That’s The Rub

So Natasha and I are having guests, and they love my pork back ribs. Here’s how I prepare them, starting Thursday night for guests coming over Saturday.

The base is strong coffee.

The base is strong coffee.

The base of the rub is about 6 tablespoons of finely ground dark roast coffee. We like the espresso roast when we can get it, although you see a photograph of a Costco can, what’s inside is actually nearly espresso-roast finely ground, purchased from the Latin foods section of a local supermarket.

 

French herbs.

French herbs.

Herbs come next. Marjoram, thyme and savory form the French elements in my pork rub.

 

Spanish spices.

Spanish spices.

From there, we’re off to Spain. Cayenne pepper, paprika, sage, and cumin get added in. I have fallen in love with cumin. The richness and the heat that it brings are not like anything else.

 

Whole mustard seed.

Whole mustard seed.

The mustard seed comes whole.

 

Coarsely-ground mustard seed.

Coarsely-ground mustard seed.

I grind mine in a mortar and pestle by hand, because I don’t usually use all that much of it in any particular recipe. For the pork rub, I grind it fairly coarsely, as illustrated.

 

Coarsely-ground kosher salt and black pepper.

Coarsely-ground kosher salt and black pepper.

Then salt and pepper.

 

Powdered garlic. (Yes, I know!)

Powdered garlic. (Yes, I know!)

Then garlic, lots of it. There is no substitute for garlic. Yes, powdered garlic often comes out bitter. But I need the rub to be as dry as I can.

 

Sweet spices.

Sweet spices.

Now for the sweet element. A light dusting of nutmeg, and a slightly heavier dusting of cinnamon. If you grind your nutmeg and cinnamon fresh, the flavors are more intense, but I care about volume too, and intensity of flavor is not really my concern.

 

A teaspoon or two of sugar.

A teaspoon or two of sugar.

To make sure I get enough sweetness I’ll cheat a little bit and put in about 2 teaspoons of sugar. Normally I would use brown sugar, but I don’t happen to have any on hand tonight.

 

Chopped white onion and bay leaves.

Chopped white onion and bay leaves.

You’re probably asking, Burt, this is barbeque ribs, so where’s the onion? No need to worry, I’m dicing onion and it’s going to lend its juice to help keep the rib meat moist and soft. And those bay leaves you saw a earlier are going to get used along with the onion.

 

Half racks of pork back ribs.

Half racks of pork back ribs.

In order to prepare the ribs for their bath, I need to cut them down to size. A full rack of ribs isn’t going to fit in my home-model sous vide, but half racks will. So I chop each rack in half.

 

Apply rub to the show side of the ribs.

Apply rub to the show side of the ribs.

Three racks of ribs get turned into six half-racks of ribs, and then the top sides of the ribs (the show sides,) are caked with the assembled and mixed dry rub.

 

Bag dressed ribs, add onion and bay leaf on bone side.

Bag dressed ribs, add onion and bay leaf on bone side.

Each half rack is then bagged in food safe plastic, and the underside gets some of the diced onion and a bay leaf.

 

Seal the bagged ribs.

Seal the bagged ribs.

From there, we’re off to the vacuum pump. The air is sucked out of each bag, and the bag is heat sealed so that no water can get in. When I get ambitious coming back from CostCo with my ribs I’ll sometimes prep them this far and then put them in the freezer, and make them a half rack at a time for individual servings. For this event, I’ll need the whole three racks.

 

Ready for the bath.

Ready for the bath.

After that, the bags, each containing a dressed half rack of ribs, are placed in a 140°F water bath. There, they will sit for about 40 hours. Yeah, that’s right, 40 hours. The meat will be cooked to temperature and thus safe to serve somewhere in between two and three hours, but ribs take more time than that to do right.

140°F. For not quite two whole days.

140°F. For not quite two whole days.

Ribs have lots of connective tissue, you see. And after a long time in the bath, the membrane on the backside of the ribs, and the small connective tissues within the ribs, will turn into gelatin. At that point, each half rack will flatten somewhat, and anyone handling the ribs will be able to take the bones out with their fingers and no other implements. To say that “the tissue turns into gelatin” does not sound particularly appetizing, but gelatin provides just the right balance of pushback to the jaw and tenderness to the teeth to be very pleasing in the mouth. In other words, I can be very confident that the texture of the racks of ribs will be perfectly tender. Science won’t let you down: you want to gelatinize the connective tissue.

I used to prepare the ribs leaving them in for three days. This made the meat so tender I could not place it on a barbecue grill at all. What I did instead was to put some sauce on top of it and literally toss the meat apart with forks inside a mixing bowl. I called it “pulled pork,” but it was even more tender than that. Since then, I’ve learned that the meat needs to be taken out of the water bath soon enough that it will keep enough internal structural integrity that I can put it on the grill.

So tomorrow night, I will turn the ribs over inside the water bath, to make sure that I’m getting even coverage of the gentle heat. After that, they will stay on the stir until our guests arrive around 5 o’clock Friday evening. After we’ve had a round of margaritas, I will take them out and place them on the barbecue for finishing. There, the flame will char the outside, searing in the juices of the ribs themselves and the juices of the onion that will have marinated into the meat.

If I remember to do it, I will find a piece of untreated wood, and soak it in water. That will go onto the grill first, so that there will be some smoke put into the ribs while they char on the outside. But this isn’t particularly important. They’re only going to be on the grill for about five minutes. Just long enough to get the sweetness and crispiness of the flame coating on the outside, and then long enough to adhere the barbecue sauce.

Damn, I love making ribs almost as much as I enjoy eating them.

 

 

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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13 thoughts on “That’s The Rub

  1. “You’re probably asking, Burt, this is barbeque ribs, so where’s the onion?”

    But… but… there’s no smoking going on. As such, these are NOT barbecue ribs. I’m sorry, good friend Likko, but this is not barbecue. It cannot be barbecue without a smoke element. Five minutes with a damp log does not qualify. And smoke is not only important, it is an essential element to barbecue.

    These ribs may be delicious. They sure sound it. But they ain’t barbecue. Don’t make me sic Dwyer on your ass!

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    • I would probably agree that this is not ‘barbecue’ in the classic sense but the term has gotten so loose that I think there is wiggle room. He’s cooking the ribs incredibly slow, which is a barbecue technique, and smoke is not necessarily a key component of barbecue. Barbacoa, for example, is not really cooked via smoke. It’s really braised, yet it is considered ‘barbecue’.

      With that said it’s a pretty intriguing process, if you can afford the sous vide. We do a poor-man’s version with country-style ribs. They get boiled for about an hour so they are about 90% cooked and tender, then they go on the grill at a medium temperature to be finished. But we refer to them as ‘grilled’ ribs, not barbecue. The terms are pretty interchangeable around here.

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      • On Fridays in Fall and Spring, the kitchen at school hosts a “barbecue”. Only, by “barbecue”, they mean “hot dogs and hamburgers”. That is not a barbecue. That is a cookout. A cookout can be a wonderful thing. But it’s not barbecue. And while I recognize that the term is used colloquially to me something else nowadays, it still chafes me. Our music teacher (who hails from Tennessee) and I have to roll our eyes at each other each time a “barbecue” is announced.

        And, for the record, any criticism of Mr. Likko and his approach here should be recognized as all in good fun. Regardless of what we call it, good food is good food and this sounds like good eatin’.

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      • Oh they were, , they were. If you’re ever out in Southern California, you and the Mrs. should make it a point to come by and have some, and then you can tell me all about how they aren’t really barbecue while you eat an entire rack.

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      • Burt,

        My problem with the sous vide is that it also means you need to buy vacuum bags and a sealer and then give up all that precious counter space. While I am 100% convinced they are a fantastic cooking tool, I just don’t know if I would use it enough to justify all those other things.

        My next big cooking purchase is that I desperately need a meat grinder. Honestly, no self-respecting hunter and cook should be without one and if I didn’t have generous friends I should have had to purchase one years ago. I have my eye on a $150 model. I’ll have to pull the trigger soon as deer season is fast approaching.

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      • Zazzy’s parents live in Thousand Oaks in Ventura County. How far are you from there? We may be out there in the next year or so. Would love to take you up on the offer.

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    • As someone who has had the privilege of eating ribs at the Che Likko, I might step in and say that

      A). Contra Mike Dwyer, the ribs are indeed not technically BBQ — at least not to my puritan heart’s definition of that word,

      and

      B). They are nonetheless as good as the best BBQ ribs I have ever had, and I’ve had some remarkable ribs in my time.

      Burt’s ribs truly are amazing.

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    • 2 1/2 minutes on the show side, 2 1/2 minutes on the bone side. About. Pretty much long enough on the one side to have a sip of beer and tell a joke, and the same for the other side.

      What I’m really going for is something called the Maillard reaction, commonly referred to as “char” or “burn marks.” When the meat blackens under intense heat, it brings some of the sugars out of the protein, and this adds extra flavor. It’s why you like meat cooked over fire. In the winter, if I’m cooking a dish with a smaller serving size of meat, I will sometimes use a handheld butane blowtorch and never go outside. This is the same sort of blowtorch that you would use to caramelize the top of a crème brûlée. Obviously, such a thing is impractical for charring three racks of ribs.

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