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Originally published Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 4:00 PM

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Tender, oven-braised pork ribs

Chefs can work wonders with pork ribs by braising them in the oven, instead of cooking them outdoors the way it's done in barbecue country. Recipes: Sweet-Sour Balsamic-Glazed Ribs, and Milk and Honey Ribs. Plus, Nathan Myhrvold of "Modernist Cuisine" shares the physics behind barbecue.

The New York Times

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Conventional wisdom holds that pork ribs taste best when cooked outdoors on a grill or smoker. Conventional wisdom hasn't experienced the sweet-sour balsamic-glazed St. Louis-cut spare ribs at Animal in Los Angeles. The restaurant's chefs, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, prepare them in a way that most barbecue purists would never order, much less eat: baked in the oven.

"I'm a firm believer that you can't have barbecue without fire," Shook said. "But in California, the health department is a giant pain, and a smoke-scrubbing ventilation system that complies with environmental regulations would have cost more than $1 million." (For the record, he and Dotolo spent less than half that sum to open Animal.) "If we can't do it right, we don't want it."

The two men have been obsessed with ribs from the moment they met at the North Miami, Fla., campus of Johnson & Wales University. Longtime devotees of Tom Jenkins Bar-B-Q in Fort Lauderdale, they took their obsession with them to Los Angeles. They began experimenting with an alternative technique to true barbecue: seasoning the ribs with herbs and grapeseed oil, wrapping them in foil and roasting them low and slow in the oven. The process made the meat supernaturally tender but not quite soft, with the deep, sonorous flavors a Southern pit master would achieve with a half-day's cooking in a wood-burning pit.

For most people, ribs aren't complete without barbecue sauce. At Animal, this takes the form of a bracingly acidic slather designed to play the sharpness of balsamic vinegar, grainy mustard and Tabasco sauce against the sugar rush of honey, brown sugar and ketchup. The chefs sizzle the sauce into the meat under the broiler, which gives the ribs a spicy crust. "Some bites even get a little charred, as they would on a grill," Shook said.

Animal's owners are among the growing number of chefs who work wonders with pork ribs by braising. Michael Mina has made bourbon-braised Kurobuta pork short ribs a signature dish at the restaurant in San Francisco that bears his name. "We brine the ribs in cider vinegar and carrot juice, then cook them sous vide at 160 degrees for a day and a half," Mina said. The final step is to braise the ribs with a bourbon peppercorn mixture in a copper pot in the oven. "The low slow heat keeps the alternating layers of fat and meat visible and intact," he said. "The ribs become really tender, but still firm enough to eat with a knife and fork."

Tim Cushman, the chef and an owner of the sophisticated Japanese restaurant O Ya in Boston, uses a 48-hour process to cook his tea-brined baby back ribs. The meat is marinated in yuzu juice, light and dark brown sugar and black tea before it is braised for three to four hours in an enameled cast iron pot on the stove.

"Our oven space is limited, so early on, we figured out that we could achieve a steady temperature of 190 degrees by placing the pot over the pilot light on the stove," Cushman said. "It's just like setting the dial of a smoker for 200 degrees." The ginger-mirin-sake-soy sauce braising liquid imbues the ribs with rich umami flavors analogous to the taste wood smoke imparts to traditional barbecue, he said.

The most surprising example of braised ribs may well come from Extra Virgin in Kansas City, Mo. "I respect the local barbecue tradition so much, I would never want to compete with it," said Michael Smith, the chef and an owner. Instead, he sears baby backs on the restaurant's wood-burning grill for a few minutes to lay on a light smoke flavor before gently braising them in the oven for three to four hours in a Peruvian-inspired glaze made with guava marmalade, citrus juice, coffee beans and fiery aji amarillo chilies. "In this part of the world, people like their ribs sweet and sticky," he said.

Until recently, barbecue connoisseurs in places like Kansas City would have considered ribs cooked in the oven little short of blasphemy. In barbecue country and elsewhere, the technique had a miserable reputation that, in truth, was often deserved. Some restaurants baked ribs with overly sweet commercial barbecue sauce. Others, to avoid drying them out, would cook ribs in boiling water. As with braising, the idea behind boiling ribs is to tenderize them before tossing them on the grill or under the broiler to caramelize and crisp the exterior.

The problem with boiling is that it's a flavor-removing, not flavor-enhancing, cooking method. (When you make stock, you boil bones with the express purpose of transferring the flavor from the meat to the water.) By contrast, braising in the oven adds flavor, because you're cooking the ribs in a small quantity of flavorful liquid in a sealed environment.

Many restaurants made matters worse when they slathered boiled or baked ribs with barbecue sauces pumped up with artificial smoke to compensate for lackluster flavor. The result? Ersatz barbecue and a lost generation of rib eaters, especially in traditionally non-barbecue regions like the Frost Belt and the Northeast, which came to confuse liquid-smoke-flavored oven-cooked ribs for true pit barbecue.

The chefs who are now rescuing oven ribs from their lowly reputation take a profoundly different approach. "We're not trying to fake true barbecue," said Shook of Animal. Instead, he and some of his colleagues around the country are deploying the braising technique, which he said builds layers of flavor utterly different from those that can be achieved in a smoker.

Milk and honey ribs

To further explore the premise, I went back to one of my notebooks chronicling a remarkable meal of milk and honey spare ribs at the Osteria dei Cacciatori in Albaretto della Torre, a hamlet perched among steep Barolo vineyards in the Piedmont region. My visit was eight years ago, when Cesare Giaccone still ran the osteria that's been in his family for more than 120 years. (Today, his son Filippo mans the stove.) In those days, his guest book read like a "Who's Who" of marquee chefs, with Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter visiting the month I was there.

I can still taste those ribs in a vivid rush of flavor. Marinated the previous night with rosemary, sage and garlic, they were roasted with acacia honey, porcini mushrooms and milk, an ingredient that was unprecedented in my experience of rib dishes. Giaccone claims to have gotten the idea for the latter from a local priest, who in turn claimed it would render the ribs more tender. (It does.) This dish could be made year-round, but as Giaccone explained in a recent email, "the pig is eaten more gladly in the winter."

I tried to replicate his milk and honey ribs on a charcoal grill back home in the United States, tossing a handful of soaked hickory chips on the coals. (Old habits die hard.) The smoke overpowered the delicacy of the meat, milk and honey, and the ribs fell short of what I remembered having in Italy.

Myhrvold's take on ribs

To understand some of the physics involved with cooking ribs in the oven, I caught up with Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold is a scientist, an inventor and now the author of the six-volume (with kitchen manual) culinary manifesto, "Modernist Cuisine." He also has abiding passion for barbecue. In 1991, Myhrvold was a guest member on one of the most decorated barbecue teams in U.S. history, steering the team to victory in the meatless "Anything But" category, for smoked fettuccine noodles paired with cream sauce flavored with Vidalia onions and barbecue rub.

According to Myhrvold, three things happen when you cook meat with hot air, as you would on a grill or in a smoker. First and most obvious, you transfer heat from the hot air to the meat. Second, the hot air evaporates liquid from the surface of the meat, which fosters flavorful browning, but also has a tendency to dry out the meat. Paradoxically, this evaporation causes the temperature of the meat to drop during part of the cooking process, a phenomenon that veteran pit masters call "the stall."

The most important thing that happens is that the heat breaks down a tough connective tissue in the meat known as collagen into softer, more easily dissolved gelatin. This process works best at lower temperatures in a moist environment. This is why barbecue is so well-suited to tough, inexpensive cuts like brisket and ribs.

Low-temperature oven braising works on ribs for the same reason, and it offers a few advantages of its own. By cooking baby back ribs wrapped in foil in the oven, as do the chefs at Animal, you reduce the evaporation and the tendency of the meat to dry out. (To compensate for the loss of the cooling effect of evaporation, the chefs cook their ribs at an unusually cool 250 degrees.)

As for Giaccone's milk and honey spare ribs, Myhrvold calls the process "open pan braising." The cooking starts around 180 degrees, he said, and as the milk evaporates, the temperature rises, browning the meat, lactose and milk proteins. It is also adding color, flavor and sweetness. "It's a little like making sweetened condensed milk," he said.

And Myhrvold's preferred method of cooking ribs? It's a four-step process that involves smoking the ribs for four hours, then cooking them sous vide, in a sealed plastic pouch, at 140 degrees for 48 hours, followed by a bath in liquid nitrogen for 45 seconds to flash chill them. The final step is a plunge into a deep fat fryer to crisp the exterior.

Thanks, but when I hunger for heresy, I'll simply cook ribs in the oven.

SWEET-SOUR BALSAMIC-GLAZED RIBS

Adapted from Animal, Los Angeles

Time: About 2 ½ hours

Yield: 4 servings

For the ribs:

2 spare-rib racks, the smallest you can find (5 to 6 pounds total)

2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil

Kosher salt

4 large flat-leaf parsley sprigs

4 garlic cloves, peeled and gently crushed

4 thyme sprigs

For the barbecue sauce:

1 cup balsamic vinegar, or to taste

1 cup ketchup

6 ounces (1/2 can) your favorite beer

¼ cup honey

3 tablespoons grainy mustard

1 tablespoon molasses

1 ½ teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste

¼ cup dark brown sugar, or to taste

½ red onion, diced

1 large clove garlic, minced

Salt

1. To prepare the ribs, heat the oven to 350 degrees. If the butcher has not removed the membrane on the back of each rack, gently pry it up by sliding a sharp implement (like the tip of an instant-read thermometer) under it, then lifting gently. Grab the membrane with a paper towel and peel it off.

2. Spread a 24-inch sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil, shiny side up, on a work surface. Place one rack on top, rub it all over with oil, and generously season both sides with salt. Place 2 parsley sprigs and 2 garlic cloves under the concave side of the rack and 2 thyme sprigs on top. Wrap the ribs in the foil, pleating the edges to seal well. Repeat with the second rack. Place the rib packets in a large roasting pan.

3. Roast the ribs for 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 250 degrees. Cook 1 ½ to 2 hours more, until the meat has shrunk back from the ends of the bones by ¼ to ½ inch and the ribs are tender enough to pull apart with your fingers.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the barbecue sauce. Place the balsamic vinegar in a large nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until reduced by a third. Add the remaining barbecue sauce ingredients with ¼ cup water, bring back to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until thick, 30 to 40 minutes. If the sauce starts to thicken too much, add a little water. The sauce should be highly seasoned; adjust to taste by adding vinegar, brown sugar or salt.

5. Remove the ribs from the oven and let cool briefly, then open the foil, being careful of the escaping steam. Transfer the ribs to a baking sheet. Turn on the broiler or raise the oven to 450 degrees.

6. Slather the ribs on both sides with the barbecue sauce. Broil the ribs until the sauce sizzles and browns, 2 to 4 minutes on each side. Alternatively, bake in the oven 8 to 12 minutes. Baste with the barbecue sauce and serve at once with any remaining sauce on the side.

MILK AND HONEY RIBS

Adapted from Cesare Giaccone

Time: About 2 ½ hours, plus 6 to 12 hours' marinating

Yield: 4 servings

2 baby back rib racks (4 to 5 pounds total)

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¾ cup chopped rosemary leaves

¾ cup chopped sage leaves

3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

Coarse sea salt and pepper

½ Vidalia or other sweet onion, thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ cup honey

2 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

½ pound fresh porcini or cremini mushrooms (optional)

1. If the butcher has not removed the membrane on the back of each rib rack, gently pry it up by sliding a sharp implement (like the tip of an instant-read thermometer) under it, then lifting gently. Grab the membrane with a paper towel and peel it off. Place the ribs in a baking dish and rub them on both sides with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Sprinkle both sides with the rosemary, sage, garlic and generous amounts of salt and pepper. Arrange the onion under and over the ribs, top each rack with a bay leaf, and drizzle with the vinegar. Refrigerate, covered, 6 to 12 hours.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the remaining oil into a roasting pan large enough to hold the ribs side by side. Put the pan in the oven for 5 minutes. Add the ribs, rounded side up, along with the seasonings, onions and garlic. Roast for 30 minutes. Drizzle with the honey and roast 10 more minutes. Turn the ribs over and pour the milk and cream over them. Roast for 1 more hour.

3. At this point, if using the mushrooms, wipe with a damp paper towel and trim off the stem ends. Cut into ¼-inch slices. Turn the ribs over, rounded side up again. Arrange the mushrooms on top. Spoon any pan juices over the top and continue roasting, basting occasionally, 30 minutes to 1 hour more. If the meat starts to brown too much, press a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil on top.

4. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by ¼ to ½ inch and the ribs should be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. Cut the ribs into 1- or 2-bone sections and serve at once with the optional roasted mushrooms.

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