Why It Works
- The addition of honey in the glaze adds a lacquered shine.
- Covering the ribs with foil and roasting on a rack set over a baking sheet keeps moisture in but allows fat to drip off.
- At the end of cooking, the ribs are uncovered and a blast of high heat caramelizes the glaze.
Chinese-style barbecue spare ribs are one of the few American Chinese dishes that actually have a legitimate lineage to traditional Chinese cuisine. They are a form of siu mei, Cantonese-style roasted meats. You know, the ones that hang out in the windows in Chinatown?
The most common cut of meat used for traditional char siu is thin strips of fatty pork shoulder, but ribs are not uncommon and make perfect finger foods. Just make sure to lick'em clean unless you want to leave a greasy fingerprint on your cocktail.
The characteristic red hue of char siu comes from red food coloring, which you can add to the marinade if you'd like, but I prefer to go au natural. It's plenty pretty on its own.
Hoisin sauce—a fermented soy bean-based sweet and savory barbecue sauce—is the primary flavoring agent in the marinade. It gets spiked with five-spice powder, a balanced blend of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn. The addition of honey (or more often in professional restaurants, glucose syrup) gives the ribs a shiny, lacquered appearance.
Traditionally, char siu is hung from spikes on the roof of a wood-burning oven and roasted vertically so fat can drip down and baste it as it cooks. At home, roasting them in the oven gets the job done. Start ribs on a rack set in a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil to prevent excessive moisture loss, then finish by removing the foil, cranking up the heat, and letting the sweet marinade caramelize the exterior.
1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 full rack St. Louis-style spareribs, cut into individual ribs (about 3 pounds total) (see note)
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup shaoxing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup honey
Sprinkle five-spice powder evenly over ribs and rub until thoroughly coated. Set ribs aside.
Combine hoisin sauce, shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and honey in a gallon-sized zipper lock bag. Add ribs to bag and mix until evenly coated. Seal bag, transfer to refrigerator, and let ribs marinate at least overnight and up to three nights.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 375°F. Remove ribs from bag, wiping off excess marinade with your fingers (reserve marinade). Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, set a wire rack in it, and spread the ribs evenly over the rack. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour. Remove foil, brush ribs with marinade, increase heat to 450°F, and roast until charred, glazed, and sticky, about 20 minutes longer, rotating ribs and basting with marinade once more during cooking. Let rest 10 minutes, then serve.
You can add a few drops of red food coloring to the marinade if you want a deeper red hue to your ribs.
Baby back ribs will work just as well as St. Louis-cut.
Chinese five spice powder can be found in the spice section of most major supermarkets. You can make your own by combining 1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon, 2 teaspoons powdered fennel, 1 teaspoon powdered star anise, 1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon powdered Sichuan peppercorns (substitute ginger for Sichuan peppercorns for a different style of five spice).