Brined with bourbon, vanilla and hoisin sauce, then coated with a spicy Carolina rub and oven-baked, these country-style ribs are tender, juicy and bursting with complex flavors. Recipe below.
My first encounter with ribs was oven-baked. Our family did not do barbecuing. That—the standing around a grill on a summer day, while Dad sipped a cold one and worked the flames—was a thing that did not happen.
But, as my mother slowly expanded her understanding of this whole American food thing, she fell in love with spare ribs. Which are awesome prepared in the oven. And her best rib recipe (which depended heavily on Oven Pit barbecue sauce, ground caraway and apples), was a great testament to that. Ever since, I have been open to the idea that something magic happens when you bake pork ribs.
Something magic also happens when you find a way to enjoy them as a fast weeknight meal. Lately I’ve been puzzling around the idea of vanilla and meat and set on the notion of marinating pork ribs in a brine that includes vanilla. But I kept putting off the actual cooking because barbecuing, at our house, is fun, but a bit onerous, what with the cleanup and the fire-starting and the living on the second floor and the racing up and down stairs for that one thing that I inevitably forget, such as the tongs. But: oven! Once I remembered that I could use this large appliance that is always right here in front of me, I relaxed.
This dish is super easy, especially if you skip the barbecue and fix it on the stove. In the morning, you can put together the brine and start the ribs in it within five or six minutes. (You can also make the brine the day before and store it in the fridge.) Leave the brining meat covered and resting in the fridge all day while you are at the office or out and about. Then when you come home, drain off and discard the brine, blot the ribs dry with a cloth, fix them up with a light coating of the dry rub, and cook. It won’t even heat up the house that much. The oven is only on for a little while.
While I was thinking about this recipe, I initially tried a rub that featured a lavish amount of cocoa powder. The result was… esoteric. I need to experiment with that some more. In the end, I chose a classic Carolina rub, which worked out very well. The vanilla-bourbon brine imparts a subtle richness to the meat and tenderizes it wonderfully. The rub is a big flavor, but doesn’t trample all over the shop—you still taste the mellow vanilla/bourbon tones imparted by the marinade.
You could finish these ribs on the grill, too. But for a weeknight, when what you want is to come home and know you will have dinner on the table in a little while, this is the ticket.
For dessert, have some beautiful fresh fruit. The peaches are starting to appear in the markets, and they are lovely this year.
Country Ribs with Vanilla-Bourbon Brine and Carolina Rub
2-1/2 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs (see Kitchen Notes)
For the brine:
2 cups of warm water (about 95 degrees Fahrenheit)
2 tablespoons Morton’s kosher salt
1/4 cup bourbon (see Kitchen Notes)
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup of ice
For the rub:
Please note that this rub recipe omits salt, because the pork has been brined. If you want to use this rub on its own, without brining first, add 1 tablespoon salt.
2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon dehydrated garlic
canola or olive oil
Brine the ribs. Put the warm water in a mid-sized bowl and add everything except the ice. Stir until all is dissolved. Add the ice and stir until it melts. When the brine is cooled down, it is ready to use. You can make it a day ahead; if you do, cover and store in the fridge.
Put the pork ribs in a reaction-proof dish—I use a conventional 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Pour the brine all around, cover (with plastic wrap, foil, or a lid) and refrigerate. How long should you let them steep? Some recipes say as little as two hours or up to four. I like to prepare this in the morning before leaving for the office, and decant as soon as I get home. That’s about 10 hours, and the result is very tender.
Make the rub. Mix everything together in a small bowl. (It will make more than you need—reserve the rest for a later use.)
Cook the ribs. When you are ready to start cooking, pour off the brine and discard it. Blot the meat dry with a lint-free cloth.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line a baking pan or dish (maybe even the one you used to marinate the meat) with aluminum foil and coat it lightly with oil.
Coat the pork ribs with the rub. You can put the meat into a plastic bag and shake it up with the rub, or you can just, well, rub it on with your fingertips. The former is fast, but the latter is more consistent (and almost as fast). If you do use the plastic bag technique, exercise caution—that method tends to create globs of spicy rub that are not an optimal thing to eat. A thin, light, uniform cloak is what you want.
Once the ribs are nicely rubbed and waiting on a plate, heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a nonstick pan over a medium-high flame. Working in batches, brown the ribs well on two sides. Transfer them to the prepared baking pan. Each piece should have a bit of room around it. Slide the pan in the oven and let the meat roast for about 10 minutes (six or seven minutes for boneless country ribs, 10 or 11 minutes for bone-in country ribs). Check doneness with your thermometer—the meat should reach about 145. When it’s there, you’re done.
Bones? No bones? Country-style ribs (which are not actually ribs) come both with bones and without. Either will be delicious—they’re meatier and less fatty than spare ribs and more like thick pork chops. If you get the boneless kind, adjust your cooking time as the recipe explains.
But that rub seems so spicy! When I was putting this rub on the ribs, I set aside two as an experiment—in the end, they had only the benefit of the brining before being browned and finished. After their journey in the oven, they tasted fantastic—really subtly rich. Next time, post-brining, I’m going to try cooking them on the grill with no rub or any other adornment to see how the brine plays with just smoke and heat. We’ll report back. My point here is that you could omit the spice rub entirely and still have something pretty darn good.
And if you want to use a rub, but don’t like spicy-hot, then scale down or even omit the peppers. Having said that, I did not think this rub was particularly spicy, but years of food blogging may have taken their toll.
What kind of bourbon should I use? Oh my heck—don’t use the good stuff. An economical well bourbon is fine for this. Save your Maker’s or Belle Meade (the current bourbon at our house) for sipping and cocktails.