Oven Baked Ribs
Who says you need a smoker to cook great ribs? Top quality back yard smokers can run from $200 - $1,900, but not everyone is quite this serious about smoking, and only occasionally get the craving for perfectly cooked ribs. I’m not looking to preach on the merits of why you should have a backyard smoker, but instead showing that you can still get a pretty darn good rack of ribs without one.
Baking ribs in the oven really isn’t that complicated, and as great as a real smoker is, they don’t guarantee spectacular results. Even with a first rate smoker, you can get dry or tough ribs if they aren’t prepared correctly (don’t blame the tools). If done properly, you can get mouth-watering ribs that are tender and juicy straight from your oven.
Why Cooking Ribs in the Oven WorksNow, if you’ve perfected the smoker, you’re not reading this article anyway. But, the oven really is ideal for low and slow cooking, which is critical to producing the best ribs. Rib meat is fairly tough, and it needs a long time to break down and become tender. One advantage that a smoker has is that it allows heat and smoke to circulate around the ribs, which is a bit more difficult to accomplish in the oven. You’ll need to use a cool rack placed on your baking sheet to achieve this same critical protocol. Follow the right steps, and in a few hours you can get outstanding results.
Choosing the Right RibsFirst of all, understand that when we're talking ribs, we are typically referring to pork ribs. There's nothing wrong with beef ribs, if that's what you prefer. For pork ribs you have three choices -- spare ribs, baby ribs (sometimes referred to as loin ribs) or country style ribs (which aren’t really ribs at all).
When it comes to spare ribs and baby back, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Spare ribs tend to be larger (typically around 3-1/2 lbs), more economical, have more fat and take longer to cook. Baby back ribs are smaller in size (usually between about 1-1/4 to 2-1/4 pounds), are less meaty, less fatty, and more tender than spareribs. Because of their smaller size, baby back ribs cook faster than spareribs, but they're also much more expensive due to high consumer demand.
Prepping the RibsFor tender ribs, we like to remove the thin membrane covering the inside rack the night before we plan to cook. Leaving the membrane on tends to make the meat tougher. To remove, use a knife to gently slide under the membrane, then using your fingers pull the membrane away from the bones. If slippery or difficult to remove, use a kitchen towel to take hold of it and give a good steady pull.
If you get your ribs from a local butcher, instead of the grocery store, they might have already removed the membrane for you. If not you can always ask and most local butchers are happy to oblige.
Next, season both sides of the rack of ribs with your rib rub and place in the refrigerator for at least 2-24 hours (after extensive testing we feel that about 8 hours is ideal, and if left any longer the meat tends to be mushy).
Seasoning Your RibsSlather your ribs. This is a thin coating (the key here is THIN) of olive oil, mustard, vinegar, honey or Worcestershire that is applied before smoking and acts as a bonding agent that better holds the dry rub to the ribs. More rub gives your ribs more flavor.
Liberally season your slathered ribs with a dry rib rub. We like to use 2 tablespoons per lb. of meat. Shake the dry rub onto the ribs evenly coating both sides.
Now, some cooks love to make their own rubs, and others have no problem using a premade one. Either way, make sure that salt is part of whatever rub you choose. The salt plays an essential role in dissolving the pork's muscle proteins and increasing the meat's ability to retain moisture. The amount of time between when the ribs are seasoned and when you begin cooking will have an impact on how moist they can turn out. Season the ribs and cook within about 90 minutes and the meat tends to be drier. Leave the seasoning on for more than 8 hours and the meat tends to be mushy.
Cooking the RibsPreheat your oven to 225°. No two ovens, smokers or grills are exactly the same, and all will cook at slightly different temperatures. Don’t just rely on the unit’s thermometer, as these may be reading hotter or cooler than the actual temperature that the ribs are cooking at. Use an oven thermometer for the most accurate read, and place it right on the rack that the ribs will be cooking on.
As a rule of thumb, you can anticipate that it will take the ribs about an hour to an hour and a half to cook per lb. of meat. So, a 3 lb. rack of ribs will take between 3 and 4-1/2 hours to cook.
Line your baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a cooling rack on top. Lay the ribs on top of the rack in a single layer (be careful not to overlap). This allows for optimal heat circulation all around the ribs.
To Wrap or Not to WrapWrapping your ribs in aluminum foil for oven baking has two camps. Those that swear by it and those who would never dream of it. Those that are in favor of wrapping feel that it traps in steam, which helps keep the meat tenderize and speeds up the cooking time by a bit. Those opposed to wrapping feel that it won’t allow a good outer bark to be formed.
We fall somewhere in the middle. We like to do the majority of our cooking without wrapping. For the last 30-60 minutes or so we’ll apply our mop, wrap our ribs in heavy duty aluminum foil and place them back in the oven. Wrapping them in foil in this manner will make them very tender.
Is it Done Yet?So, how can you tell when your ribs are done? Surely you’ve heard the expression “fall-off-the-bone” ribs. Well if you let your ribs get to that stage they’re going to be overcooked. What you want is meat that comes cleanly off the bone when you bit into it.
Unlike with steak, burgers or chicken a meat thermometer doesn’t really work with ribs, as the racks are thin and lined with bones. There’s also a difference between being done and “Yep they’re ready!” According to the USDA, ribs are done when they hit an internal temperature of 145°. Now, I’m not saying that the Government is wrong here, but while ribs may technically be done at 145° (which means that the USDA says you won’t get sick from eating undercooked meat), they may still be tough. Ribs need to get up to at least 190° and more preferably a shade over 200°F in order for the collagens and fats to melt, which makes the meat more tender and juicy. In our opinion, ribs aren't really "ready" until they get to this stage.
If ovens cook at different temperatures, and meat thermometers aren’t accurate, then how are you to know when your ribs are done? The two most preferred methods, used by pitmasters, to tell when their ribs are ready is either the bend test or the toothpick test.
For the bend method, you pick up the rack of ribs from one end with tongs, with the end of the tongs at approximately the 5th or 6th rib in (which should be slightly less than 1/2 way). If the ribs bend at a 45° angle or more and a large crack forms on the surface with the rack looking like it’s about to break, it's ready. This technique takes some practice to properly recognize and it may take a couple of tries to get the hang of it. The first couple of times it may be hard to tell just how much cracking is the right amount.
The toothpick test is simpler. You slide a toothpick into the meat (in between the ribs), if it goes in with hardly any resistance, the ribs are ready.
The Finishing TouchesTo finish the ribs, we like to remove them from the oven, turn up the oven to about 450°, give the ribs a final dusting with some of the leftover rib rub, then put the ribs back in the oven (unwrapped) for a final, high-heat blast (about 5-10 minutes). This helps to solidify the crust. Or you can add a bbq sauce or a mop at this point instead of a final dusting. That's entirely up to you. Either way, you'll end up with ribs that will be just as flavorful as if you used a smoker.
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