Why It Works
- Thoroughly washing the meat in several changes of water will purge it of excess myoglobin to give the pork an appealingly pale, clean look when steamed. It also loosens up muscles, tenderizing the pork and allowing it to absorb the marinade more thoroughly.
- Soaking the pork in an alkaline solution further tenderizes the meat and helps it retain juiciness as it steams.
- Tossing the ribs in plenty of cornstarch creates a tender, slippery surface that soaks in juices that are expressed during cooking, giving the pork bites a flavor-packed coating.
I remember the first time I made dim sum–style steamed spare ribs at home. I was fresh out of college, living with a couple roommates, and had just acquired my very first bamboo steamer, which immediately upgraded my five-year-old wok, Transformers-style, into a brand new cooking vessel. (That wok and that steamer are the same wok and steamer I used to develop the recipes for my book, The Wok. They’re still going strong after more than two decades of near-continuous use.) I don’t remember where I found the recipe for those ribs, but I was shocked to discover that it called for only ten to fifteen minutes of cooking.
Prior to that, I’d only ever cooked pork ribs low-and-slow: simmered in tomato sauce, slow-roasted in the oven, or smoked to tenderness on the grill. Everything I knew about cooking pork ribs, with their large amount of tough connective tissue, suggested that the recipe wouldn’t work, that they would be impossibly rubbery after only a few minutes of steaming. But I tried it nonetheless, hacking up ribs with a cleaver into bite-sized chunks, marinating them with wine, sesame oil, white pepper, salt, and fermented black soybeans, tossing them with a cornstarch slurry, and then placing them on a plate set inside the steamer to cook through.
They weren’t the outright disaster I expected them to be—the flavor was decent at least—but they were quite rubbery and difficult to chew, and their appearance was dark and mottled from the juices that seeped out of the bone marrow as they steamed. A far cry from the silky, tender ribs with clean flavor and a pale white complexion that even the most mediocre of dim sum restaurants seemed to be able to pull off.
Tenderness Technique Test 1: Thorough Washing
What’s the secret? Washing. And when I say washing, I mean washing. The kind of scrubbing that you instruct your toddler to do after an adventure day spent sliding down mud hills. I’d heard about washing meat for stir fries, but it wasn’t until I saw Wang Gang, a Sichuan chef with an excellent YouTube channel washing meat for some of his dishes that I realized exactly how vigorous that washing is. He gets it in a large bowl, grabs it and squeezes as hard as he can, vigorously stirring and massaging it, changing the water as necessary until it is clear, then squeezing the meat tightly to wring out excess moisture.
Watching this in action and incorporating it into my own dishes was revelatory. My sliced meat game hasn’t been the same since!
In stir-fries, the difference between roughly-washed meat and meat that is unwashed or only lightly rinsed is incredible. Roughly washed meat opens up, allowing marinades and sauces to seep in between muscle fibrils. As you bite it, the meat is tender and succulent, as opposed to chewy and dense. (I’ve always found it interesting that these characteristics, the dense meaty chew I work hard to remove in many quick-cooked Chinese dishes, are the very characteristics that are so prized in quick-cooking Western dishes like steaks and chops.)
With chopped ribs, the washing also accomplishes a secondary goal. Because the ribs are chopped straight through the bone, exposing the marrow, myoglobin—the iron-rich pigment that gives muscles their color—will seep out as they cook. This is what had caused my ribs to discolor. Washing the ribs vigorously and thoroughly before cooking eliminates this issue while also making the ribs more tender and more flavorful.
Side by side, there’s really no comparison. Unwashed ribs are chewy and ugly-looking, whereas washed ribs are tender and moist, with a clean, pale appearance. Simply adding this washing step got me a good 90% of the way to the best restaurant-quality steamed ribs.
Tenderness Technique Test 2: Deep-Tissue Massage
My friends Steph Li and Christopher Thomas of the YouTube channel Chinese Cooking Demystified suggest in their steamed rib recipe video that some restaurants go one step further. Rather than hand-washing, some restaurants will use an actual washing machine—the kind used to wash clothes. Chris pointed me towards this article from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, in which restaurant-owner Yi Weirong shows how he washes spare ribs in a clothes washer for ten minutes to tenderize the meat. This re-tasking of a washing machine was actually something I’d heard of before as a method to tenderize octopus before cooking. But it did make me wonder whether I could replicate some mechanical washing action at home.
I wasn’t willing to use our home washer (I suspect my daughter’s teachers would have some questions as to why she always smells like raw pork). Instead, I tried agitating meat in a salad spinner (not particularly effective at washing, as salad spinners are good centrifuges but don’t offer much by way of turbulence—they do, however, make it easy to dry meat after washing, if you don’t mind getting raw meat in your salad spinner), as well as in a stand mixer full of water with the paddle and dough hook attachments. Of those two, the dough hook worked better (the paddle tended to mangle the meat more than simply wash it), but neither was much more effective than some thorough hand-washing.
Maybe next time I’ll spring for a countertop washing machine I could keep on-hand as my dedicated meat washer, but my guess is that the washing-machine treatment is only useful when working at restaurant-scale.
Tenderness Technique Test 3: A Nice Long Soak With Salts
The other secret to tenderization is giving the meat an alkaline treatment before cooking. By adjusting the pH of a marinade or brine to make it mildly alkaline, meat ends up noticeably more tender. This is true whether you’re cooking pork, beef, or chicken, and it helps tenderize meat whether you’re stir-frying, simmering, or steaming. The mechanism by which this works is not fully researched and understood, but at least part of it seems to be that the linking and tightening of meat proteins as they cook—the mechanism that causes meat to become more firm and dry as you heat it—occurs most effectively within a narrow pH range. In the same way that soaking meat in an acidic marinade will chemically “cook” it, soaking in an alkaline marinade will have the opposite effect, keeping it more tender even as it cooks.
As with tenderization through washing, an alkaline bath is not a silver bullet for more tender meat in every situation. I would not recommend us this method for marinating a steak destined for the grill or a whole chicken you plan on roasting. This is because alkaline marinades tend to give meat a sort of slippery texture on their surface, which is a desirable trait in many Chinese stir-fries and steamed or simmered meat dishes, but not one we look for in most Western dishes.
So the question was: What is the best way to give the ribs an alkaline treatment? Baking soda is the most common strong alkali in the average kitchen, and indeed soaking ribs in a solution of water, salt, and baking soda increases their tenderness. But what about other sources? Egg whites are mildly alkaline (and are common Chinese marinade ingredients). Chinese Cooking Demystified’s recipe suggests using sodium carbonate, a strongly alkaline ingredient you can make at home by baking baking soda in the oven (it’s commonly used to give ramen noodles their springy texture and distinct flavor). They suggest that because dissolved sodium carbonate is much more alkaline than baking soda, you can get away with using less of it—a good thing, as too much baking soda can give a dish an odd, metallic background flavor.
My friend the Australian chef, host, and cookbook author Adam Liaw postulated in an email to me that perhaps the slight alkalinity that dissolved minerals lend to most tap water was actually the secret to why simply washing meats with tap water can also increase their tenderness.
Here’s what I ended up testing, side-by-side:
- Plain tap water (my tap water in Seattle is not particularly hard, but it’s not totally neutral)
- Mineral water (Evian, which is quite hard)
- Distilled water
- Water with 1.25% baking soda added to it
- Water with 1.25% sodium carbonate added to it
- Water with .25% sodium carbonate added to it
- Plain egg whites
In each case, I also added 3% salt by weight of the liquid. I washed the ribs in distilled water using my vigorous squeeze method, drained and dried them, then soaked the ribs in each solution overnight in the fridge. I also included a batch that was washed but un-soaked. The next day I rinsed them off using distilled water before carefully drying them and transferring them to my fermented black bean marinade, where they rested overnight.
Finally, I finished them off by tossing them with cornstarch and a little oil and steaming them.
Surprisingly, there was not a huge difference between any of the batches. The ribs with baking soda and both batches with sodium carbonate were the most tender, but none of the others were too far behind, including those soaked in distilled water. This was surprising to me, as from previous testing, I knew that treating meat with an alkaline solution can greatly affect its texture if you omit the washing phase.
Even the batch that was washed but un-soaked had a texture that was tender and smooth, though it had a noticeably darker color from pigmentation left behind in the meat and the marrow.
As it turns out, if you wash the meat, you get most of the way to tenderness. The alkaline brine is really just there to push you over the finish line.
“But wait!” you say. “Doesn’t washing strip the meat of its natural flavor? Aren’t you the guy who said NOT to soak your turkey in brine because it loses turkey flavor?”
That’s a good question! A good question that I wish I could give a simple answer to that ties everything together with a little bow. But really there’s no perfect answer here. It’s absolutely true that washing meat will leach out juices and meaty flavors—flavors that end up going down the drain. My only explanation is that cuisines have developed in different ways all over the world, and a lot of cooking involves resetting expectations and being open to different standards and goals. We’ve already addressed this with texture, but it holds for flavor as well.
In French haute cuisine, you may carefully reduce and concentrate stocks made from the roasted carcasses of the same animal you cut the meat from, in order to intensify the chickeniness of that chicken or the beefiness of the beef. In the Mediterranean you may be implored to keep the ingredients simple and seasonal, to allow Mother Nature to do the heavy lifting for you. In many Chinese kitchens, on the other hand, the emphasis is often on heightening flavors through the addition and careful balance of intense fermented sauces, dried ingredients, aged seafood, pungent pickled vegetables, hot chiles, sweeteners, and aromatics.
These different approaches don’t make one dish better or worse or one approach more elevated or casual; they’re just different ways to think about seasoning and cooking, and a way to open up your own arsenal of techniques and flavors.
A Gnawing Question: What’s the Best Cut of Pork for Dim Sum–Style Ribs?
The final outstanding issue with making this dish at home is access to the right cut of pork. Typically this dish is made with the thin, cartilaginous ends of pork ribs, a cut that isn’t commonly found in Western meat markets. If you happen to have access to a Chinese supermarket, you will almost certainly find these ribs pre-cut and recipe-ready.
If you’re in a Western supermarket and you really want to get as close to the dim-sum experience as possible, you’ll need a heavy cleaver to do the job. Pick up a pack of St. Louis–cut ribs, separate them into spare ribs by slicing through the meat in between each rib, and then, using your cleaver and as much force as you can muster, chop the ribs into 3/4- to 1-inch sections. It will be loud. It will feel a little dangerous. It will scar your cutting board. I don’t recommend it for anyone not used to working with a heavy cleaver. (If there is a butcher counter, you can ask the butcher to do this for you with a rack of ribs.)
A much better option is to simply forget about the bones and use a boneless cut of pork instead. Virtually any cut with a good network of thin strands of connective tissue will work, including boneless country-style ribs, sirloin chops, or even pork shoulder (make sure to cut out any large swathes of fat or connective tissue). You miss out on the fun of picking every last scrap of meat off the bones in your mouth, but using boneless pork sure does make it easier to wolf down.
When I want to make a simple, no-fuss meal out of these ribs, I stack a second bamboo steamer filled with green vegetables like snap peas, asparagus, or broccoli on top of the pork just a few minutes before it’s done cooking. Slide the pork (juices and all) onto a waiting bowl of rice, and dinner is ready.