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Barbecue Basics: The low down on the rubdown

[Photo courtesy of the Pork Checkoff]

Summer is just about done. With it go long hot days, summer shorts and flip-flops, but not barbecue. Barbecue is year-round, especially during September when tens of thousands attend Missouri barbecue festivals and competitions. 

High profile events like the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival in Columbia, and Blues, Brews & BBQ in Branson span the season. The local favorite, the Wildwood BBQ Bash, also is included in the flavorful mix of fall festivals and competitions where barbecue fans can indulge in an array of professionally cooked meats and get up-close and personal with pitmasters and their secret weapon: barbecue rubs.

Rubs have become the darling of the barbecue circuit. Whether it’s a complex blend of spices or a rubdown of salt or sugar, many pitmasters sprinkle or massage their personal concoctions onto the meat before it hits the smoker or grill. Some strictly use rubs as a finishing spice; adding one or two spicy shakes just before serving. 

Whether they’re used as a main ingredient or the finishing touch, rubs have become, for many, the secret to winning barbecue. The seasoning technique is one Midwesterners seldom saw or used back in the day when most St. Louis barbecue was simply seasoned with salt and pepper before being soaked in sauce. 

“At the moment, I have over 75 rubs,” St. Louis Home Fires owner Frank Schmer said. He noted that rubs frequently change depending on a variety of factors, including flavor trends. “There’s always something new out there … What’s popular now may not be a year from now. Some people like to use the same rub every time while others like to experiment and use a different rub every time. It depends on the griller.” 

When asked about his favorite, Schmer said, “Code 3 is one of my favorite rubs.” 

Code 3 Spice Rubs are competition favorites created by grill master Chris Bohnemeier and veteran police officer Mike Radosevich. The local company has enjoyed tremendous growth thanks to the rub craze and the cause it supports. Twenty-five cents of each bottle sold supports organizations that assist first responders and military organizations, such as The BackStoppers, Inc. 

Whether you buy or make a rub, there are a few secrets pitmasters use and you should know. To get the low down on the rubdown, West Newsmagazine spoke with  Sugarfire co-owner Mike Johnson.

“Rubs help create the bark,” Johnson said. “And I like the different flavors rubs can help create.” 

However, when it comes to using rubs on meats, Johnson cautioned about overusing ingredients like salt or sugar.  

“Salt extracts moisture, so go easy on it when rubbing meats like turkey that can dry out. Pork and brisket can take more salt because they have more fat,” Johnson said. “You really don’t want a lot of sugar on bigger stuff like briskets and pork butts. They’re in the smoker for 12 to 14 hours. When sugar is in the smoker that long it caramelizes and gives off a burnt flavor, so you have to be careful.”

Ribs are another story. 

“When we rub ribs, we also put a layer of brown sugar on them because it only takes about three-and-a-half to four hours to cook them,” Johnson said.

Johnson uses turbinado sugar in combination with rubs because it has a longer burn time. He also suggested shaking rub on meats and allowing it to stand instead of massaging rub directly into the meat. 

To discover what technique works best for you, experiment with different blends and methods to find one that hits home. 

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