To be clear, spareribs does not mean they’re extra ribs. You’ll have to find it in your heart to forgive the barbecue staple’s misleading terminology.
Spareribs are actually cut from the bottom portion of the pig’s ribs and breastbone, right above the belly. Instead of being spare, the term “spareribs” is European in origin, derived from the German term “rippenspeer” meaning “spear ribs,” as they were traditionally roasted on a spear or a spit.
Despite being one of more inexpensive cuts of meat to barbecue, spareribs are fatty, which means they’re a bit sensitive as to how they’re cooked. (Hint: They like to go low and slow.) If you’re no totally sure how to go about cooking spareribs… don’t feel bad, so were we—which, is why we asked our Test Kitchen experts to give us the spareribs lowdown. And so, here are the four secrets to cooking the best spareribs:
1.) Prep them right: Take a knife and run it down the length of the backside of the rib. Begin peeling the clear membrane away from the bone. Some people like to use pliers, but if you do it correctly, it should come off in two long strips. When cooked low and slow, this membrane can get rubbery if left on. Removing the membrane also allows the layer of fat underneath it to freely melt away. Which is ideal given that no one I can think of wants to bite into a mouthful of solid fat.
2.) Use a good rub: Not only does a rub impart flavor and make the ribs have that quintessential barbecue taste, but the sugars in it promote the magical transformation known as the Maillard Reaction. Essentially (without getting too science-y), the Maillard Reaction is what happens when, exposed to dry heat, the meat’s surface starts to become mahogany brown and develops a caramelized, rich flavor. It’s what makes spareribs (and steak, bread, fried potatoes, beer, beans, etc.) delicious.
3.) Cater the cooking to your equipment: You can put spareribs in the oven wrapped in foil and bake them until they’re tender and the meat starts to pull away from the bone, and then move them out to the grill to finish for a smokey char and basting in barbecue sauce. Or you can do the whole thing on the grill (first wrapped in foil, then unwrap and baste). Or you can smoke the ribs, without the foil, at one temperature for a longer period of time. It all depends on your equipment and what you’re most comfortable with.
4.) To sauce or not–it’s all up to you: Now, this is where barbecue gets divisive. If you’re Team Dry Ribs, you’ll want to stick with just the rub as your flavoring agent. If you’re Team Wet Ribs, you’ll baste the ribs with barbecue sauce post-foil until they’re glossy and charred. You could also hop on Team Mop-Sauce–which, instead of barbecue sauce, involves a mixture of vinegar, sugar of some sort (honey, brown sugar, molasses, etc.), and some of the leftover dry rub. Use what you like. In matters of taste, personal preference reigns supreme. Because the *perfect* spareribs are the ones that taste perfect to you.