Tips for selecting and preparing spare ribs
Some grocery stores have pre-cut ribs that are already cut across the bone.
If they don't sell pre-cut ribs, you can get St. Louis-style ribs, and ask the butcher to cut across the bones for you so you end up with long strips with short rib sections. Then, cut into small cubes so each piece has a short rib through it. That way, they will cook evenly and be in easy-to-eat sizes.
My dad says it's better to select ribs towards the tail-end of the pig, as these tend to be less fatty. In a steamed dish like our Spare Ribs with Black Bean Sauce, using fatty ribs may result in an overly greasy, heavy dish. Generally, we like steamed dishes to not feel so heavy on the tongue or harsh on the stomach. Ask your butcher for tail-end ribs!
Why do we rinse spare ribs in water?
Dim sum restaurants typically serve spare ribs that are traditionally light in color, unlike the smoky, charred look of American BBQ ribs.
This is meant to entice customers to order lots and lots of spare ribs from the carts of delicious foods, like siu mai. The way they get this pale color is to first rinse the ribs in water for an extended amount of time.
We talk about this in our video, but restaurants will use huge buckets or washing machines to rinse and dry large batches of spare ribs. Our friends over at Chinese Cooking Demystified have a great video on this.
Rinsing also helps wash away some of the bloody taste, but know that the longer you rinse, the more likely you’re also removing some of the nutritious elements, like iron.
Why are spare ribs red?
You may think that the red juice that leaks out from meat is blood, but that’s actually a common misconception. Usually by the time we buy meat at the market or butcher shop, the blood has already been drained out. The remaining red liquid is actually a result of freezing the meat during transport.
When frozen, the water that’s inside the meat expands into ice crystals, which rupture the muscle cells. As that ice thaws, it carries some myoglobin with it. Myoglobin is an iron-rich protein that turns bright red when it’s exposed to oxygen. The purpose of myoglobin is to store extra oxygen in muscles that are used for extended periods of time.
While pork is light in color, it’s actually considered a red meat because it has more myoglobin than a white meat like chicken. Pigs and cows, what we all know as red meat, stand and roam almost all day. In contrast, fish meat is mostly white, with some red meat around the fins and tail, because they float in water and aren’t constantly using the bulk of their muscles.
Key seasonings for classic Chinese spare ribs
Just to highlight some key ingredients, spare ribs are usually made with "dauh sih" 豆豉, or black fermented soy beans. My dad’s Cantonese spare ribs also calls for a dash of red chili peppers and a peel from his stash of dried mandarin orange skins, which are both optional but will give your spare ribs a unique zest.
Fermented black beans
Black beans have been an important commodity in Chinese culture for thousands of years, dating back to at least the Han Dynasty when archaeologists found a huge stockpile of preserved beans in a noblewoman’s tomb.
It used to be a rare ingredient, but nowadays you can find them at most Asian grocery stores. If you don't have easy access to an Asian supermarket, here's the brand my dad uses on Amazon.
Mandarin orange peels
Also known as "chenpi," this is a fragrant ingredient in Chinese cooking and medicine, believed to regulate our chi.
My dad uses these for a lot of dishes outside of steamed spare ribs, including soups, steamed fish, medicines, etc. He has a huge stockpile that he's been building for over 15 years.
According to my dad, the district of Xinhui in China makes the best damn peels the world has ever seen. This is their biggest export and a large economic driver for the famous district.
If you like eating mandarin oranges, you can just save the peels and leave them outside to dry in the sun for 2 to 3 days. They should snap in half pretty easily when dry. Store them in a bag in a cool, dry place.
Finding Asian ingredients
As we mentioned, some of these ingredients can be hard to find in a typical grocery store.
If you don't live near an Asian market, most or all of what my dad uses in this recipe can be found on Amazon:
These links are affiliate links, which means that if you use our links to purchase these ingredients, Amazon pays my family a small amount for the sale - at no extra cost to you. If you use these links, we really appreciate the support!
Other supplies and tools
You'll need a good wok, which provides a ton of versatility for the classic Chinese cooking methods: steaming, stir frying, deep frying, etc.
A steamer rack is also helpful for steaming your spare ribs in the wok. These are generally inexpensive, ranging from $2 to $6.
You might want a food scale. It's not absolutely necessary for this recipe, but helpful if you want to get your proportions right.