Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排)

The Best Crispy Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排) | omnivorescookbook.comSweet and sour ribs are a luxury appetizer for any carnivore. The ribs are cut to bite size, fried until crispy, then cooked in an appetizing sweet and sour sauce.

The Authentic Way and Its Difficulties

Sweet and sour ribs (糖醋小排, tang cu xiao pai) is a famous Shanghai dish that is intended as an appetizer and served cold. The authentic sweet and sour pork is quite difficult to replicate at home. The ribs are lightly marinated and coated with cornstarch, then deep fried quickly to get a crispy surface without cooking through. Then the sweet and sour sauce is quickly cooked and reduced in hot oil. In the end, the ribs are added back for a quick stir fry (like a few seconds) to coat the sauce and just get them cooked through. It might sounds like an easy dish, but the actual process is quite daunting.

There are three things that are very difficult to achieve at home. (1) a very powerful gas stove (2) tons of hot oil so you can fry ribs in less than 1 minute (3) moving quickly enough to do the whole cooking process in less than 5 minutes.

The Best Crispy Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排) | omnivorescookbook.com

That is why when people are cooking these ribs at home, they have to alter the cooking method to make the process easier. I found the dish quite challenging and I’ve tried many times to develop a good recipe. The real obstacle is to cook the pork quickly, so you can get a crispy surface and a tender texture (without turning it into a stew). Plus, you need to get rid of the raw gamey smell from the pork.

The difficulty is, if you cook them too quickly, the ribs will end up with an unpleasant raw smell. But if you cook them for a longer time, they will lose the crispy and spongy texture and a stir-fried dish will just turn into a braised one. When this dish is made in a restaurant, the bad smell of the pork will be removed through deep frying, which is a process we are trying to avoid.

The Best Crispy Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排) | omnivorescookbook.com

How to Overcome the Difficulties

For a stir fried dish like this one, the key is to cook the meat for a short period of time until it’s just cooked. When cooking red meat, the texture of the meat will become very tender at the beginning. Then it will turn chewy and tough for a long time (possibly hours). After a threshold point, the meat will get tender again. Our goal here is to finish cooking before the meat’s texture turns tough.

In the end, I found a compromise. I boiled the ribs briefly with tons of fresh herbs to get rid of the raw taste. Then I brown the meat in the traditional Chinese technique – 炒糖色 (chao tang shai), or frying the ribs in melted sugar to add color (which requires less oil than deep-fry).

The method of browning meat in sugar is a common technique in Chinese braised dishes. The result is similar to browning the meat – to add color to the meat and to create a crispy surface. But with the chao tang shai method, it quickly adds color to the meat without using dark soy sauce and infuses a sweet flavor to the dish.

You start with adding sugar to cold oil. Cook slowly until the sugar melts and turns golden. It’s important to get a hot oil temperature without burning the sugar. Then the pork is added for a quick stir fry. You will find that the pork gets a nice beautiful reddish brown color in a minute or so, along with the caramelization of the sugar.

The Best Crispy Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排) | omnivorescookbook.com

A Few More Words

You might find that I use a lot of oil in the recipe. But don’t worry, the ribs won’t absorb them during the cooking and you will discard most of the oil in the end.

Yes, I found it a bit challenging to fry the ribs in sugar (especially on the first try). But if you drain the ribs carefully and follow the recipe, you’re unlikely to get oil splatter and overcooked sugar.

This is not a recipe that I would recommend to a beginner. But if you would like to try out some new cooking techniques or challenge yourself with a new dish, this is the one for you!

5.0 from 5 reviews
Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 4
Ingredients
For boiling ribs
  • 700 grams (1.5 pounds) pork spare ribs, trimmed to 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) in length (*footnote 1), cut into one-bone sections
  • 2 tablespoons shaoxing wine
  • 1 thumb-size ginger, sliced
  • 5 - 6 green onion, white part (save the green part for garnish)
  • 1 whole star anise
  • 2 dried chili pepper
For the stir-fry
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
Instructions
  1. Rinse pork ribs with running water and transfer to a large pot. Add water to cover the ribs. Add shaoxing wine, ginger, green onion, star anise and chili pepper to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Use a ladle to skim the foam from the surface and discard it.
    Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com
  2. Transfer the ribs to a colander to drain. Scoop ginger, green onion, star anise, and chili pepper from the broth and discard. You can save the broth and use it to make soup later (*see footnote 2).
  3. Mix black vinegar and light soy sauce in a small bowl, set aside.
  4. Add peanut oil and sugar to a wok and cook over medium heat. Stir constantly with a spatula to dissolve the sugar slowly. When the sugar is fully dissolved, use spatula to scoop some liquid mixture to observe its color. When the sugar turns pale yellow, immediately and carefully add the ribs to the wok. Stir constantly to coat them well with melted sugar. Stir until the ribs turn golden brown, turn off heat.
    Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.comSweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com
  5. Tilt the wok and use spatula to place the ribs on one side of the wok. Use a large spoon to scoop out the extra oil and transfer it to a small bowl, until there is only about 1 tablespoon of oil left. (You could transfer the ribs to a plate and then remove the oil, but I found it too time consuming to do so.)
    Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com
  6. Turn back to medium high heat. Pour the vinegar and soy sauce mixture over the ribs and quickly stir to mix well. Continue to stir until the sauce has reduced and is thick enough to coat the ribs. Stop heat immediately and transfer the ribs to a plate.
    Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Cooking Process | omnivorescookbook.com
  7. Garnish the ribs with chopped green onion. Serve warm.
Notes
Footnote
(1) Try to select a thin and small piece of rib, because a thick cut won’t absorb the flavor well and the meat will be too tough in a stir-fry. Ask the butcher to chop the ribs into smaller pieces when buying.
(2) The broth will be quite flavorful and you can use it as soup base, for example, to cook a winter melon meatball soup.

The nutrition facts are calculated based on 1 of the 4 servings generated by this recipe.

Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs Nutrition Facts | omnivorescookbook.com

Disclosure

Omnivore's Cookbook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
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Meet Maggie

Born and raised in Beijing, Maggie now calls Texas home. She’s learned to love barbecue, but her heart belongs to the food she grew up with. For her, Omnivore’s Cookbook is all about introducing cooks to real-deal Chinese dishes, which can be as easy as a 30-minute stir-fry or as adventurous as making your own dim sum. Recipes, step-by-step photos and video are the tools she uses to share her knowledge—and her enthusiasm for Chinese food.

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10 thoughts on “Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排)

  1. Bam's Kitchen

    Your Chinese ribs look finger licking good. I think your boiling the ribs first was a great idea to help tenderize the ribs. I love the brown glaze from the sugar stirfry. Gorgeous dish! Pinned!

    Reply
  2. Nagi@RecipeTin Eats

    Oooh. My mouth literally watered at the sight of these glossy glossy ribs….Maggie, these are stunning! I have a question though. In Australia, pork ribs are typically thought of as a cut that must be slow cooked otherwise it is tough. What is different with this recipe? The only difference I can see from the image is that the pork ribs are cut much smaller than the American style ribs we get here. Thanks Maggie!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Pork ribs are popular here and we have a few ways to cook them, like boiled, steamed, stir fired, braised or fried. For this recipe, the ribs are cooked very briefly, before they turned chewy. The cooked ribs will be springy, but not chewy. For this recipe, you need to pick a thinner cut of ribs (younger pig, and choose the part that is close to the belly), and chop them to bite size. So the pork meat is actually quite thin, like the normal sliced that is used in stir fried dish, only with bones. It’ll be difficult to cook this dish properly if you can’t find the right cut. Btw, this one will be on me if you ever visit Beijing! 😉

      Reply
    2. Sue

      There are two types of pork ribs sold in US supermarkets. Look for Baby (back) pork ribs. It is very easy to cut between bones (not cross bones) by yourself. From the picture, you can see the size of each piece. You don’t need meat cleaver to do the job because you only cut the meat (between bones), not bones.

      Reply