"These ribs just might be the best thing I've ever come up with," Gourmet magazine's then-Food Editor Ian Knauer wrote in the July 2009 issue -- and that was after he'd spent nearly 9 years in the test kitchen there.
I'd wager he might be right. Testing and re-testing these ribs has made me more popular than ever. I've watched a lot of ribs get ravished and faces get glazed. Merrill's husband even offered me a job.
Knauer's first-bake-then-grill tactic isn't new to home-cooked ribs, but usually we're told to take it low and slow. Instead, Knauer goes for fast and reckless -- we're talking 425 degrees reckless. But baby backs are more tender than bigger spare ribs, and here they get amply marinated and steamed. So they come out surprisingly tender, yet sturdy enough to hold up to flipping on the grill (go too low and slow and you end up with meat falling to pieces and bones sliding out all over the place).
And unlike rib recipes that call for a long list of dried spices that come together mysteriously, this one requires only a handful of rather feisty ingredients -- and you know exactly what each one is doing there. Rosemary and garlic -- our friends in so many pork endeavors -- are the savory background; cayenne sharpens the garlic's sting. Balsamic and brown sugar bring the sticky, with the sugar leveling out the vinegar's sour.
Purists will denounce the Yankee introductions of balsamic and rosemary and shake their fists. Some of you will balk: "Nothing compares to so-and-so's 10-hour smoky pit Hill Country ribs!" -- you're probably right. We should take a road trip there someday.
Meanwhile, this recipe can come out of any kitchen, anywhere. (Thanks to the 1990s, every grocery store in America carries a glaze-worthy bottle of balsamic.) And it doesn't need tending and coddling either -- leave that to old so-and-so.
For your next party to be a rib party, you just have to think ahead. i.e. Count two days backwards, commit yourself to schlepping home 8 pounds of ribs, and plan for a few passive stints in the kitchen.
Night #1: Locate some ribs (call around to compare prices -- I recently paid a suspicious $9.99/pound, but that can't be right). Schlep on home. Mash up some garlic, mix it with a few other things, rub it all over your baby backs and pop them in the fridge.
Night #2: Stick the ribs in the hot oven to steam/roast while you watch exactly 2 episodes of Dexter on Netflix. Feel conflicted about the seductive meaty smells. When the ribs seem done (but before the meat smells turn to smoke smells), pinch them to make sure they're nice and tender, then set them aside so you can make your sticky balsamic glaze with the bits left on the bottom of the pan. (If your bits are a little blackened, don't worry -- this glaze forgives all). Pack up your ribs and glaze for party day.
Party Day: Drink beers, eat chips and carouse. When everyone's hungry, grill everything else (the ribs finish up fast and they'll get the grill all sticky anyway). Now paint your ribs with glaze and lay them on the fire for a few minutes to char and caramelize. Time to get messy with your friends!
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by Jennifer Causey
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."