Mom's recipe for sticky soy sauce ribs

It started as a dumpling party. But ribs always steal the show

Published March 20, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

For the ultimate in panicky cat-herding experiences, try this: invite a bunch of friends over for a dinner party and teach them to make your mother's Taiwanese dumplings. And then wait, two-thirds starving, for even a handful of passable dumplings to emerge. Feel that slow, sinking feeling as you realize your guests have been there for three hours and dinner is looking a long, floury way away. For added effect, make sure that your mother's dumplings happen to be your absolute favorite thing in the world, less a favorite food than thousand-mile stand-in for a nuzzle in her bosom.

I looked up from the wrapper-rolling table, around my friend Winnie Yang's kitchen, hearing the wine glasses clinking and the teeniest sound of Winnie's teeth gnashing with every busted dumpling. I was horrified. I brought this upon her, cajoling her to teach me her mom's food, and inviting along some fat-fingered friends for the ride. Luckily, she prepared for this contingency. She had Mom's ribs in the oven. And eventually, when there were finally enough dumplings to anchor the table, we all sat around our proud, slightly lopsided handiwork ... and immediately devoured the ribs. Soy sauce black and sticky with honey, they were so good, so simple, so stridently home-style, they announced themselves as the kind of food you want to come home to every night.

So the dumpling how-to I planned for today will have to wait until I figure out how not to rip them apart while trying to put them together. But luckily I, too, planned for this contingency. I cadged Winnie's rib recipe.

First, a few words on buying ribs and marinade ingredients

The timing guidelines (and remember, they're always just guidelines -- you gotta get acquainted with your meat!) here are for baby back ribs; spare ribs are a little bit of a different game. (Depending on your philosophy, you can cook them longer to get them tender, or blast them quickly in a broiler to accent their pleasant chewiness and fattiness.)

So what's the difference between the two? Baby back ribs come from -- shocker! -- the back of the pig, that is, near the spine and the top of the animal. Ever have a rib chop? Those are the back ribs. They're attached to the loin meat, which is lovely stuff, but can be somewhat lean, more meaty and less fatty. Spare ribs are those same bones, but cut from underneath, near the belly. That means they're primarily belly meat; that means they are fat-tastic. (The belly is where bacon comes from.) For a good discussion of pork cuts, check this out.

By the way, if you're getting your ribs shrink-wrapped from a grocery store, check the label to see if it says something about containing up to X percent super-duper flavor solution or something along those lines. I'm a big fan of brining pork for flavor and juiciness, which is, in fact, a super-duper flavor solution that the meat absorbs, but these industrial brines always skeeve me out a little - for me, the meat becomes unnaturally tender and tastes weirdly tinny and artificial.

Finally, since the recipe is so simple, the quality of your marinade ingredients can make a dramatic difference -- try to use nice honey, and really try to get some good soy sauce (ditch that La Choy stuff!). Even really good soy sauce only costs a little more per use than the cheap stuff, and if you are near an Asian market, ask around for the best stuff. Really good soy sauce tends to be darker, a bit thicker than water, but not necessarily saltier. Its true magic is in the complex, fermenty, umami flavors. Japanese tamari-style soy sauce tends to be nice, and reasonably available. Kikkoman and Yamasa brands are nice.

Sticky soy sauce ribs

Serves ... well, only you know in your heart how many ribs you can eat; this recipe easily multiplies

4 fat cloves of garlic, chopped
¾ cup honey
½ cup soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
black pepper, to taste
2 racks of baby back ribs (about 2½ pounds each)
2 scallions

  1. Put everything save for the ribs and the scallions into a blender and blitz them into submission; you want the garlic to pretty much disappear into the murk. (An immersion blender also works. In a pinch, mince the garlic very fine with the salt until it's a paste, and whisk it into the honey and soy sauce.) Give the marinade a taste. Try not to smear it all over your face. How is it? What you want here is balance: It should be sweet and it should be savory, but you shouldn't be able to say if it's more one than the other. The flavor should change a bit and be a little confusing, especially with that garlic wafting through. If it tastes more one way than the other, adjust with more soy sauce or honey, accordingly.
  2. With a sharp knife, slash the ribs all the way through between the bones but don't actually take them apart. Preferably in a flat container like a roasting pan, or in a plastic bag, pour enough of the marinade over the ribs as you need to cover all surfaces; you should have ¼ to ½ cup of the marinade left. Rub it in, and marinate at least two hours in the fridge, up to one day.
  3. An hour before cooking, take the ribs out of the fridge to let them come to room temperature. Heat the oven to 325. With the marinade, wrap each rack separately in a double layer of aluminum foil and set them flat on a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. It's important that the marinade not escape, or it'll scorch and smell black as sin.
  4. If your ribs are at room temperature before going in the oven, take them out after 1 ¾ hours. Be careful opening the foil; steam is hot! Poke and prod the meat -- it should be tender, but with a bit of pleasing chew left. If you like it more tender, wrap it back up (don't break the foil!) and put it back in the oven, checking on it every 15 or 20 minutes until you're satisfied.
  5. When the meat is cooked and tender to your liking, pour the sauce (now commingled with sweet, sweet rib juice) into a pan with the leftover marinade and set over high heat to boil and thicken it. Raise your oven to 450 and lightly rewrap the ribs while this happens so they don't steam off and dry out.
  6. Look in the pot. When the marinade is thick and sticky and forming big, weird bubbles, take it off the heat and brush or smear it all over the ribs. Ditch the foil, and set the ribs directly on the roasting pan and roast them just to slightly char the glaze around the edges, about 10 minutes, but check after 5.
  7. Cut the ribs apart, finding the space between the bones with a sharp knife. Thinly slice the scallions and sprinkle over the ribs. Serve alone, or with white rice and cucumbers dressed with salt and vinegar to taste. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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