"Man, that record came out and was real big in Memphis. They started playing it, and it got real big. Don't know why-the lyrics had no meaning." Elvis Presley
Rubs are spice mixes that you can apply to raw food before cooking and there are scores of commercial blends on the market. But there's no need to buy a rub when you can make your own and customize it to your taste. And they're easy to make!
There is a reaction between the rub and the surface that helps form a nice crust, called bark. Here's my recipe for a great all purpose pork rub. It is carefully formulated to flavor, color, and form the proper crust when cooked at low temps. Competition teams use it. People tell me I really ought to bottle and sell it. Nah. You can have it for free. It's all here, nothing held back.
Since I originally designed this for ribs, let's talk about how to use it on this succulent bit of pig candy. Many purists in that barbecue mecca named Memphis lay a dry rub on their ribs before and after cooking, and then they eat their slabs crunchy, sans sauce. There are even restaurants that only serve "dry" ribs. No sauce in the joint.
Even if you like your pork "wet" (with sauce) a good rub can add flavor, texture, and color, and you need one if only so, when you are asked "What's your secret?", you can answer as the pros do, by saying "It's my rub, man."
Since there is no salt in this rub, you need to salt the meat first (click here to read why rubs should not have salt). Salt will penetrate deep into meat so you should get it on in advance, perhaps overnight. Rule of thumb is 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound of meat (don't include bone, and ribs are about half bone).
Some put a rub right on the meat and then massage it in. Others lay down a mustard base first to act like glue, others make a wet rub by mixing it with water, oil, or booze. I just get the meat wet with water by wetting my hands and patting the meat and then I sprinkle the rub on top.
If you are doing whole hog on a cinderblock pit over direct heat, you don't want to risk the sugar burning, so use the same recipe for Meathead's Memphis Dust but omit the sugars.
As background for this recipe, please read my article on the Science of Rubs.
Meathead's Memphis Dust Recipe
Makes. About 3 cups. Store the extra in a zipper bag or a glass jar with a tight lid. Use enough to cover the meat surface but still let some meat show through.
Takes. 15 minutes. 10 minutes to find everything and 5 minutes to dump them together.
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup American paprika
1/4 cup garlic powder
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground ginger powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 teaspoons rosemary powder
About the sugar. I encourage readers to experiment with recipes, and "no rules in the bedroom or dining room" is my motto, but I have gotten some emails that require a response. I appreciate that many of you feel the need to reduce sugar in your diets but sugar is in the recipe for more than flavor enhancement, it helps form the crust (called bark by the pros), an important part of the texture of the surface of ribs and smoke roasted pork. It mixes with the moisture and caramelizes making special unique flavors.
There are only about 2 tablespoons of rub on a large slab. Of that about 1 tablespoon is sugar. Some of it falls and drips off during cooking. If you eat half a slab, you're eating about 1 teaspoon of sugar. The glycemic load (GL) is about 3. Compare that with a slice of white bread with a GL of 10.
And for those of you who object to white sugar for non-dietary reasons, and use brown sugar instead, you need to know brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses added. It is not unrefined sugar as many people believe. I use brown sugar for the flavor and white sugar because it improves the bark.
If you want to cut back on carbs, leave off the sweet barbecue sauce. It has a lot more sugar than the rub. Switch to a Lexington sauce which is mostly vinegar, or just eat the pork with rub and no sauce. It's mighty good that way.
Bottom line: This recipe is a very successful rub from a taste and chemistry standpoint. I urge you to make it as specified the first time.
About the rosemary. Several readers tell me they hate rosemary and leave it out. Trust me, it hides in the background and you will never know it is there. But it is. It is subtle and important in this blend. Substitute thyme or oregano if you must, but I think rosemary is the best choice. If you can find ground rosemary, well, it is hard to find. So just grind the rosemary leaves in a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder or a blender. It will take 2 to 3 tablespoons of leaves to make 2 teaspoons of powder. Again, please don't leave it out.
About the ginger. Like the rosemary, I think ginger is a very important ingredient. If you don't have any, get some.
About the paprika. If you read my discussion of paprika by clicking this link you'll learn about the different kinds of paprika. In short, garden variety grocery store paprika has little flavor and is used mostly for color. But fresh Hungarian or Spanish paprika have mild but distinctive flavors. In many European countries, paprika is hot. Not in the US. If you wish, you can use smoked paprika, especially good if you are cooking indoors, or even mix in some stronger stuff like ancho (slightly spicy), chipotle powder, cayenne, or chili powder (not very hot). Chipotle can be quite hot, so be thoughtful of who will be eating your food. I usually go easy on the heat in deference to the kids and wimps (like me) and add it to the sauce or put chipotle powder on the table for the chile heads.
How to use it
1) Mix the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. If the sugar is lumpy, crumble the lumps by hand or on the side of the bowl with a fork. If you store the rub in a tight jar, you can keep it for months. If it clumps just chop it up, or if you wish, spread it on a baking sheet and put it in a 225°F oven for 15 minutes to drive off moisture. No hotter or the sugar can burn.
2) If you have time, sprinkle on 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat up to 12 hours in advance. For most meats, wet the surface of the meat with water and sprinkle just enough Meathead's Memphis Dust on to color it. Memphis style ribs without a sauce, apply the rub thick enough to make a crunchy crust, perhaps 1 to 2 tablespoons per slab of St. Louis Cut (Center Cut) and a bit less for baby backs. To prevent contaminating your rub with uncooked meat juices, spoon out the proper amount before you start and seal the bottle for future use. Keep your powder dry as the old expression goes. To prevent cross-contamination, one hand sprinkles on the rub and the other hand does the rubbing. Don't put the hand that is rubbing into the powder or use it to hold the bottle.