In pitmasters’ circles, there are many topics that are hotly debated. The question of whether or not to slather ribs with mustard is one of them. Do you put mustard on ribs before rub? And if not, should you start?
Do You Put Mustard On Ribs Before Rub?
Pitmasters apply a layer of mustard to their ribs before adding the seasoning rub to give the spices something to cling to. This practice is known as “slathering” or “binding.” The mustard doesn’t alter the flavor of the ribs, but it’s fine to use another ingredient as a binder if you’d prefer.
Why Put Mustard On Ribs?
Contrary to what some naysayers believe, the purpose of the mustard isn’t to impart flavor. In fact, once the ribs have been cooked, you shouldn’t be able to taste the mustard at all.
Mustard has a distinctive taste, so if you’re not trying to transfer that flavor to the ribs, why use it in the first place? The truth is, the ingredient is there to act as a binder for the real flavor bomb—that is, the seasoning rub.
The mustard gives the dry spices something to cling to, so that they don’t fall off when you transfer the ribs to the grill. When the seasoning rub is glued to the meat, it helps the ribs develop a crispier bark.
Because moist surfaces attract smoke, the layer of mustard can also promote a stronger smoke flavor. So while it doesn’t impart any real flavor of its own, the mustard acts as a conduit for the flavors and textures that you’re trying to create.
Why Use Mustard?
Mustard is a popular binding ingredient for several reasons. For one thing, it’s vinegar-based, which promotes tenderness. Some barbecue aficionados will actually soak ribs in vinegar for a while before seasoning them for the grill.
There are other practical benefits to using mustard as a binder. For one thing, you probably have a healthy supply of it in your refrigerator to begin with. That ties in neatly with the other key benefits: mustard is cheap and easy to find.
Why You Can’t Taste It
It seems hard to believe that mustard, with its sharp, acrid qualities, wouldn’t affect the flavor of the finished ribs. In fact, when you consider what mustard is made of, it’s not that strange.
In addition to vinegar and water, commercially prepared yellow mustard is made of mustard seed, turmeric, paprika, garlic powder, salt, and a few unnamed spices. During the smoke, the water and vinegar will evaporate, leaving the spices behind.
If those ingredients sound familiar, it’s because most of them are key ingredients in barbecue rub recipes. So by slathering the ribs with mustard, you’re adding another layer of spices that are in the rub to begin with.
The result is that the mustard blends in with the spice rub, leaving behind no real flavor of its own. If you want a stronger mustard flavor, try adding more dry mustard to your seasoning blend.
Adding Mustard After The Rub
There is a vocal minority that insists upon adding the mustard after they’ve applied the spice rub, not before. While it’s not clear exactly why they prefer this method, the goal is the same: to help the seasoning cling to the ribs.
We would advise against slathering the seasoned ribs with mustard. It won’t make any significant difference in terms of your results, but it’s a messier prospect. If you want to use a binder, apply it first, then rub the ribs with the spice mixture.
Despite its affordability and availability, not every household will have mustard in the fridge. Maybe you don’t care for it, or perhaps you’ve just run out after hosting a hot dog roast the weekend before. Can you use something else as a binder?
You can—but before we delve into the possibilities, we should point out that you don’t need to use a binder at all. If the surface of the meat is moist enough on its own, the spices should adhere without any trouble.
This is true especially if you used a marinade or a brine on the ribs beforehand. Even when you pat the rack dry with paper towels, there should be enough residual moisture on the ribs to allow the seasoning rub to stick.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say you do want to use a binder. What alternatives do you have? Here are the most popular ones.
This is a more common binding ingredient for beef ribs than for pork ribs. However, you can use it on your spares or baby backs if you’d like. The molasses in the recipe will impart a nice smoky-sweet quality.
As with prepared mustard, Worcestershire contains a few ingredients that are typically added to spice rub mixtures—sugar, salt, onions, chili pepper extract, and garlic, for example. It’s also vinegar-based, giving it the same tenderizing properties.
Since you shouldn’t be able to discern much flavor from the mustard anyway, olive oil is a decent option. The only reason we tend to avoid it is that it’s more expensive than most of the alternatives.
Some pitmasters opt for mayonnaise as a binding ingredient because, like mustard, they have plenty of it available. It’s fairly inexpensive, and it uses neutral ingredients, with oil and water as its base.
Apple Juice or Cider Vinegar
These ingredients are popular in many recipes that relate to barbecue preparation, from marinades to spritzes and mops. Because pork and apples are a classic combination, it’s usually a good choice.
A hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Frank’s Red Hot, can be used in place of mustard. This is especially popular among those who like their ribs on the spicy side.
Cayenne peppers are a predominant ingredient in most commercially prepared hot sauces, but distilled vinegar and water are also high on the list. As is the case with mustard, these liquids burn off, leaving behind a hint of heat from the peppers.
The question of whether to put mustard on ribs before the rub is purely a matter of preference.
We would recommend smoking a couple of racks side by side, one with the mustard slather and one without, to see if you can tell the difference. Once you know which you prefer, you can switch to that method moving forward.