The term “binder” might not be well-known to folks who consider grilling and smoking to be a hobby rather than an obsession. For the rest of us, it’s more than a basic term—it’s the difference between a decent-tasting cut of smoked meat and a great one.
Binder for Ribs
In barbecue parlance, binder is the word used for the wet base that’s applied to the meat before the seasoning rub. It allows the spices to adhere to the meat, so that the bark will be crisp and flavorful. Mustard is the most common binder for ribs and other pork products. It’s also a popular binder for brisket. Other possible binders include oil, Worcestershire, vinegar, and mayonnaise.
What is a Binder for Ribs?
A binder, sometimes called a slather, is a moist ingredient that you add to the rib rack before you apply the spice rub.
Before I smoke a rack of ribs, I remove the membrane, if necessary, and then pat the rack dry using paper towels. This step will reduce the amount of steam that’s created when the ribs hit the smoker, thereby promoting even browning.
After that, though, I usually add a thin layer of mustard to help the seasoning rub adhere. If I were to press the spices directly onto the dry rack, most of them would fall off. Even if they stayed in place for the time being, they would likely peel off on the cooking grate if it weren’t for the binder.
Mustard isn’t the only option, as we’ll discuss later on. But it’s probably the most common among those who decide to take this extra step.
So you understand the principle behind the binder, but why would you use mustard instead of something with a more neutral flavor? After all, mustard has a distinctive vinegary kick that turns some people off.
You might be surprised to learn that the mustard loses a great deal of its sharpness during the long cooking process. I don’t use it because I think it will make the ribs taste better—at least, not directly. I use it because it’s inexpensive and easy to find, and it serves its purpose well.
When you add mustard to the rib rack, you’re giving the spices an anchor to bind them to the meat. The moisture also helps attract smoke, which will promote a crunchier bark.
Mustard is also vinegar-based, hence the sour taste. Vinegar works as a tenderizer, which is why many pitmasters soak their ribs in a vinegar solution prior to cooking.
One final note: When you look at the list of ingredients on a jar of mustard, you’ll see that a lot of the spices are common ingredients in spice rubs. Turmeric, paprika, garlic powder, salt, and of course, mustard seed—these will all complement the smoked pork beautifully.
As the ribs cook, the bold taste of the vinegar will fade, allowing the flavors of the seasoning rub to shine through. The other ingredients in the mustard will add another dimension of flavor to your smoked ribs.
Does it Matter What Type of Mustard You Use?
Regular yellow mustard works fine, although you can substitute whatever type you have on hand. Dijon mustard has a more complex flavor profile when used as a condiment, but as I pointed out, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference once the ribs are cooked.
My advice would be to make yellow mustard a pantry staple. Generic brands are cheap and readily available. Using a fancy high-end mustard serves no greater purpose, and the mustard’s best qualities will be wasted (along with the extra cash).
Adding Binder to Ribs After Rub
If you forget the binder, can you add it after applying the spice rub? Some people do that on purpose, although I’m not sure why. The dry spices will cling better if the mustard is already on the rack.
Go ahead and add the binder afterward if you’d like. It’s better than not adding it at all. One caveat, though: If you’re using oil as a binder, make sure to add only a very thin layer. Too much oil will lead to dangerous flare-ups.
Binder for Ribs: Alternatives to Mustard
You might not have any mustard in your fridge at the moment. It’s hard for me to believe, being someone who puts it on almost everything. But if you don’t have any, you have several other options.
For a neutral alternative, try using olive oil as a binder. It won’t contribute much in the way of flavor, but it does help the spices stick to the rack. Be forewarned that it’s more expensive than regular mustard, so it could be cost-prohibitive to use it on a regular basis.
Some people shy away from this option because the butter contains milk solids, which can turn bitter during prolonged exposure to heat. You can offset this by clarifying the butter (removing the milk solids) before using it as a binder, but I’ve never noticed any difference either way.
Mayonnaise is an oil-based emulsion that adds moisture without interfering with the pork flavor. It will help the ribs brown up beautifully, as you’ll know if you’ve ever applied it to turkey breasts before smoking or roasting. Like mustard, it’s cheap and readily available.
This savory sauce contains molasses, which adds complexity to smoked meats. Like mustard, it has a vinegar base to promote tenderness. Other ingredients include onions, chili pepper, sugar, salt, and garlic—all flavors that will meld well with smoked ribs.
Apple Cider Vinegar
You’ve probably had pork chops and applesauce at least once in your life. Most of us have. Pork and apples go together splendidly, which is why apple wood is one of the best options for smoking pork products.
Before adding the rub, douse the rib racks with cider vinegar. Don’t saturate the ribs, or the spices might dissolve when you apply the rub. Just use enough to help them stick. You can also use apple juice or cider instead of vinegar.
Do you enjoy smoked ribs with a spicy kick? Try using Frank’s Red Hot, Cholula, or Tabasco sauce as a binder for your ribs. The vinegar base will fade into the background, leaving behind the unmistakable sting of cayenne pepper.
Do You Have to Use a Binder?
It’s not necessary to use a binder of any type on your ribs if you’d rather not. The bark might not be as pronounced, but it won’t make a huge difference in terms of flavor.
Skipping the binder is easier if you’ve marinated or brined the ribs beforehand. The long soak in the liquid mixture will leave behind enough moisture to create a natural binder, even once you’ve patted the meat dry.
If you’re curious about the binder and how it might affect the finished product, take a look at this illuminating video.
I prefer to use a binder because I like a thick, crunchy bark on my smoked ribs. As a bonus, the step will make cleanup easier, since the rub will stick to the ribs instead of to the cooking grate.