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Ribs With Legs I: The rub and the ribs

Barbeque season is here and for his birthday every year my cousin Chris has me make ribs.  Over the years I think I have worked out a pretty optimal cooking technique and I’m going to share it here in two parts.  The recipe is based on Alton Brown’s versions for baby back ribs from I’m Just Here for the Food and the Good Eats episode “Pork Fiction“.   Two recipes, one cook but they really are pretty different–perhaps because of copyright issues–and so we get the opportunity to pick and choose the best of both.

In the “Pork Fiction” episode Alton is clear that the key to good ribs is the rub.  I have kept to his recipe of 8:3:1 plus 1 for brown sugar, kosher salt, chili powder and spices, respectively but have expanded and modified slightly.  First of all, on the show AB incorrectly states that the ratios can be converted between volume and mass (e.g. tablespoons to ounces) without changing the numbers.  With my trusty kitchen scale I measured and found that:

  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar weighs 16 grammes;
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt (the brand I was using, at least) weighs 20 grammes;
  • 1 tablespoon of chili powder weighs 8 grammes: and
  • 1 tablespoon of ground, powder like spices (cayenne, ground cloves, allspice, thyme, etc.) all weigh approximately the same as 1 TB of chili powder, 8 grammes.

This discrepancy means that 8 tablespoons brown sugar, 3 of kosher salt, 1 of chili powder and 1 of spices would actually have masses in the ratio of 16:7.5:1:1.  So, if you followed the original ratio and measured with a scale you’d get a volume ratio of 4:1.2:1:1.  Sounds a bit complicated, I know, but it means that because they are less dense the powder ingredients (and their herby or spicy flavour) would be much more predominate in this rub if measured by weight.  If cayenne pepper is one of your spices this could very well give you a finished result that is mucher hotter than expected.  Suffice it to say that if you want to work by weight, and I do, the ratio should be 16:8:1:1 for brown sugar to kosher salt (rounded up from 7.5) to chili powder to other spices.

The rub measured by scale and mixed

The rub measured by scale and mixed

Why work by weight, especially because this is a rough braising application and not a delicate baking one?  So that I can make exactly how much I need for a paricular amount of meat without having to calculate (or measure) what a seventh of a tablespoon is.  Metric weights are much easier to adjust in quantity than imperial volume measures.  Alton encourages viewers to make more than they need and store the rest in a jar for another day.  He’s right that the rub will keep forever but the problem is that unless you meticulously label every jar or make ribs every weekend you’ll end up with a shelf of jars full of mysterious brownish-red powder and won’t really know what they contain.  (For instance, the rub recipe from his cookbook doesn’t contain salt and calls for seasoning the ribs before applying rub so after a couple months who knows whether this jar contains salt or not.)  Also, just like their main constituent parts (brown sugar and salt) this rub will become rock solid given some moisture in the jar and enough time.  In my estimation each rack of the St. Louis ribs takes about 50 g of rub for adequate coverage (or about 75 g if you’re working with the larger spareribs or baby back ribs).

The “other spices” portion of the recipe sounds pretty vague, I admit.  Here is where each cooks can find room to express themselves.  Choose flavours that go together like thyme, sage, rosemary, black pepper, and onion powder for a meatier, herbier version; chinese five spice and cayenne for an asian bent; or my current favourite: warm spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and cayenne.  I always use a bit of cayenne so that the meat itself picks up some spiciness but if you want your ribs on the spicy side I think it is best to hold off until closer to the end–the sauce making stage–because it is much easier to taste-test additions and predict how they will affect the final result. 

PC Free From St. Louis style ribs layed out on aluminum foil

PC Free From St. Louis style ribs layed out on aluminum foil

The spice rub may be critical but obviously the meat that it is applied to is just as important.  I’ve almost always used this recipe with spareribs, usually the white label ones that come in the vaccuum-sealed packs that pork processors use.  Baby back ribs seem to be harder to find and likely more expensive.  New for this time I made the recipe using the new President’s Choice Free From St. Louis style ribs.  Apparently, St. Louis style are spareribs that have had the portion of the rack closer to the belly removed from the head end (there is a good description on the Good Eats episode and in the transcript, scroll down until you see the pictures of racks of ribs).  This means that they are more rectangular in shape than spareribs and that the meat, fat, and bone makeup is more consistent throughout.  I don’t mean to pre-empt the results in the second post but the meat on these ribs tasted absolutely spectacular.  More robust, slighlty fattier, and less stringy than usual.  I don’t know how much healthier, ethical, or environmentally-friendly this Free From product is (the picture of two farmers on the label is very 2009) but after our equally positive experience with the PC Free From whole chicken I’m entirely sold on any claims that it tastes better than usual.

Rub applied to the ribs

Rub applied to the ribs

After the rub has been measured and mixed the next step is to lay each rack on a piece of aluminum foil that is few inches longer than it on both ends.  Apply the rub to both sides, less on the concave side of curved spare ribs and baby back ribs.  I have always done two racks to a package (or three in the most recent experience with St. Louis Style ribs) and this cuts back on the amount of aluminum foil used.  Bring the long sides of the foil together and crimp them (a cross between rolling and folding).  Roll up one of the short ends in a similar fashion and form the other end into a sort of funnel.  Place in a shallow roasting tray or deep bottom to a broiler pan and then into the fridge for at least an hour or as long as overnight.  The roasting tray or broiler pan is there to catch any leakagea nd because of the high sugar content and long oven time this leakage can stick so whenever I remember I give the pan a liberal dose of non-stick cooking spray.

Check back later for the second part of the rib making process.

Rub for Ribs With Legs

Adapted from Alton Brown’s Who Loves Ya Baby Back?

Note 1: I can understand that not everyone who wants to make ribs doesn’t necessarily own a digital kitchen scale.  They’re fairly inexpensive, very useful in a variety of applications, and will last longer than many modern digital kitchen tools.  If you’re still not convinced and want to measure by volume see the Food Network’s website for the original recipe.

Note 2: Some of the measurements for the spices may seem too small to be accurately measured by a kitchen scale but I’m assuming that no one ever makes just one rack of ribs so will get scaled up to meet the quantity of meat. (E.g. half a gram of cayenne becomes an easily measured two grammes for four racks of St. Louis style ribs)

  • 1 rack of St. Louis Style Ribs (PC Free From worked excellently.  Spareribs or baby backs can be substituted but use the amounts in parentheses for these larger ribs.)
  • 32 g light brown sugar (48 g per rack of spareribs)
  • 16 g kosher salt (24 g)
  • 2 g chili powder (3 g)
  • 0.5 g cayenne pepper (.75 g)
  • 0.5 g ground cinnamon (.75 g)
  • 0.5 g ground allspice (.75 g)
  • 0.5 g ground cloves (.75 g)
  1. Combine rub ingredients in a medium bowl.  It’s a good idea to calculate how much you need for your number of ribs (quantities above are for one rack), write out the amounts, and then tare your scale after adding each ingredient to the bowl.
  2. Place two or three racks of ribs on a piece of aluminum foil that is about four inches longer than the length of the racks.  Spread the appropriate amount of rub onto both sides of each rack.  Actual rubbing is not necessary but pat the rub so that it adheres. 
  3. Follow the instructions above (and see the photo) for closing the packets and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to overnight.  See the second post for details on cooking these ribs.

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  1. Kat says:

    I can’t believe I missed your ribs over the long weekend! THEY ARE THE BEST!


  2. [...] Food With Legs – when developing a spice rub for meat, proportion is everything. [...]

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