Though a lot of people think the world’s best barbecue is in Kansas City, we found the secret to the best spice rub in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood at Old Crow Smokehouse.
Chef Tony Scruggs is a self-taught chef who received national recognition and celebrity-status throughout his home of Kankakee County after a stint on the Fox Network’s MasterChef Season 2.
“You don’t need to have gourmet ingredients to create a gourmet meal,” says Scruggs, who spends time on his own farm foraging for mushrooms and growing his own herbs. “The best ingredients are one you grow, raise, or harvest from the wild yourself.”
Scruggs developed an interest in cooking at an early age, helping his Sicilian-born grandmother in the kitchen, and spending his summers steaming crabs at a crab house and marina in Maryland as a teen. His career as a steel hauler/truck driver furthered his interest in food, in particular barbecue, as his territory was in the barbecue-loving states of Tennessee and Arkansas.
While driving, he regularly ate at barbecue shacks, and began perfecting his own style of ‘cue back home in Illinois. It wasn’t long before he began entering county and state competitions, racking up numerous awards and honors. In 2011 he opened a barbecue catering business and in 2013, opened Old Crow Smokehouse to serve a “Chicago-style” of barbecue that combines influences from other regions.
We spent an afternoon cooking with Scruggs, learning (some of) his secrets to creating a flavorful spice rub and discovering how he creates melt-in-your-mouth barbecue that you can recreate at home.
We’re familiar with the French concept of “mise en place” but the idea of “putting everything in place” before you begin cooking isn’t limited to fancy foods. Measure out your spices before you begin so that you have everything you need and you won’t have to run back and forth from your pantry, especially if you’re cooking at an outdoor kitchen.
We’re sharing one of chef’s legendary spice rubs below, but as with most types of cooking, barbecue rubs are subjective to your tastes and preferences. Salt, sugar and dry mustard area Scrugg’s go-to-base, but some people use cinnamon, extra cayenne pepper or even more exotic spices like Chinese five spice powder.
The two key ingredients in any dry brine are salt and sugar. “Salt seasons the meat,” says Scruggs. “Sugar is what creates a nice, dark mahogany glaze on your barbecue. On ribs, it’s the outer coating known as the ‘bark.'”
After you’ve measured out each of your ingredients, combine them in a large bowl, one at a time. Why do we do this instead of dumping everything in a bowl and hoping for the best?
“You want to take one spice and whisk it to break up any clumps that you see in your mixture,” says Scruggs. “You’ll create a better blend and more flavor.”
Add one ingredient at a time, whisking gently to incorporate. Repeat with each ingredient until all of your spices are blended in one bowl.
Assuming you’re creating a spice rub for barbecue, you’ll want to prepare your rack of ribs before you add the spice rub. The first thing you do is turn your ribs over so that the bone side faces you and “skin” the rack of ribs by pulling its thin film down. “People like to get fancy and use pliers or other kitchen gadgets,” says Scruggs. “All you need to get a good grip is a paper towel.”
If the butcher has not removed the membrane from the back side of the ribs, do it yourself. It gets leathery and hard to chew, it keeps fat in, and it keeps smoke and sauce out. Skin your ribs using a paper towel to pull the membrane off the bone side of the ribs. Insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers, work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides.
Pro Tip: If this sounds too complicated, ask your butcher or grocer to do it for you.
“They call it a rub for a reason,” says Scruggs. Generously sprinkle rub on ribs, meat side only. Scruggs recommends using a rubbing “pushing” motion that presses the rubs into the meat. “It can be messy, so wear rubber gloves,” he says. You want to season ribs thoroughly so that the entire rack is coated in spice mixture, which is what will lend itself to the nice, crispy bark.
While there are different cooking methods for different types of ribs, you should always cook on a grill over indirect heat. “The best barbecue is cooked low and slow,” says Scruggs. Turn your grill to 225 degrees F and cook the meat o the cold side of the grill.
How do you get that signature smoky flavor on your home grill? “Vent your grill over the meat,” says Scruggs. “Put your smoke source on the hot side so the vent is over the meat. When you’re making barbecue, you’re using smoke in addition to low heat. As far as smoke goes, everyone likes different flavors. It should enhance and not overwhelm your barbecue.”
Pro Tip: Never open your lid when barbecuing! “Trust your equipment,” said Scruggs.
When you open the lid, you lose heat, smoke and ten minutes of cooking time. When ribs are ready, there should be no need to check the temperature.
“You’ll know when they’re ready because they’ll be about to break. I like to say, your ribs are done when a man with no teeth can take a bite but only his bite breaks away from bone.”
- ½ cup kosher salt
- ½ cup white (or brown) sugar
- ½ cup smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 8 pounds baby back pork ribs (8 racks) or St. Louis-style spareribs (4 racks)
- In a large bowl, incorporate all ingredients one at a time, gently whisking in between to combine and remove any lumps or clumps. Set aside.
- Preheat the grill or oven to 250 degrees F.
- Skin your ribs using a paper towel to pull the membrane off the bone side of the ribs: insert a butter knife under the membrane, then your fingers, work a section loose, grip it with a paper towel, and peel it off. Finally, trim the excess fat from both sides.
- Place your ribs on a baking sheet and season generously with spice rub.
- Smoke over indirect heat for six hours: cook as normal for 3 hours, then wrap with foil and cook for two hours, then remove foil and smoke for 1 more hour.
- Transfer to a cutting board; cut between ribs to separate. Transfer to a platter and serve with your favorite barbecue sauce.