Test Tube

what when
Ribs recipe 30 March 2008
who where
Donal McNally University of Nottingham

This recipe comes from Donal McNally's "Anatomy Cookbook", which is distributed to students. The idea is to prepare tasty meals while learning about anatomy.

Click here for a video of Donal discussing his book while cooking.

This recipe will teach you about about ribs, the thoracic wall and costal cartilages - and you'll end up with a succulent rack of...

Maple-Glazed Ribs

Ingredients (serves 4)

1.5 kg (3 lb) pork ribs (preferably in one piece)
175 ml (¾ cup) maple syrup
25 ml (2 tbsp) brown sugar
25 ml (2 tbsp) tomato ketchup
15 ml (1 tbsp) cider or white wine vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) Worcester source
2 ml (½ tsp) salt
2 ml (½ tsp) mustard powder

Buying the meat

If possible buy a ‘rack’ of ribs, ie:. a single piece of meat (see pic below). If this is not possible, buy ribs that have been separated out into single ribs – select the meatiest ones available.

Pork spare ribs are normally cut from the inferior rib cage of the animal cutting the ribs before they articulate with the vertebrae and through the costal cartilages close to the sternum.

View of the deep (internal) surface of the specimen showing ribs (R), costal cartilages (C) and remnant of diaphragm (D).


1. Orient the specimen as shown in the photograph above.

2. Identify the cut ends of the ribs and any costal cartilages. Look carefully at the cut ends of the bone. Can you distinguish between the compact and cancellous bone? What colour is it? Does this tell you anything about the blood supply?

3. Look along the deep surface of the specimen, can you see where the
diaphragm has been cut off?

4. Feel along one of the ribs. Can you follow its path in the thoracic wall? Can you feel the distal end of the rib where it joins the costal cartilage?

5. You should be able to see the intercostal muscles between the ribs.

6. Lining the deep surface of the thoracic wall, you should see a silvery white membrane firmly attached to the ribs and intercostal muscles. This is the parietal pleura.

7. Look carefully at the inferior margin of one of the ribs. You should just be able to make out a neuro-vascular bundle (see pic above). If not, try running your finger along the inferior margin of the rib towards the cut end. You should be able to see a small drop of blood squeezed out of the vein.

Food for Thought
How can a spare rib dinner help when re-inflating a collapsed lung? A chest drain is normally inserted to let air out of the pleural space. The (very large) needle is put in close to the superior margin of the rib to lessen the risk of damaging the neuro-vascular bundle, avoiding paralysis and messy legal action. The 5th intercostal space is normally chosen to minimise the chances of perforating the liver or other important structure.

8. Turn the specimen over to look at the superficial surface (see pic below). The butcher will have removed the skin and most of the sub-cutaneous fat. Superficial surface of the specimen showing the external oblique (EO) and intercostal (IC) muscles.

Superficial surface of the specimen showing the external oblique (EO) and intercostal (IC) muscles.


1. Remove the parietal pleura from the specimen. This is easier said than done, but if you loosen an edge with a knife and then hold the membrane with some kitchen paper, you should be able to do it. If it all seems too much trouble, don’t worry, the ribs will taste fine, it is just a little tough and fibrous.

2. Put the ribs into a large saucepan can cover with water. Simmer gently for at least an hour but better two. There is a large amount of collagenous tissue in this cut that needs to be broken down by heat without drying out the meat – hence the long simmering time. Alternatively, microwave on medium for about 20 minutes in a shallow covered container. Remove the ribs and drain.

3. Combine all the other ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour over the ribs and allow to marinade for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.

4. Drain the ribs, but keep the marinade. They are best finished off on the
barbeque, but you could do it under the grill. Cook for about 20 minutes,
turning occasionally and brushing with the reserved marinade. Be careful not to let the sugary glaze burn too much.

5. Cut into suitable portions or individual ribs. Warm any remaining marinade up and pour over as a sauce.

Food for Thought
When you are flossing away the last bits of you rib supper from between your teeth, marvel that you know that the bits are probably periosteum.

This recipe has been reproduced with Donal McNally's permission.

related stuff    

Cook book

Knee dissection

Meet Donal