat and do its thing.
You'll notice in the photos here that the finished ribs don't have barbecue's signature pink smoke ring. Truth is, you don't need it—it's a by-product of the smoke interacting with a protein called myoglobin in the meat, and it has no impact on the flavor of the ribs. (Check out this great AmazingRibs article for more on that.) If you really want the ring, you can fake it by adding sodium nitrate (in the form of curing salts) to the rub, but I can't think of a good reason to actually do it, given the fact that it won't change how the ribs taste.
Next up is the question of how exactly we're going to make the ribs taste like they were smoked. There are a couple of options when using an oven.
The first is to rig up a makeshift smoker with some wood chips, get them smoking, and then seal the racks of pork in with them, letting them stand for a short while to absorb the smoke flavor. (See our guide to wok smoking to get an idea of how it works.) After that, you can cook the ribs in the oven. It's a great method—one I've had lots of success with in the past—but I ran into some problems trying to make it work with rib racks.
First, racks are big, which means that woks and most other cookware one might use for this method won't work. You need something bigger, like a large roasting pan. And then, even if you have a roasting pan that's big enough, you need to find a way to arrange both racks inside it so that air can circulate around both racks freely. That's not so easy to do. On top of that, I use induction in the Serious Eats test kitchen, and I had an impossible time getting my wood chips to smoke over an induction burner—my jury-rigged smoker just wasn't cooperating with the stovetop.
It quickly became clear that, while the stovetop smoker can work, one's success depends heavily on the kitchen and equipment available, and therefore it isn't practical for everyone. I wanted a method that would work for all.
Instead, I went for option two, using liquid smoke. Now, don't walk away just yet. Liquid smoke—at least the good stuff, like Wright's and Colgin—isn't some awful, artificial smoke flavoring. It's the flavor of real hardwood smoke that's channeled into condensers; the resulting smoky water drips out and is bottled for your cooking convenience.
The main thing to know about liquid smoke is that it's concentrated, so a little goes a long way. To apply it to the meat, I opted for the easiest approach: sprinkling the liquid smoke all over the ribs, then rubbing it in with my hands. Other oven rib recipes, like the one from our friends over at AmazingRibs.com, dilute the liquid smoke in brine and soak the ribs in that for even coverage. I didn't have any problems getting even smoke flavor into my ribs just by rubbing it on, and, since I wanted the most streamlined recipe possible (oven ribs should, I think, be easy), I decided not to add a brining step.
Once the racks have been rubbed with the spice mixture and liquid smoke, and then left to cure for at least a couple of hours, they're ready to be cooked.
The big question in my mind was whether to wrap them in foil during the cooking process, and, if so, for how long. Wrapping traps steam, which speeds cooking and can help tenderize the meat, but it also prevents the dehydration of the surface of the meat that leads to the development of a good browned bark on the ribs.
I cooked three racks in a low, 250°F oven to compare how wrapping affected the meat. One I cooked unwrapped the entire time; one I wrapped for the first two hours of cooking, then let finish in the dry oven heat; and the third I cooked wrapped the entire time, running it under the broiler only at the end to give it some last-minute browning.
The fully wrapped rack ended up with an unmistakable steamed texture in the meat. That was out.
It was harder to pick a favorite between the other two. Midway through cooking, when I removed the foil from the rack I was keeping wrapped, I could see clear differences in how they were progressing: The wrapped ribs were lighter, wetter, and less browned.
I then put them back in the oven to cook uncovered. The rack that had been wrapped in foil for the first couple of hours finished cooking about an hour and a half before the other (three and a half hours total cooking time, compared to five hours for the unwrapped rack).* By the time both sets of ribs were tender, you could still see some coloration difference between the two, with the fully unwrapped rack showing more browning than the other.
* The two racks weren't exactly the same size, and the one that cooked longer was about a half pound heavier. While that played a role in the longer cooking time, it doesn't fully explain the significant difference.
For a final step, I cranked the oven heat and returned each rack to brown more thoroughly and develop a little more of that bark. After, the differences between the racks in flavor, juiciness, and tenderness were very hard to perceive. The rack that was unwrapped the whole time had a slightly better bark-like exterior, but not by much.
Ultimately, given the time savings of wrapping the ribs, and the very subtle differences in the results, I think it's worth taking advantage of the added speed from wrapping the ribs for part of their cooking time.
One in the Oven
So, how do we determine doneness? Rib racks are tricky. What we're looking for is meat that comes cleanly off the bone when you give a little tug with your teeth, but still stays on the bone when you pick the ribs up. "Fall-off-the-bone" may be a nice expression, but it's a sign of overcooked ribs in barbecue circles.
Unlike with most cuts of meat, using an instant-read thermometer isn't reliable, since the racks are thin and lined with bones: You can get significantly different temperature readings depending on where in the rack (and how deep) you insert the probe. Moreover, with slow-cooked meats like ribs or pulled pork, there actually isn't a specific internal temperature where we can say, "Yup, that's done." The breakdown of connective tissue in slow-cooked meats is a function of temperature and time, which means that, depending on how slowly they roast, our ribs might be tender at 180°F or at 200°F—temperature on its own simply isn't a reliable gauge.
Some folks like what's called the bend test, in which you pick up the rack with tongs, allowing it to bend under its own weight; when a large crack forms on the surface and the rack threatens to break, it's ready. It's a good method once you get the hang of it, but it can be hard at first to know just how much cracking is the right amount.
Instead, I prefer the toothpick test, in which you simply slide a toothpick (or a similar skewer) into the meat. If it goes in with little resistance, the ribs are ready.
To finish the ribs, you can choose between giving them a final dusting with some of the leftover spice rub and brushing them with sauce before popping them in the oven for their final, high-heat blast. That's entirely up to you—the important thing is that, either way, you'll end up with ribs that just might convince people they've come straight from the smoker.