I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, BBQ capitol of the world (at least that's what we say) and having great BBQ joints around every corner meant that we didn't have to spend hours perfecting our own BBQ. Now that I've moved out the Bay Area, I'm struggling to find something even remotely as good as the stuff you get at the fast food BBQ joints back in Memphis.
The folks out here still don't know the difference between grilling and BBQ'ing. Grilling is when you expose the food to direct flames with the intent on searing the meat. BBQ is all about cooking "low and slow" and smoke. That is, using indirect heat to gently tenderize the meat while imbuing it with a pink ring of smoky flavor. In scientific terms, the low heat breaks down the connective tissue in the meat, turning it into collagen and other molecules that are much easier to bite through.
When I looked for oven baked BBQ recipes on the net, I mostly found recipes that asked you to cook the ribs at up to 350 degrees for around 1-2 hours. This is not "low and slow" and when I tried these recipes, my ribs came out much tougher than I expected. On top of that, the smaller pieces were overcooked, the bigger pieces still raw, and everything was pretty dry.
After more extensive research, I pulled together several techniques I got from various places and have created the best oven baked ribs I've ever had. The recipe is interesting because, it is one of the few that relies very little on the quality of the ingredients and is almost entirely the result of using the right techniques. Therefore, my ingredient list will be fairly generic, and I'll focus on the techniques that matter.
2 racks of spare ribs
1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar*
1/4 cup your favorite BBQ dry rub*
1 cup your favorite BBQ sauce*
1 can beer or water
* No need to measure, just use enough to coat the ribs.
First remove the silver membrane on the back of the ribs. Starting from the smallest rib, use a knife to separate the membrane from the flesh. Once you separate it from the first bone, you should be able to pull it all off the whole rack like a piece of tape. Use a paper towel if you're having trouble getting a grip on it. Why? The tough membrane will stick in your teeth and also prevent the dry rub seasoning from penetrating the meat.
Next, place the ribs on a large cooling rack inside a large sheet pan. Pat the ribs dry with paper towels and coat the ribs with the apple cider vinegar. Why? The vinegar will open up the pores of the meat allowing the dry rub seasoning to penetrate.
Coat and rub the ribs with a generous amount of your favorite BBQ dry rub. Knock off the excess. I use a mix of brown sugar, paprika, black pepper, celery salt, mustard, and garlic powder. You can make your own or use a store bought brand.
Then loosely tent a sheet of aluminum foil over the ribs and place the baking sheet full of ribs into a 250 degree oven. Pour the beer onto the baking sheet, under the cooling rack keeping the level just below contact with the ribs. Why? The foil, keeps the moisture around the meat while the beer steam bath ensures that our ribs never dry out.
Bake for around 4 hours or until the ribs are easy to bend but before they can easily break in two. If you are able to put a whole can of beer in the pan, you probably won't need to add any more during the process. If your cooling racks are shallow, you may have to add more beer as it dries out.
Once you're close to the desired tenderness, remove and uncover the ribs and turn on the broiler. Brush on a thin, uniform layer of BBQ sauce (I use Bulls-Eye) and stick it back into the oven. After a few minutes the sauce should bubble and eventually darken and burn just a little around the edges. This is caramelization and its a good thing. Take the ribs out again, brush on another layer, and stick it back in until the sauce caramelizes again (you can repeat this as much as you like, but I find once or twice to be enough). Why? Heating sauce to a high temp causes the sugars to develop a "caramelly" flavor and become sticky. The heat also dries up all the moisture in the sauce giving you a layer with a nice "bite" next to the tender meat.
When you've achieved your desired BBQ sauce coat, take the ribs out, replace the foil tent, and allow them to rest for at least 5 minutes before cutting. Why? As with all meats, rest after cooking reduces the juices we worked so hard to keep from oozing out of the cuts.