Big Little Recipes

These Baby Back Ribs Have a 4-Ingredient Superpower

July  9, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re upgrading baby back ribs with a four-ingredient dry rub.

Here’s a backup plan for any dinner in a pinch: homemade dry rub. Mix it up on a sleepy Sunday, keep it in the spice cabinet for months, and watch it wow everything from steak and chicken to fish and tofu.

What goes in a dry rub? Anything. And, in many cases, everything. Our test kitchen director Josh Cohen’s recipe has nine ingredients. Bobby Flay’s has eight (oh, and he has another recipe with 14). J. Kenji López-Alt’s has seven. Martha Stewart’s has six. And our senior editor Eric Kim’s has five (not bad, Eric!).

But this being Big Little Recipes, I couldn't help but look at all of these and wonder: Why? Do more ingredients actually make a more flavorful dry rub? Can the meat even tell the difference?

Look at enough dry rub recipes and you’ll start to recognize the same spices. Paprika (smoked or not), sugar, brown sugar, black pepper, white pepper, ground mustard, garlic powder (or granulated garlic), onion powder (or granulated onion), chili powder, ground cumin, cayenne powder, dried oregano, dried thyme, coriander seeds, and celery seeds are all popular.

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Top Comment:
“Really try salt n pepper it will change the way you do ribs! I use to use a 7 plus rub and now I would rather just salt and pepper. Pepper towards the end of the cook.”
— Chris D.

This seems overwhelming at first. But all of them can be sorted into four general groups: earthy, spicy, alium-y, and sweet. So, paprika and thyme are earthy. Cayenne pepper and chili powder are spicy. Garlic and onion powder are alium-y. Sugar and brown sugar are sweet (duh). You get the idea. The goal of any dry rub is to check off all these boxes.

Which means no dry rub needs more than four ingredients.

This Big Little Recipe has smoked paprika (the smokiness reminds me of Southern BBQ and I can’t get enough of its glowy color), light brown sugar (feel free to swap in dark for molasses-ier flavor), ground mustard (bright and punchy, pow-pow!), and garlic powder (yep, onion works, too).

My very favorite way to use it is oven-roasted baby back ribs.

Photo by Rocky Luten

The best ribs have tender meat and a crispy, crackly, bark-like crust. Notice I said tender, not falling off the bone, which sounds great and all, but is actually too far for ribs (try cutting the rack and you’d end up with pulled pork instead of individual ribs). Some recipes call for the meat to be swaddled in foil and baked low-and-slow, like Harold McGee’s; then finished under a broiler, or not. Meanwhile, other recipes, like The Kitchn’s flip the script and broil to start, then bake at a low temperature.

This recipe is somewhere between. The ribs start in a foil package and turtle-slow temperature, encouraging the meat to steam and get tender (but not too tender!). Then, they get basted with their own juices, and blasted at 500°F to yield that BBQ-esque crust.

If you’re already getting out the ingredients, you might as well scale up the batch and keep it around. Here are the measurements for a quadrupled batch, which you'll have no trouble using up, I’m sure.

  • ½ cup + 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • ½ cup + 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • ½ cup ground mustard
  • ¼ cup garlic powder
  • ¼ cup kosher salt

What’s your favorite way to cook ribs at home? Tell us your go-to method in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mark
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    Chris Drew
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    Emma Laperruque
  • Kt4
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.


Mark July 10, 2019
This recipe claims to be a four ingrediants recipe........but actually calls for five. Which one is not considered an ingrediant?
Don't leave the salt out!
Author Comment
Emma L. July 10, 2019
Hey Mark! As noted in the article intro, Big Little Recipes doesn't count certain pantry staples: "water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter)." Hope that helps clarify!
Chris D. July 9, 2019
I can get it down to two! Really try salt n pepper it will change the way you do ribs! I use to use a 7 plus rub and now I would rather just salt and pepper. Pepper towards the end of the cook.
Author Comment
Emma L. July 10, 2019
Ha! You win :) My editor Eric published a salt-and-pepper rib recipe last month: They're his dad's signature!
Kt4 July 10, 2019
since "we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats", would that make this a zero-ingredient recipe? ;) Heehee