When is the best time to apply a seasoning rub to a rack of ribs? Should you rub ribs the night before, or wait until you’re ready to put them on the smoker? In this guide, we’ll go over the pros and cons of seasoning ribs in advance.
Should You Rub Ribs The Night Before?
It’s permissible to add seasoning rub to ribs the night before you smoke them, but it isn’t necessary to do so. Rubbing the ribs in advance will contribute to a thicker bark and a tangier flavor, while adding the rub just before cooking provides a better backdrop for barbecue sauce.
About Seasoning Rubs
A seasoning rub is a blend of spices and herbs designed to complement the rich pork flavor of your smoked ribs. You can opt for a store-bought brand, but we prefer to make our own seasoning blends whenever we have time.
Brown sugar is a key ingredient in pork rub. It contributes a great deal of sweetness, and the sugar caramelizes nicely on the surface. This gives the ribs that appealing, slightly sticky crust known as bark.
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper are two other staples in most rib recipes. The salt helps the pork retain moisture, and both ingredients add a savory kick of flavor.
Other common rub ingredients include smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, and dry mustard. If you opt to slather the ribs in prepared mustard to help the mixture stick, you can leave the dry mustard out of the rub recipe.
If you find that a certain spice rub recipe is too sweet for your taste, reduce the amount of sugar the next time you make it. You can also cut back on sodium by reducing the amount of salt that’s in the recipe.
Fans of spicy food might want to boost the recommended dosage of cayenne pepper, or even add some chili powder or crushed red pepper flake to the rub. Conversely, you can omit these ingredients altogether for a milder-tasting batch of ribs.
Pro Tip: Before making your seasoning rub, check the “best by” dates on your dried herbs and spices. Even when they’re stored in a cool, dry place, these ingredients can lose their potency over time.
Dried spices should last up to 2 years with the proper storage. If you aren’t sure how long they’ve been in your cupboard, take a pinch between your fingers and give it a sniff. If the spice has a musty odor, or if you have trouble detecting any scent at all, it’s time to replace it.
How To Store Seasoning Rub
To help save on cleanup, mix your spice rub ingredients in a glass jar. That way, you can use as much as you need, and the leftovers will be all ready for storage. Just make sure to discard any spice mixture that’s come into contact with the raw pork.
Store spice rub in an airtight container. Label the package with the contents and the date. As long as you used fresh spices, the mixture should keep for up to 1 year when stored in an airtight container.
Note that the brown sugar might harden up during storage, especially if you live in a humid climate. When this happens, it’s best to discard the mixture and start over with a fresh batch.
Pro Tip: You can use rib spice rubs to season other cuts of pork as well. Try using your leftovers to season pork shoulder or Boston butt, pork chops, or pork tenderloin.
How To Apply Seasoning Rub
To begin, inspect the rib rack to see if the butcher has removed the membrane from the underside. This membrane, known as the peritoneum, will toughen up when it’s exposed to heat, so it’s best to take it off before you cook the ribs.
If the membrane is still attached, slide a dull butter knife just beneath one end. Grasp the membrane in the hand that isn’t holding the knife, then gently tug on the membrane until it comes off. Pat the meat dry with paper towels.
Next, you’ll want to coat the ribs with a thin layer of olive oil or prepared mustard. Don’t be afraid to use mustard—the strong vinegar flavor won’t be as noticeable once the meat is cooked. Be sure to rub the moisture all over both sides of the rib rack, massaging it with your hands to coat the entire surface.
Most chefs recommend the “wet hand-dry hand” method for applying rib rub. To employ this technique, use one hand to sprinkle the rub all over the surface of the meat, and the other hand to rub it in. Press gently to make sure the mixture adheres.
Use a generous amount of dry rub for optimum flavor. Cover as much of the rib rack as you can. If any excess rub drops onto the work surface, discard it when you’ve finished seasoning the ribs.
How Long To Leave Rub On Ribs For Best Results
There’s no hard and fast rule regarding when to put rub on ribs. Some pitmasters prefer to rub the ribs the night before, since this will save time on the day of the cook. Others find this step unnecessary, and season the ribs just before preheating the grill.
In our opinion, it’s a matter of preference. It won’t do any harm to season the ribs the night before you cook them, as long as you apply the mixture within 12 hours of putting the meat on the grill (see below).
On the other hand, we’ve added the rub to the ribs just 15 minutes before the start of the cook, and didn’t notice any difference in terms of quality. The mixture doesn’t penetrate very far beneath the surface anyway, so this practice doesn’t hurt either.
In short, it’s fine to rub ribs the night before if that makes the process easier for you. Should you forget to do so, however, it shouldn’t have an adverse effect on your results.
Should You Rub Ribs The Night Before? Pros and Cons
Are you still on the fence about whether to rub ribs the night before? Let’s go over the positive and negative effects of this practice.
When you add the spice rub to the rib rack 8 to 12 hours before cooking, the meat will have a more robust, tangy flavor. As the salt draws out the pork’s natural moisture, the rub will form more of a glaze, which contributes to a thick, crunchy bark.
As we pointed out, coating the ribs the night before will also save you time on the day of the actual barbecue. That can be a lifesaver, especially when you’re entertaining a large group.
On the other hand, adding the seasoning mixture so far in advance may cause it to overshadow the natural flavor. If you want your ribs to retain the rich taste of freshly smoked pork, consider waiting until the start of the cook to add the spice rub.
Also, note that if you apply the rub more than 12 hours beforehand, the salt will draw out too much moisture, essentially “curing” the meat instead of seasoning it. That could have a negative effect on the texture, leaving you with tough ribs.
Finally, barbecue sauce adheres better to ribs that were rubbed just before cooking. The thick, sticky bark that forms on ribs that were rubbed overnight is almost like a sauce in itself. If you have your heart set on serving ribs with a sauce, add the rub just before you fire up the smoker.
The Bottom Line
In the end, it’s up to you when to put rub on ribs. Do you prefer a thick, crunchy, flavorful bark? Or would you rather have a lighter bark that serves as a great backdrop to your favorite barbecue sauce? Your answer should help you determine the best course to take.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!