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 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.
Herbs come next. Marjoram, thyme and savory form the French elements in my pork rub.
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.
The mustard seed comes whole.
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.
Then salt and pepper.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Each half rack is then bagged in food safe plastic, and the underside gets some of the diced onion and a bay leaf.
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.
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.
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 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.