Sunday Dinner: Seeking the perfect pork back ribs

Eric Akis

Like many carnivores, I find it very hard to resist pork back ribs, especially when they’re cooked until the meat is rich-tasting, succulent, tender and almost falling off the bone.

Just as a reminder, pork back ribs are cut from the pork loin, the same area pork loin chops and roasts come from. Because of the location, these ribs are fairly lean and have a generous amount of meat between the bones.

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Over the years, I’ve experimented with how I cook back ribs to ensure they turn out as described in my introduction.

My preferred method has been to season the ribs and set them meaty side up in a single layer in a shallow baking pan. I then add just enough of a flavoured liquid, such as beer, apple juice or stock, to barely cover the surface of the pan. The ribs are then covered and cooked at 325 F until quite tender, about 90 minutes or so.

During the process, the liquid in the pan generates enough steam to cook the ribs tender, but does not simmer their flavour away. When they’re tender, I’ll richen the colour of the ribs by grilling them awhile, then flavouring them with barbecue or other sauce.

This method works well, but a friend introduced me to another technique that I tried and liked. I believe it resulted in ribs that had an even richer flavour.

The method is sort of the reverse of the other technique I use, in that you grill and char the ribs first, then cook them in the oven. Before they go in the oven, servings of the grilled ribs are individually wrapped in aluminum foil and set on a baking pan.

The ribs were simply seasoned with salt and pepper before being packaged. Unlike in my other technique, no liquid is added to the ribs because, as they cook in the foil, their natural juices release, steam builds and, by the end of cooking, they are deliciously tender and have a concentrated, rich pork flavour.

When the ribs are tender, the foil packages are opened up and the ribs are slathered with sauce and cooked 10 to 15 minutes more, until nicely glazed.

For today’s recipe, I slathered the ribs with root-beer barbecue sauce. When shopping for the ingredients, I noticed Vancouver Island-made Phillips Root Beer for sale and used it as the base for my sauce. It is made by Phillips Soda Works ( and they describe its taste as having hints of wintergreen, vanilla and black pepper.

Phillips Root Beer has a soft amber colour, making it quite different from darker styles of root beer. That’s why I decided to use cooking molasses as another key element in my sauce. It gave the sauce a deep, rich colour and provided a sweet/bitter taste that married well with the root beer.

My recipe yields two large, half-racks of ribs servings, but could easily be expanded if you require more than that. The recipe also yields about 1 1/4 cups of root-beer barbecue sauce. That is likely more than you’ll need for the two half-racks of ribs, but any leftovers can be refrigerated and be at the ready the next time you need to slather something with this style of sauce.


Pork Back Ribs for Two with Phillips Root Beer BBQ Sauce

Succulent, tender pork ribs topped with a sweet, tangy and nicely spiced root-beer-based barbecue sauce. I served the ribs with baked potatoes and coleslaw.


Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: About two hours

Makes: two (half-rack of ribs each) servings


For the ribs

1 large full rack pork back ribs (about 750 grams)

• salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

• vegetable oil, for the grill and foil


For the sauce

1 cup Phillips root beer (see Note 2)

1/2 cup ketchup

1/4 cup cooking molasses (see Note 3)

1 Tbsp cider vinegar, or taste

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco

1 tsp cornstarch

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp chili powder

1/4 tsp dried sage leaves (not powdered sage)

1/8 tsp garlic powder

• salt to taste

Preheat an indoor grill or barbecue (see Eric’s options) to medium-high. Tear two, 18-inch long pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil and set on a work surface. Lightly oil the centre of the top of the foil on which you will set the ribs.

Cut the ribs into two half-rack portions and pat dry with paper towel. Season ribs with salt and pepper. When grill is hot, lightly oil its bars.

Set ribs, meaty-side-down, on the grill and cook until nicely charred, about five to six minutes. As the ribs grill, press down on the curved parts of them to ensure all surfaces get charred. Turn ribs over and cook two minutes on the other side.

Preheat oven to 325 F. Set a half-rack of ribs in the centre of each piece of foil. Seal ribs in the foil. (If aluminum tears during this process, wrap ribs in a second piece of foil.) Set ribs in single layer in a baking pan. Bake the ribs for 90 to 100 minutes, or until very tender.

While ribs cook, make sauce by placing its ingredients in a small pot and whisking well to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat. Simmer sauce six to seven minutes, until thickened and rich tasting. Taste sauce and season with salt, as needed. If it is not tangy enough, add a drop more vinegar. Remove sauce from the heat, cover and set it aside for now.

When ribs are tender, open up the foil packages to expose them, ensuring there is still a wall of foil around the ribs that prevents the sauce from seeping out. Brush each half-rack of ribs generously with root-beer barbecue sauce.

Bake the ribs for 10 to 15 minutes more, or until nicely glazed. Set a half-rack rib on each of two plates. Drizzle with any sauce left on foil and serve.

Note 1: Any leftover barbecue sauce not brushed on the ribs can be transferred to a tight-sealing jar and refrigerated for up to two weeks.

Note 2: Vancouver Island-made Phillips Root Beer is sold at many supermarkets and smaller food stores.

Note 3: Cooking molasses, in colour and taste, is somewhere between the two other types of molasses sold: fancy molasses, which is quite sweet, and blackstrap molasses, which is more bitter. I like to use cooking molasses for barbecue sauce because it adds both a sweet and a bitter taste.


Eric’s options: If you would prefer to completely cook the ribs on your barbecue, grill the ribs on it as described in the recipe. Now package the ribs in foil and set in a single layer in a barbecue-safe pan. Set the pan on one side of the barbecue and turn the heat off underneath it. Leave the other side of the barbecue turned on.

Close the barbecue lid and adjust the heat on the lit side until the temperature in the chamber is about 325 to 350 F. Cook ribs 90 to 100 minutes, or until very tender.

Open up the foil packages as described in the recipe. Brush each half-rack of ribs generously with root-beer barbecue sauce. Close the barbecue lid and cook the ribs for 10 to 15 minutes, or until nicely glazed, then serve.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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