"It has a surprisingly vivid pink hue, almost like pastrami, and the smoke appears to have permeated all the way to the bone."
"As soon as the army figures out you can do something they reassign you," chuckles Scott Smith, former Army Ranger and current pitmaster at Righteous Urban Barbecue (RUB). Smith worked in professional kitchens during high school in Trumansburg, New York, and couldn't decide whether to continue his endeavors by attending the Culinary Institute of America or joining the army after graduating.
He chose the latter and while he did end up cooking in the army—French fries for an aircraft carrier full of rangers stationed off Haiti, in one case—he generally prefers to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about the quality of ingredients and menu options. After leaving the army, Smith helped out a friend with a roadside barbecue shack that became so successful that it morphed in to a full-fledged restaurant called Spike's Bar-BQ.
Smith has been cooking barbecue ever since with over a decade of experience under his belt. He became pitmaster at RUB in 2005 (when it opened) after meeting owner Andrew Fischel at a seminar given by Paul "The Baron of Barbecue" Kirk, a partner in RUB. The beauty of the private sector, as opposed to the army, is that when you do something, and you do it well, you generally get to keep doing it. Thus Smith gets to turn out rack after masterful rack of ribs coated in Paul Kirk's secret rub and smoked over hickory. After the jump, a step-by-step look at how he does it.
Smith takes St. Louis cut ribs and removes the thin membrane that covers the bone side of the rack. He then gives them a quick dip in a seasoned vinegar and mustard solution. The liquid is not designed to marinate the meat—the ribs are smoked moments after application—but to act as a bonding agent for the dry rub.
The dry rub is a proprietary blend developed by Paul Kirk and not even Smith knows the recipe. It is rumored to have over 30 ingredients. Smith sprinkles a light coating of the rub mix on to the moistened ribs.
RUB uses the E Series smokers from J&R (that's J&R Manufacturing; no relation to the music world). The smoker is fired by hickory.
The seasoned ribs are placed in the smoker.
The ribs are smoked for up to eight hours at around 225°F. No timers are used although Smith uses a meat thermometer to verify that the ribs are at a safe temperature, as required by law. But mostly Smith makes sure that the ribs are done by feel.
RUB goes through an average of 600 racks of St. Louis ribs a week so he obviously knows his pit intimately. Rather than cooking a single batch of ribs and pulling the entire pit all at once in anticipation of dinner service, Smith staggers the cooking time buy moving the ribs around the pit (which has different temperature zones) to insure that they go from the pit to the table rather than sitting in a warming box all night.
The ribs emerge from the smoker with a glorious mahogany hue, glistening in the light. They are sliced to order to insure moisture. Once the blade of the knife severs the rack into individual ribs, the inner flesh is revealed. It has a surprisingly vivid pink hue, almost like pastrami, and the smoke appears to have permeated all the way to the bone.
The ribs are served with white bread and pickles on wax paper-lined metal dishes. Unlike the fall-off-the-bone ribs you see in TV advertisements, the ribs at RUB have a firm, meaty texture. The rib meat comes off the bone easily enough, but it has some bite and a wonderful deep smoke flavor, perfectly balanced by the complex rub that is all at once sweet, salty, and peppery.
Is that onion powder? paprika? Some cayenne pepper perhaps? Who can tell? Not even the pit master knows!
208 West 23rd Street, New York NY 10011 (b/n 7th and 8th Avenue; map)