by Ed Halmagyi


A few years ago while backpacking through North America I came across a curious cult. Its devotees donned plastic bibs and sat hunched around tables muttering incomprehensibly about smoky flavours and sticky sauces. Wide-eyed and insatiable, their sauce-encrusted fingers bore silent witness to the madness.

These are the children of the pork ribs.

Ribs are a peculiarly American phenomenon today, although the culinary heritage from which they emerged is very French. Remember, until 1803 the central third of present day USA belonged to France, while the western third belonged to Spain.

As a meal, ribs make an attractive proposition. They are cheap (about $8.00/kg), the kids will love them, and you can customise a sauce to create your own unique flavour.

The meat is not tender and as such ribs require slow cooking to soften. First marinade the ribs overnight, then braise, smoke or slow-roast them (brushing regularly with your marinade). This will take at least 3 hours. Finally, grill the ribs over a hot BBQ for about 5 minutes while basting with a sticky sauce. Ribs do take a bit of effort, but the rewards are ample.

I recommend using different sauces for marinading and basting, as high sugar marinades will cause the ribs to burn when slow-cooked, but you do need a sticky sauce to glaze them. A marinade with red wine, garlic and thyme will give you heaps of flavour, but also the flexibility to use a wider variety of basting ingredients to finish. Molasses, treacle and golden syrup are all good starting points for your baste, but your sauce will also need vinegar to help cut through the sweetness, richness and fat content of the ribs.

In Australia pork ribs can be bought in two ways. Spare ribs are the whole pork belly with significant meat content, usually cut into 5cm-wide strips. American-style ribs are the bone structure itself, with less meat, but these are also much cheaper. The cooking technique is identical for both styles.
Johnny-on-the-spot pork ribs/