These ribs were inspired by a popular appetizer common in Chinese restaurants. You know what I’m talking about—spareribs that are dark, shiny, and supernaturally crimson, with a candy-sweet crust and a meaty but tender inside. The ribs play the anisey sweetness of five-spice powder and hoisin sauce against the earthy taste of roast pork. Both are classic Chinese seasonings. Five-spice powder is a blend of star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper (and sometimes other spices); hoisin sauce is a thick purplish brown condiment (there’s something plummy about its sweet flavor). Put them together and you get some of the tastiest ribs on the planet, all the more remarkable because they’re roasted in an oven and/or deep-fried—with nary a whiff of wood smoke.
Another version of this recipe appeared in my last book, Indoor! Grilling; the ribs were spit roasted to give them the airdried crust of the Chinese original. Then someone at Barbecue University had the brilliant idea to smoke the ribs. Remember when The Wizard of Oz goes from black-and-white to color? That’s the same thing that happens when you smoke a Chinese rib. Which goes to prove my old adage: If something tastes good baked, fried, or sautéed, it probably tastes even better hot off the grill.
1. Place the hoisin sauce, sugar, and five spice powder in a nonreactive mixing bowl and whisk to mix. Add the soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil and whisk until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the garlic, ginger, and scallion whites. Set one third of the marinade aside to make a sauce.
2. Prepare the ribs: Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a work surface. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as a butter knife or the tip of a meat thermometer, under it. The best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack.
3. Place the ribs in a nonreactive roasting pan or baking dish just large enough to hold them. Pour the remaining marinade over the ribs and spread it all over the racks with a rubber spatula, turning to coat both sides. Let the ribs marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or as long as overnight, turning them 3 or 4 times. The longer the ribs marinate, the richer the flavor will be. (The ribs can also be marinated in large heavy resealable plastic bags.)
4. Set up the grill for indirect grilling (see Notes) and preheat to medium (325° to 350°F). Place a large drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate. (For instructions on smoking on a gas grill see Notes.)
5. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Drain the ribs well and place them in the center of the grate bone side down over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack; see Notes) If cooking on a charcoal grill, toss half of the wood chips on each mound of coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs until dark brown and very crisp on the outside and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 1¼ to 1½ hours. When the ribs are done, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about ¼ inch. If using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals as needed.
6. Meanwhile, transfer the reserved marinade to a nonreactive saucepan, let come to a gentle simmer over medium heat, and cook until thick and flavorful, about 3 minutes. Let the resulting sauce cool to room temperature, then strain it into an attractive serving bowl.
7. Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Brush or drizzle the ribs with some of the sauce and sprinkle the scallion greens on top. Serve at once with the remaining sauce on the side.
How to cook Chinatown Ribs in a smoker: Set up and light the smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to low (225° to 250°F). Place the ribs in the smoker bone side down and smoke until cooked through, 4 to 5 hours. You’ll need to replenish the wood chips or chunks after the first and second hour of smoking and to replenish the coals every hour.
Five-spice powder and hoisin sauce are available in the ethnic foods section of most supermarkets; good brands of hoisin sauce include Koon Chun and Lee Kum Kee. Chinese rice wine may require a trip to an Asian market, but you can also use Japanese sake, dry sherry, or even dry white wine. The recipe calls for more marinade than you actually need: The excess makes a nice dipping sauce.
When I demonstrate this recipe at the Barbecue University, I smoke the ribs on a kettle grill (I find the higher heat of indirect grilling tends to crisp the meat fibers). When our resident pit master prepares the ribs, he cooks them low and slow in a smoker. Both are fantastic. You’ll find instructions for smoking the ribs in the variation above. You can also use a gas grill, but you won’t get as much smoke flavor.
The foolproof method for cooking ribs, indirect grilling is easy to do, utterly reliable, and practiced by millions of American grill masters. You can grill using the indirect method on a gas or a charcoal grill, and if you add wood chips or chunks to the fire, the process becomes smoke roasting (see below).
To set up a charcoal grill for indirect grilling, light charcoal in a chimney starter. Dump or rake the lit coals into two mounds on opposite sides of the grill. Place an aluminum foil drip pan in the center under the grate. You’ll grill the ribs on the grate that’s over the drip pan, away from the heat, making sure to cover the grill. Any time you grill for longer than one hour, you’ll need to replenish the coals. You can do this by lighting fresh charcoal in a chimney starter.
To set up a gas grill for indirect grilling, if your grill has two burners, set one burner to the temperature you want. Place the ribs over the other, unlit burner and cover the grill. You’ll need to rotate the ribs several times, so they cook evenly. On a three-burner gas grill, set the outside or front and rear burners to the desired temperature. Cook the ribs over the center, unlit burner, with the grill covered. To use the indirect grill method on a four- or six-burner gas grill, set the outside burners on the temperature you need. Cook the ribs over the center, unlit burners, covering the grill.
How To Smoke On A Gas Grill—Some Extreme Methods
Gas grills have many advantages—the convenience of push-button ignition, for example, or turn-of-the-knob heat control. There’s the ability to maintain a consistent temperature and the general “neatness” of propane. Gas grills are great for both direct and indirect grilling and for spit roasting. But, the one area in which just about every gas grill falls short is smoking.
This is true of even the most sophisticated stainless steel gas super grills, the ones with builtin smoker boxes that have dedicated burners. True, these may generate a lot of smoke, but that rarely translates into ribs (or anything else) that taste smoky. The problem has to do with the way a gas grill is vented. It needs lots of air, and this necessitates wide vents in the back. No matter how much smoke the smoker box produces, most of it ends up pouring out of those vents.
If you’re really serious about smoking on your gas grill, there are three possible solutions. The first is to buy an accessory called Sam’s Smoker Pro. The device looks like a large, heavy, flat metal candy box, and it fits under the grate directly over the burners. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, you fill the box with wood chips that have been soaked in water and drained, then you place the box in a preheated grill. The rising smoke subtly flavors the ribs. Because this device has a wide surface area, it’s more efficient for smoking than the average smoker box.
The second possibility for smoking with gas is to put a castiron skillet or metal pie pan filled with eight to ten lit charcoals on the grate next to the ribs. Place a hardwood log, three or four wood chunks, or a cup and a half of soaked and drained wood chips on top of the hot coals. This will pump out lots of smoke. After turning off the grill’s burners, you can plug up the vents in the back of the grill with crumpled aluminum foil to keep some of the smoke in, letting the ambient heat do the cooking. You may need to remove the foil from the vents and fire up the grill again to finish cooking (don’t forget to open the grill when you light it).
The third option for smoking on a gas grill has been suggested by no less a grill master than radio host Howard Stern: Fill the grill’s smoker box with soaked wood chips and run the smoker burner on high to produce lots of wood smoke, then turn off all the gas burners and plug the vents in the back of the grill with crumpled aluminum foil. Let the ribs smoke for fifteen or twenty minutes, then open the grill lid, remove the aluminum foil from the vents, light the burners again, and finish cooking the ribs. You may want to repeat the smoking process. But remember, never run a propane grill with the vents plugged up.
A metal or wire device with vertical slots designed to hold racks of ribs upright, a rib rack enables you to fit four full-size racks of ribs in the space that would be filled by only two racks of ribs lying flat. When buying a rib rack, look for sturdy construction, rustproof metal, and a rack that’s long enough to accommodate eleven-bone racks of baby backs, along with compartments wide enough to hold the thickest pork spareribs or beef long ribs. Of course, I’m partial to the Best of Barbecue rib rack.