Oh…ribs. Tangy, sticky, smoky, crispy, fatty batons of carnivorous dreams. The only meat that can get a full-grown adult to wear a bib and abide the term “finger-lickin’.” We crave you. We adore you. And yet, we marginalize you. We relegate you to the realm of the culinary low-brow—the stuff of picnics, Chinese takeout containers, and Medieval Times. Not that you don’t belong there, ribs. You do. But you weren’t just made for summertime and barbecue competitions and paper plates. You have so much more potential. You’re the original “meat on a stick,” and this is the age of the foie gras corn dog.
Fortunately for you (and for us), this is also an age of nose-to-tail scrupulosity, where comfort-food staples like you can get makeovers to rival “Pretty Woman.” Which means you, dear ribs, are defying age-old demarcations and showing up on (at least a few) sophisticated menus. And we’re finger-lickin’ glad to see you there.
Full disclosure: we tasted most of our made-over ribs in Texas, where barbecue is an acceptable religious denomination and primal cuts are probably taught in pre-K. But then that makes sense. If the rib’s going to have a renaissance, ground zero would probably be a place it’s worshipped ravenously. “We’re passionate about barbecue,” says 2012 Austin-San Antonio Rising Star Chef Aaron Franklin, a kind of craftsman-zealot whose respect for his product runs so deep, he’s on the verge of meat martyrdom. (It’s worth it. His ribs are incredible.)
But Franklin’s actually working within old boundary lines, albeit brilliantly, preparing ribs and other barbecue staples with a native’s purism. Texas chefs (and, Gaia help them, non-natives) outside the realm of barbecue work in a cultural divide, with barbecue folk on one hand and restaurant clientele on the other. “Inevitably, when our ribs first went on the menu, people were like ‘Oh these are really good, but I can go to such and such barbecue spot anytime,’” says 2012 Austin-San Antonio Rising Star Chef Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic, whose pork ribs go from sous vide to deep fried. “But they’re not competing against each other. They’re not trying to be the same thing.”
Trying to make a case for ribs as something else in the non-barbecue world is its own challenge. “[It’s] definitely a less respected cut of meat, but that makes no sense,” says Chef and 2012 Austin-San Antonio Rising Star Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria, who gives goat ribs a smoked-water brine. “They’re super tasty and are so versatile in their cooking styles.” Alongside guys like Elliott, Dady is openly taking pride in his ribs, worrying over them the way another chef might fuss over a lobe of foie or a slab of heritage pork belly. But before general chefdom takes up the mantle of ribs beyond barbecue, the first step is getting to know the product.
The anatomy of the rib is actually more like a tiny puzzle, made up of a couple key pieces. Take the pork rib. The basic division is loin rib versus spare rib. Loin ribs are so-called for living just below the loin muscle, thanklessly buttressing what will eventually become pork chops. Also known as baby back ribs—a term burned into our collective cultural memory thanks to Chili’s—loin ribs are curvier and typically meatier (thus more expensive) than their spare rib counterparts. But spare ribs live closer to the belly side of the pig—a heavenly place, home of bacon—so there’s more fat and flavor, albeit less actual meat (hence "spare").
In their fully butchered glory, loin ribs look like long, curved rectangles of neatly arranged (if slightly diminishing) ribs. And unlike spare ribs, butchered loin ribs are a final product, an indivisible meat quantity to be purchased and adored by the slab. Spare ribs, on the other hand, can be sold as such—a funkier looking assemblage of around 14 to 16 ribs, descending in size, with cartilage and rib tips still attached. But if and when those tips and cartilage are trimmed, spare ribs become St. Louis ribs, a kind of best-of-both-worlds choice for chefs who want the regularity of loin ribs and the flavor of spare ribs.
But we’re not just talking pork here. Chefs are cooking under a nose-to-tail, sustainability-minded protein rainbow, making the rise of the rib coincident with the rise of non-traditional proteins like goat (remember we told you goat is the next pork belly?). And the key thing to remember with goat ribs—and any goat cut, actually—is that the meat is ultra-lean, meaning the basic challenge of keeping it tender is all the more difficult. (Hilltop Place Ranch, where Dady sources his cabrito, solves that problem with a none-too-subtle warning on their website: “BEWARE: Cooking goat over high oven, stove, or grill temps or in dry recipes will result in dry, tough meat and a BAD goat meat experience for YOU.”) In case blame was at question.
Beyond the rib itself, it’s important to know your breed, and your breeder. Dady’s cabritos—milk fed kids raised 4 to 8 weeks old with a taste that’s “really clean and mild”—come from high percentage South African Boer crossed goat, raised in ultra-small production. “We raise between 50 and 100 animals per year for slaughter,” says Ranch Manager and Co-owner Mary Walker-Chyle, who keeps her numbers lower for quality control. Elliott also began with a lower-production ranch, sourcing Gloucestershire Old Spots and Red Wattles from Revival Meats. “Red Wattles especially have a beautiful fat cap and really, really wonderful marbling, which you don’t see too much on pork.” Unfortunately, Elliott’s demand outpaced Revival Meat’s supply—“we were going through 120 portions, like 60 racks a week”—and they had to switch over to Niman Ranch’s slightly leaner heritage Yorkshire breed. “The beauty of our preparation,” says Elliott, “was that we didn’t have to change anything.”
The beauty of the preparation is part of what makes ribs so alluring. Franklin might not be breaking any boundaries, keeping ribs squarely in the barbecue realm. But the level of his dedication is really almost startling. “It takes 18 to 20 hours to cook one piece of meat,” he says. “If any one thing goes wrong, it’s ruined. When it goes right, the reward is greater.” And it tends to go right for Franklin, resulting in ultra sumptuous pork spare ribs, made with no more than salt, pepper, smoke, a quick mop of barbecue sauce, and, clearly, lots of love. And zeal. Mostly love.
For his goat ribs, Dady answers the Hilltop Place Ranch warning two ways—using the far more tender cabrito, and giving it a long smoked-water brine. “They use a larger breed Chevon Boer Goat that is a touch bigger than most cabrito,” says Dady, meaning ever-so-slightly more meat for him to play with (though, borrowing from barbecue purism, he says they “try not to over-manipulate the goat”). After creating “smoked” water with cherry wood chips, Dady brines his goat ribs for 12 to 14 hours before briefly smoking them and finishing them with a long, slow roast. The final product is “luscious, with a creamy white fat, resembling Berkshire pork.” After the fashion of Tre Trattoria, Dady serves his smoky ribs on a bed of Parmesan-y polenta, with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh rosemary.
He may not cook in a fine dining setting (“we try not to bill ourselves as such”), but Elliot’s ribs preparation belies a sophisticated approach. After three days in a spice rub, “almost to get a little age on it,” his St. Louis-style pork ribs receive a quick caramelization in a rondeau, followed by an 18-hour sous-vide bath. Yes, that’s just about half a week of prep time. “When these got really crazy popular, I was like ‘great, we have to be more than three days up on everything.” Fortunately the final steps are fast. After a quick deep fry, Elliott applies the finger-lickin’ finishing touch: house-made buffalo sauce and blue cheese custard. It’s a kind of culinary low-brow by way of high-tech, the kind of fun Elliott himself likes to have.
It might be elaborate—the team previously tried pheasant legs, and short ribs “glued” together with transglutaminase—but this kind of attention to detail with simple ribs is actually going the direction of modern cuisine. Case in point, the Modernist Cuisine Pork Ribs recipe goes from a seven-hour smoking to 48 hours in a 60°C water bath, followed by an untraditional dry rub applied “just before serving,” and a Modernist Cuisine classic: skin-crisping-by-blowtorch. Most chefs might opt for something slightly simpler, but the point is allowing ribs to exist in the regular culinary realm as freely as they do in barbecue. “People come around,” says Elliott. “They’re like ‘there’s a time and a place for barbecue, and there’s a time and a place for this.’”