You smell that? That saccharine-sweet aroma, tinged with liquid smoke? It doesn't come every year, but you know when it's on its way.
I'm talking about the McRib.
Introduced by McDonald's in 1981, and available only intermittently, the McRib has inspired plenty of rumors about its origins. Some say it was offered as an alternative to Chicken McNuggets during a chicken shortage. Others claim that its sale is intimately linked to the market value of pork, and that it only goes on the menu when the pork market is down. Whatever the true story, the McRib has achieved a cultlike following for the fast food giant, even spawning online locators to let you know when the sandwich will be available in your area. It's made by pressing chopped pork, seasoned with salt and sugar, into a rib-shaped mold; cooking it; coating it with a sweet and sticky barbecue sauce; and shoving it into a sandwich with pickles and onions.
We all know that fast food is junky, but sometimes junky food just hits the spot. The McRib, with its cheap thrills of liquid smoke, sugar, and salt, might not be the junkiness we need, but it's the junkiness we want.
The problem is that, while the McRib might be inspired by real barbecue, it's ultimately a lie. Despite its corrugated appearance, it has little to do with actual ribs. (McDonald's doesn't even indicate that the product contains actual rib meat.) It's not smoked, as one would expect of barbecue ribs. Indeed, it's not even grilled—it's cooked on a griddle. We can do better.
My goal? Take everything we love about the McRib sandwich and turn it up to 11, by starting from scratch with a few high-quality ingredients and a lot of good technique (including honest-to-goodness smoking). I wanted to maximize flavor and texture, unlocking the sandwich's full potential and allowing it to evolve, Pokémon-style, into something so much better. I'm gonna call it the Ribby McRibface. Or...something like that, until I come up with a better name.
Now, I'm gonna come clean with you. This is not a simple weeknight recipe. This is a project. It's gonna take you a full Sunday to pull it off. You're going to be cooking indoors and out. You're probably going to dust off a few pieces of equipment from your closet. But I promise you, that Sunday will be a fun one, and your family is going to love you forever.
Let's get started.
When I barbecue ribs, the St. Louis cut, with its fatty rib meat and longer bones, is my first pick at the supermarket. But for these sandwiches, St. Louis–style ribs were simply too big. You have to cut them into awkward pieces in order to get them to fit on a bun. Instead, I went with baby backs, a leaner, more compact cut. I knew that the lack of excess fat would mean I'd have to be extra careful when cooking them in order to keep them moist, but what's a barbecue without a little bit of a challenge?
I am certain that Ronald does not use a dry rub on his McRib sandwich, but we all know the old expression, right? Never trust a clown at a barbecue. Unless you're in Texas, or in a McDonald's, good barbecue starts with a good rub, for the extra flavor and texture it builds.
I'm not always a one-size-fits-all kind of guy, but over the years, as I've worked on barbecue (and faux-barbecue!) recipes ranging from barbecue chicken to indoor pulled pork to sous vide ribs, I've come to realize that the spices I reach for over and over for my rubs are nearly always the same ones, and that I might as well codify them into a single rub that I could make in bulk and deploy as needed.
This all-purpose spice rub is what I came up with, and what I use in this recipe.
Knowing that I'd be pulling the bones out after cooking (nobody wants a bony sandwich), I made sure that the first thing I did was to remove the membrane from the back of the ribs, which is perfectly edible, but can prevent bones from coming out cleanly. It's easy to do if you use a paper towel or clean kitchen towel to help you get a grip.
Next, I rubbed the ribs all over with my spice rub before breaking them down into four- to five-rib sections, which makes them much easier to manage on the grill.
This is where I took my first step toward ensuring juiciness in the cooked ribs—by letting them rest for a few hours in the fridge. The dry rub has plenty of salt in it, and thus acts as a dry brine. Rubbing turkey or chicken with salt and letting it rest before roasting can help it maintain more moisture as it cooks, and the same is true for pork ribs. Salt works by breaking down the muscle protein called myosin, one of the proteins responsible for causing muscle fibers to squeeze as they cook. When myosin is broken down, muscles squeeze less; therefore more juice stays inside.
Next, I tried cooking the ribs a few different ways, including indoors in the oven (fine texture, but no smoke flavor), smoking on my kettle grill (McDonald's barbecue sauce is mesquite-flavored; I like mesquite or hickory), and cooking sous vide, using my guide to sous vide pork ribs as a blueprint.
There was no question that the sous vide ribs came out the moistest, but they also took the longest (and, you know, they require owning a sous vide device). For smoke flavor and bark, after cooking sous vide, you also need to finish the ribs over indirect heat on the grill. It's a laborious process, but I think it's worth it.
Going with straightforward traditional barbecue also produces great results.
Even more so than with St. Louis–style ribs, temperature control is of vital importance when you're barbecuing baby back ribs. Too hot, and they'll dry out before they have a chance to tenderize. Because they're relatively low in connective tissue, they also cook pretty fast. Just about four to five hours at 225°F is enough to get them to the point where they don't fall apart, but still show plenty of bend when you lift them.
To maintain that temperature, I started with one-third of a chimney of charcoal, which I dumped out into one side of the grill. I added a few chunks of wood directly to the coals (there's no need to soak them), then placed the meat on top of the grill grate on the opposite side of the coals before covering it with a lid. I made sure to arrange the lid so that the vents were over the meat, which helps draw smoke over the ribs as they cook. Maintaining temperature was a matter of fiddling with the vents and occasionally adding a few more coals.
A few layers of my All-Purpose Barbecue Sauce, painted over the ribs toward the end of cooking, left them with a shiny, sticky surface that glistened with caramelized sugars.
I nabbed a little bite of the charred corner as I pulled them off the grill, mentally giving the clown a consoling pat on the shoulder to let him know that it's okay to come in second.
Just right, I thought to myself as I twisted the individual bones. They were exactly where they should be with good barbecue: not falling out, but willing to come peacefully with just a bit of physical coercion.
I painted the boneless ribs with one last layer of sauce, slipped them into a toasted torpedo roll, topped them with some slivered onions and pickles, and took a bite.
It was unbelievably delicious. Sweet and savory, with plenty of juicy meat and crispy charred edges, mingling with the bright crunch of the pickle and the pungent bite of the onions, and... and...and it was all wrong.
I'd blown it. Messed it up.
I'd started out intending to make a better-than-McRib McRib, and what I'd really ended up with was a really delicious rib sandwich. It was missing the key element that gives a McRib its, for lack of a better word, McRibbiness. I'd done that thing where the trying-to-be-fancy bar makes a potato croquette and calls it a Tater Tot.
McRibs are not real rib sandwiches. They are chopped-and-formed-pork sandwiches with barbecue flavors. The flavor in my sandwich was right, but it was completely missing that ground-pork texture.
I was about to head back to the drawing board and hit the supermarket for some ground pork, when a much better thought struck me: Why not use what I already have in front of me?
The smoke and barbecue flavor in an actual McRib is purely superficial. The patty itself contains nothing more than meat, salt, and sugar. It's the sauce that brings the spices and (liquid) smoke to the party. Here was my thought: Why not build that barbecue flavor directly into the ground-meat mixture?
I went to the supermarket and bought a pork shoulder—a tough, fatty cut that's great for making sausage or grinding. When I got it home, I cut it into big chunks. Next, I picked all of the smoked baby back rib meat clean from the bones, roughly chopped it, combined it with the shoulder, and pulsed it all in my food processor until I'd formed a homogeneous ground mixture of raw and barbecued meat.* I quickly formed a couple of tester patties and threw them on the grill, where they promptly fell apart.
*A food processor is great for grinding meat if you don't have a meat grinder. Cut the meat into small cubes, chill them well—I'd even advise placing them in a single layer on a plate in the freezer for 10 minutes or so—then pulse them in the food processor in half-pound batches to grind.
The problem was with proper binding. Raw meat protein is quite sticky. Rub proteins against one another, and they tend to link together, forming a cohesive mix. This is why hamburgers hold together on the grill, even though they're made of thousands of individual bits of meat. Cooked meat, on the other hand, does not bind in the same way. Grind up a cooked steak (or a smoked rib), and it will stay crumbly, which is exactly what the cooked meat was doing in my patties.
Turns out salt was the solution to getting those patties to bind well. Just like with dry-brining, adding salt to meat before grinding dissolves muscle proteins, making them much more likely to get tangled up with one another, and producing a mixture that binds much better.
By tossing my pork shoulder with 1.5% salt by weight and letting it rest for a couple of hours, I was able to produce a ground-meat mixture that held together superbly, even when roughly handled.
That's good news, because we're going to be handling this mix roughly.
Initially, I tested out making hamburger-shaped patties, but they missed the mark for appearance and style. I very briefly toyed with the idea of building a custom rib-shaped mold to form the patties, but backed down at the last moment. Instead, I decided to go with squares, which I made by laying a sheet of parchment paper inside a quarter sheet pan, spreading the meat mixture on top, and folding the other half of the parchment paper down on top of it. I used my hands to press the meat into a square shape, then slid it out onto a cutting board and used my knife to cut it into individual patties. This gave me a neat, stackable pile of ready-to-cook patties, separated by parchment paper.
So far, we've made a rub and a sauce, dry-brined, cooked sous vide, smoked, picked, salted some more, chopped, and formed. We still have a couple more steps to go.
McDonald's fries its McRibs on a griddle, but we're going to finish them off on the grill for another layer of smoky grilled flavor.
The parchment paper made it easy to transfer the patties to a preheated grill. I cooked them over high heat, flipping them a few times during the process for better, more even cooking and browning, and painting them with barbecue sauce for the last few minutes of cooking.
I then made my sandwiches, took a bite, and promptly smacked myself in the back of my head. Kenji! You lazy bum! What are you doing? You smoke, sous vide, grind, and grill your own patties, but you're using those crummy store-bought buns and pickles? Get a hold of yourself, man!
I took my advice and stepped back into the kitchen for one final round.
Pickles are easy. Sure, you can go all out and lacto-ferment your own natural pickles, but for burgers and sandwiches, I actually prefer the sharper flavor and heartier crunch of a fresh quick pickle, which I make by pouring boiling brine over sliced cucumbers.
In my quick dill pickle recipe, I use equal parts water and vinegar, along with some garlic, black peppercorns, mustard seed, red pepper flakes, and fresh dill for flavoring. The pickles take about 30 minutes to make. (P.S. Yes, those cucumbers are from my garden. Yes, I'm proud of my newly adopted California snobbishness.)
Significantly more challenging is finding the right bread. Making homemade sandwich and burger buns is surprisingly difficult, as most store-bought versions are packed with dough conditioners that make them softer and fluffier. Luckily, I spent a good chunk of time last year working on a recipe for cemita rolls, or Mexican-style enriched sandwich buns.
They're made with heavy cream and end up with a texture somewhere between Wonder Bread and brioche (that's a good thing). Soft and moist, not mushy or tough, with a flavorful, shiny crust.
Cemita rolls are typically made with sesame seeds on top (like the classic version pictured above), but for the McRib, I decided to make them au naturel, in order to more closely replicate the original.
I baked my buns, grilled a new batch of patties, and started stacking. Bottom bun, smoked-rib patty, extra barbecue sauce, homemade pickle slices, onion slivers, top bun. Simple, right?
The sandwich was...well...it's hard to find the right words to express its gloriousness. Now, I'm sure there were some inescapable psychological elements at play here. We can't help but be more invested in things that we've devoted extra time to, but here's the good news: You can't buy this sandwich anywhere, which means that if you are ever to eat it, you'll have already put in that effort as well! (Or, at the very least, you'll have some really good friends who have put in the effort, and who doesn't love good things when other people are doing the work?)
In all seriousness, it's incredibly good. The patties have built-in smoke flavor, and a texture that blurs the line between sausage and barbecue. Springy and meaty, but with pockets of crispy burnt edges and melting smoky fat. Pair that with the soft homemade bun, the sharp pickles, and the savory-sweet sauce, and you've got something that should make that clown tremble in his oversize red shoes.
I mean, let's take a look at what Ronald's got:
Versus what you can have in your hands this weekend:
Ribby McRibface? Hmm. Let's go with the Ribbius Maximus. Or the Get Ribbed. Or...whatever. Call it what you want. I just call it delicious.