My Lip-Smacking BBQ Ribs & the Secret Spice Blend That Makes Them Sing

Sugar and five spices, and all things nice.

July  2, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

Some people like to meal prep; I don't. Or rather, I don't know that I have the dexterity or mental wherewithal to plan a week's worth of groceries for myself. I'm much too disorganized, much too lazy, and—living in New York City without a car—much too weak to carry more than a single eggplant home.

Instead, I like to make my secret Magic Spice Blend™ and rub it on whatever protein looks delicious at my butcher that day. The way I shop for food is, indeed, the way I like to live my life: out of breath, one day at a time.

In a world of unknowns, this spice blend is the one constant in my life. It’s smoky and sweet, savory and familiar. It lives in a Mason jar by my stove next to the olive oil, salt, and pepper. That's the thing about "secret" dry rubs: When you've found the perfect mix, it becomes a part of you and your daily cooking. It's good and reliable, even signature, because you feel somehow that you've been seasoning with it all along.

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Where other dry rubs' ingredients lists tend to fall into "11 herbs and spices" territory, mine hits those classic barbecue notes with sugar, salt, and five efficient spices:

  • Brown sugar for sweetness
  • Salt and pepper for taste
  • Paprika for smokiness
  • Garlic powder for savoriness
  • Cayenne pepper for heat
  • Celery seed for herbal lightness

When you're as maladroit as I am, the reward of an all-purpose spice mix like this is tenfold. I’m telling you, it works on everything:

  • Pork chops. Dust both sides of bone-in pork chops with my Magic Spice Blend and grill over high heat, a few minutes per side, or until the internal temperature reaches at least 145° F.
  • Chicken thighs. Sprinkle it on the underside of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, place on a sheet pan (skin-side up), then season the skins lightly with more rub. Roast at 400° F for 30 minutes, or until cooked through. (Bake a whole tray of these, because leftovers make for the most delicious chicken quesadillas later.)
  • Salmon fillets. Shazam! A pinch of my dry rub over the flesh side of center-cut salmon fillets goes a long way. Roast at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish), and eat with white rice, which necessarily sops up the fatty omega-3-ness characteristic of salmon.
  • Cucumbers. Yes, cucumbers. Here's where my spice mix meets its vegetable match. With a touch of spiky lime juice and a Salt Bae throw of Magic dust, this tastes not unlike cucumbers with Tajín. Addictive, in other words. Plus, it's a three-ingredient salad when you need it the most (on busy weeknights like tonight).
  • Eggs. Guess what seasons my single soft-boiled, six-minute egg every morning? MSB. A pinch of it works wonders on fried eggs, too. Its rounded sweetness is a welcome first bite on harsh, bitter mornings pre-coffee.
  • Baby back ribs. Though it's great on everything, I will say that Magic Spice Blend's one true home, its raison d'être if you will, lies very much in the barbecue pork rib. As we rush steadfastly into the cookout months, it'll be important to keep reliable recipes like this one in your back pocket.

There's no easier way to feed a crowd: Take a slab of baby back ribs, rub some of my Dark Arts dust onto both sides, wrap tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil, and bake for three full hours in a low, low oven (250° F should do it).

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Top Comment:
“HI, You had mentioned you keep the MSB in a mason jar. Can you please LMK what the amounts of the 6 spices are. (as in cups, tsp, tbs, ect.) I got the MSB off the recipe, but was wondering the amounts for the jar. Thanks. I am excited to try!! ”
— carrie

Mind you, these ribs aren't going to look and taste like the sticky, saucy, lacquered ribs of Southern yore—they're a bit cleaner in taste. As you've basically steamed them in their own juices, they'll be fall-off-the-bone succulent, and in this you may find a new appreciation for the flavor of pork as it should be: not drowned in a saccharine BBQ sauce, but rather powdered with a smoky-sweet, savory invisibility cloak that lets the meat be meat.

Feel free to eat this with your usual summer sides: corn, tomatoes, potato salad, the like. I always serve my Magic ribs with hot, fluffy white rice and devastatingly cold beer.

Do you have a secret spice blend you put on everything? Let us know in the comments below.

Hello, Summer

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tree
  • carrie
  • Kevin
  • Lamb
  • SumG
Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


Tree July 14, 2019
This is so good. Even though I had to sub in onion powder for garlic powder (food allergy kid) & reduce the cayenne for the toddler’s palate, it’s a keeper & I thank you, Eric.
carrie November 1, 2018
HI, You had mentioned you keep the MSB in a mason jar. Can you please LMK what the amounts of the 6 spices are. (as in cups, tsp, tbs, ect.) I got the MSB off the recipe, but was wondering the amounts for the jar. Thanks. I am excited to try!!
Kevin July 5, 2018

Nice to meat you. This article was 'well-done' and let me be frank with you, I almost licked my screen.. Will have to try this out sometime.

Eric K. July 5, 2018
Eric K. August 9, 2018
Two puns!
Lamb July 3, 2018
E'money the pic is pork chops not ribs, my kids pointed that out. Com'on man
Eric K. July 3, 2018
Hi Lamb, the pork chops are in reference to one of the ways I use my spice blend. The ribs are toward the end of the article. Here's the recipe if you can't find it: https://food52.com/recipes/77297-baby-back-ribs-with-magic-spice-blend
Eric K. July 3, 2018
Hi Lamb, the pork chops are in reference to one of the ways I use my spice blend. The ribs are toward the end of the article. Here’s the recipe if you can’t find it! https://food52.com/recipes/77297-baby-back-ribs-with-magic-spice-blend
SumG July 2, 2018
Eric: I used to make oven baked ribs all the time (and then finishing them off in the broiler, after putting BBQ sauce) But then I found this Instant Pot recipe https://spicecravings.com/fall-off-the-bone-pork-ribs
I have to try the addition of celery seed and see how that changes the taste. The other thing different in the one above is they use Chili powder.
Eric K. July 3, 2018
The celery seed, for me, adds a little somethin' somethin'.

Do you love your Instant Pot? Should I get one?
SumG July 4, 2018
Eric - Instant pot is a life changer. Pretty much every recipe you make can be made faster and with a hands-off approach in the instant pot. See the same website I linked above https://www.spicecravings.com/ - they have a terrific FAQ on the instant pot and how to get started etc. Tons of recipes there
Steve July 2, 2018
Dried thyme is another nice addition… a bit of a citrus note that holds up during the smoke.
Eric K. July 2, 2018
Love that idea, Steve.
Sugewhite July 2, 2018
How am I supposed to grill in the oven cousin? This is BBQ, cookout, grillin' and all I see is "preheat yer oven to 250"
Eric K. July 2, 2018
Hi Sugewhite, good point! This recipe is for oven-baked ribs, the way I eat them at home. But if you're grilling, you can set the foil pack on the top rack of your grill on low heat, close the lid, and slow-cook for a couple hours until tender.