Backyard Ribs: Part One, The Rub

It’s the first Saturday in May and I woke up to a clear blue sky and a weather forecast that was begging for a day outdoors.

It’s always a gamble, of course, to plan twelve hours ahead of your cooking time for a backyard grill, particularly something as elaborate as a fire smoking some pork ribs. The rain could appear over the horizon and soak the suburbs. The weather could turn cold on a dime still this early in the season. Or the wind could push through and make building a fire a hurculean feat.

I took the gamble, though.

I had my reasons for stopping by a new local grocery store last night and a big one point five kilogram pack of ribs caught my eye. “I’m making ribs on the fire tomorrow.” I told my wife as stocked up the fridge with my purchases upon returning home.

“Oooh. Yum!” She replied.

“I’m also making it up as I go along.” I told her.

That got a less enthusiastic response.

I’ve never grilled ribs over an open fire, so tonight is going to be an adventure. It’s a new-to-me process, but makes use of lots of practiced skills that add up to what I hope will be a success. So, I’ll start with what I know, a basic dry rub and about eight hours in the fridge to let it season up a bit.

Dry Rub Recipe

60ml brown sugar
15ml salt
15ml ground black pepper
15ml paprika
30ml garlic powder
30ml onion powder
10ml ground celery seed
10ml ground mustard
10ml cumin

I spread this evenly on the washed and dried ribs. There was enough in this batch for about 2kg of meat, so I had a little bit left over when everything had been generously coated and wrapped.

Dry rubs have a couple of positive features I’m looking for in their use: Flavour. Tenderizing. Simplicty. And more, I’m sure.

I don’t have much room in the fridge for a big old marinade right now, either, and we’ve been trying to cut back on single-use plastic like large zip bags (he writes as he posts a photo of cling wrap on his countertop.)

But for more important results, back to things like flavour and texture. If you look at the recipe, for example, this particular rub has a solid tablespoon of salt. Eight hours resting in that much salt has an effect on the meat that is essentially a preliminary cure. It’s not going to make this into a true cure of the meat, but it will start to draw some of the moisture from the tissue and will have a tenderizing effect on the final texture.

My basic rub recipe also has a lot of sugar. Partly, it’s there to even out the spices. Literally. The sugar is a good way to bulk up the rub and make sure it spreads evenly across the meat and doesn’t concentrate too much of the spice unevenly as my untrained hands dash it across the raw flesh. Also, while I’ll add a sauce when I put these over the fire, that sugar in the rub will be the start of the carmelization during the first exposure to heat that will crank up the sticky sweet flavour many people associate with ribs.

The cooking of these gorgeous hunks of meat will happen later today, and I’ll photograph and post the results in the upcoming part two.

For now, cross your fingers for that weather holding out!

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Had I realized how often over the last fifteen years I would be referencing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I would have splurged for the hardcover edition.

As it stands, our trusty copy of this loaf of paper filled with basic recipes rarely makes it back onto the bookshelf, and is so tattered and splattered, I’ll likely be lamenting it’s numbered days before it stops being useful.

I’ve started a small series of cookbook posts here on castironguy.ca because despite adding to my collection almost monthly, I find that most cookbooks are only useful or interesting in a limited way. Sure, you can learn a great recipe from almost any book out there, and half the fun is picking something that looks like a challenge or a tasty goal, and seeing how well your skills match with the intended product. That said, there are perhaps only a dozen cookbooks on our shelf that would make a cull if I was forced to simplify my library… and these are them.

The best analogy I have for this book is that it’s like my paperback edition of Google.

You know those times you are standing there in your kitchen, hands covered in flour, thinking about how you are actually supposed to be cooking something, say a roast or a whole spaghetti squash or maybe a pie crust.

How long at what temperature?

How much water was I supposed to add?

Should I be covering this?

Today I might Google it, or ask my digital assistant. Hey, Alexa, how do I… ?

But even still, and especially back when I bought this, it was and still is that one reference book that gives solid, simple advice on the nuances of basic food prep.

Sure, there are a few fancy recipes hiding in it’s pages, and lots of ideas about stuff like how to make your waffles more interesting, or how to spice a whole chicken, or variations on making your own salad dressings. But the core function of this book is basically aimed at people like me who mostly know enough to get started, have the ingredients in their hands, but are stumped on locking down the process. The how-to. The what was that one crucial step or ingredient that is going to change the outcome if I get it wrong. A reference guide.

This might not be the exact title for you, but there are a few big reference cookbooks out there with a similar purpose and you should generally keep one on your shelf. I do.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Flour Water Salt Yeast

So . . . I ordered yet another cookbook yesterday.

I’ve recently been watching a cooking channel on YouTube (perhaps one you have heard of, unlikely one you figured I’d watch) and the host released a cookbook last year, so I splurged. Until a make a few recipes from the book itself, I don’t feel that I’m in a solid or fair position to offer a review or opinion. Hopefully in about a month or so (after I spin up a few of the recipes and get a sense of the style) you’ll see such a post here. Until then…

My lacking of an opinion is not the case with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.

I remember when my newly kindled interest in sourdough bread-making started to really heat up. I’d begun culturing a starter and then I went scouring the internet for advice. A lot of people recommended this particular tome. I added it to my collection and spent a few solid days reading the details, pondering the techniques and anticipating my next loaf… mostly because that first starter was still pretty new and not ready to use.

I could write a lot about this cookbook.

I could tell you that the tone has always struck me in the same way as I felt when I worked my way through university and had this one lab-rat job for a boss who had a PhD in molecular biology and couldn’t believe he had to explain this stuff to me and fine, but pay attention and do you mind if I crank up the radio and we’re all going out for beers after work, you in? Pleasantly mentoring? Friendly condescending? Lovable know-it-all-ish?

Or, I could tell you that within the words contained on these pages there is as much elaborate history and detail about bread theory as there is actual recipes, and if this was online everyone would complain that they need to scroll for five minutes to get to the ingredients list but since this is a book it’s as much a beautiful read about bread (and pizza crusts) as it is anything else. Be prepared to read as much as you cook.

I could even tell you that if you read this book, no if you seriously read it and understand it, you’ll change the way you cook and you’ll go out tomorrow and buy a digital kitchen scale and understand that the math and French you learned in high school could serve more than an abstract purpose in your life as you start to refer to bread as having desired hydration levels and calculate flour percentages in your dreams. Shush! My sixty-percent levain is resting!

Basically I could just tell you that if you want to make good bread, I haven’t found a better volume. This is a great cookbook and one that will endure in my personal collection for a long time.

Can I use a cast iron pot or pan to boil water?

One of the adages of cast iron cooking is that to improve your cast iron cookware, just use it.

What is not necessarily clear in that basic advice is that to make any cast iron seasoning better, stronger, and more resilient, the use of your cast iron should follow a couple basic principles about how it should be used. Simply:

Heat and oils are good in that they improve your seasoning.

Soaps and acids are bad in that they degrade your seasoning.

So, where does water fit into these rules? And what do we mean by boiling water?

For example, a lot of recipes call for a portion of water (or broth or wine or other neutral liquid) and instruct bringing it to a boil. Is this bad for the pan?

Or, when I first started using my cast iron dutch oven I was unclear on if I could use it to, say, cook up a big pot of pasta or if I should stick with the steel pot we’d been using for years.

I did a lot of reading on this a number of years ago and the best advice anyone gave me on this topic is simply that the strength of cast iron is not boiling water: there are better tools.

Boiling water is not necessarily going to ruin you cast iron, but it’s definitely not going to improve it. In the same vein of thinking, adding liquid to you recipe is fine, though these are not the dishes that build up the seasoning nor make it better. Water in your pan or pot does not follow the basic principle that heat and oils are improving your seasoning. And some have argued that boiling water alone (or with salt or pasta) can actually loosen the seasoning on your pan and cause it to flake off.

In a pinch (say out camping with a single pot) sure… heat up that soup, steam your veggies over the fire, and just use your iron. That’s what you’ve built up that legacy seasoning for, after all. But know that you’re withdrawing from the seasoning bank you’ve been saving into.

So again, there are better tools. Keep and use a steel pot, and save your cast iron for what it does best. Not boiling water.