I'm hearing heresy from across the table.
"The ribs, we do black pepper and that's about it," says Jonathan "Rusty" Tucker, proprietor of Rusty's Bar-B-Q in Leeds, Alabama.
Not even salt?
"Pork tastes good," says Tucker. He goes on about the natural sodium levels already present in the meat being sufficient. He prefers, as a general philosophy, a "very French approach to seasoning... with salt and pepper to enhance the natural flavors and then you might add an herb or a spice or one or two things to enhance what's there... a lot of rubs and recipes call for twenty different spices and it muddles the flavors. Once you put cayenne and brown sugar you taste everything but the natural flavor that's there."
Applied to slowly cooked
barbeque Bar-B-Q ribs, that philosophy means seulement poivre.
Owning a grill means you have opinions about using a grill. If you've ever cooked for a crowd you've endured the passive criticisms of other grill owners disguised as offers to help. "Is that fire a little too high?" asks your co-worker's third fiancé. "I have a timer on my phone if you need it," says some guy that plays soccer with your brother. "Fire looks a bit low. Want me to go get the charcoal?" says a brother in-law. And so on.
But no one has ever suggested I not salt the meat.
If my composite straw man of a backyard nag had told me to do any such thing I might have shrugged it off, but Rusty gets quoted by Men's Journal on the subject and mentioned in USA Today by an Indy racing legend. The Huffington Post (HuffPo if you are cool on Twitter) article, The Best BBQ Across America, According to Experts, lists Rusty's Bar-B-Q as having the best ribs in the state of Alabama. That's a hard accolade to ignore. Yesterday it was announced that he won first place in the Alabama Barbecue Battle, Mom & Pop division. He knows his slow cooking.
In fact, he knows cooking in general. In addition to coming from a family that cooks, Rusty earned an associate's degree in culinary arts and a bachelor's degree in food service management from Johnson and Wales. Around seven years ago he and I worked together in one of Birmingham's better fine dining restaurants. He can more than hold his own in the kitchen.
So no matter my surprise at his minimalist approach, he has my ear. Perhaps more convincingly, he has my stomach. As we chat at his restaurant I'm happily eating my way through a rib plate. They are delicious, full flavored, and meaty. Pork tastes good.
Though he doesn't use sauce in the cooking process, he does serve a variety of sauces with the finished product. The house sauce is based on his grandfather's recipe, an attempt to find middle ground between Ollie's thin vinegary sauce and the thick sauce served at The Golden Rule if that helps those familiar with the Birmingham
barbeque Bar-B-Q scene. He likes to eat a little bit of rib with and a little without.
The season is finally here. Twenty-nine hours from this writing someone finally kicks off. In a mere seventy eight hours our beloved Alabama Crimson Tide will take the field against the Wisconsin Badgers (god bless Erik for introducing me to the word "Sconnie").
There are plenty of intervening games to watch, but few so compelling as to be much more than background. That means plenty of time to
Rusty was good enough to share a few tips for the home cook.
First, the heat:
He's pretty definitive about that. "No gas." This is a charcoal and wood burning endeavor.
"When I was really young, the way you started a fire was with lighter fluid. Then I learned about chimney starters," he says. "We started using those and they worked better. You don't have the chemical taste to it."
If you've never used a chimney starter, it's a simple perforated metal tube with a grate for separating the charcoal from whatever super flammable substance, usually newspaper in my experience, you use as a starter. They retail for around twenty dollars in most hardware stores.
Once you have the coals burning, add some wood. Hickory is preferred, but a variety of other hard woods will do. The charcoal will give you some early heat for searing and the wood will burn slowly.
Next, the meat:
I asked if he ever does beef ribs. He was pretty definitive about that too. "I prefer pork. I grew up in Alabama. We eat pork."
Specifically, "We get a spare rib and we trim it until it's called a St. Louis cut." If you are not familiar, you can usually find them pre-trimmed in most meat departments, but for the rugged individualist do it yourself types: "The St. Louis cut is essentially a center cut rib where you trim the brisket and the bottom part of the ribs off. That bottom part is called the rib tips. We actually serve those as kind of an appetizer.... It's just that fatty end off of the spare rib. If you get that part tender while it's still on the rib then the rest of the rib is burnt."
Get a quick sear over direct heat and then move the slab over to indirect heat for a minimum of four hours, cover, and vent so that the smoke wafts through the meat. Six hours is better. At roughly the midway point, Rusty pulls the meat and wraps it in foil to trap the juices in with the meat so it basically bastes itself.
I asked him about smoking temperature and how often the fire needs rekindling or stoking.
"I have no idea. It's more of an art than a science to cook on a pit," he said, conceding that the home cook might have an advantage over the professionals in this regard. "In a smoker, you can close it up and trap the heat and you can measure the heat and say ‘It's 225˚ or 275˚ or whatever.' But with a pit there is so much air flow and other things coming into play. You can't really get a good read on it."
For the record, he thinks the ideal temp is 275˚ - 285˚.
He doesn't believe there is only one way.
Rusty doesn't cook with sauce because that's his preference. If you disagree, more power to you. Just don't put the sauce on too early. "If you want to glaze them with sauce don't do that until the very end so that it doesn't burn... If you sauce them too early you're just going to get a burned exterior and tough ribs."
In fact, he bucks the standard wisdom himself. "We overcook our ribs technically from a competition standpoint. Competition ribs are considered perfect when you bite it and it pulls cleanly away from the bone but it still leaves a bite mark in the rib, and that's about 180˚ internal temperature.... We actually take ours a little higher than that to where it falls apart. We like them tender. We like them to fall off the bone."
As an afterthought, I texted Rusty, asking him whether he prefers "bbq", "barbecue", or "barbeque." His response came quickly.
It was quickly followed by another text.
"I'm actually really particular about that." So I went back and edited in deference.
Watch a quarter of the Georgia La-Monroe game and then get started. You'll be set and ready to eat by the time the main event rolls around. ‘Tis finally the season. Roll Tide.