Column's anniversary calls for celebratory baby back ribs

  • Baby back ribs, sliced and ready for eating.

    Baby back ribs, sliced and ready for eating. Courtesy of Don Mauer

  • After applying dry rub to ribs, refrigerate for 24 hours before baking.

    After applying dry rub to ribs, refrigerate for 24 hours before baking. Courtesy of Don Mauer

  • Baby back rips fresh out of the oven.

    Baby back rips fresh out of the oven. Courtesy of Don Mauer

  • Nan's "Gilding-the-Lily" Rib Sauce adds the final touch.

    Nan's "Gilding-the-Lily" Rib Sauce adds the final touch. Courtesy of Don Mauer

Posted10/17/2018 6:00 AM

Slightly more than 26 years ago this column first began appearing in the Daily Herald. That first column was about trying to make a fat-free hot dog taste like the hot dogs with which I grew up, from Evanston's Bill's Drive-in (which is still there).

In 1992, I was a classic newspaper column-writing newbie. Olivia Wu, the then editor of the Food section, gambled that I could do it. Wu's patient guidance over my first six months got me rolling. At that time, I snail-mailed my column to the paper.


Today it's a very different world. This column and its recipes are delivered instantly via the internet right to my editor's desk.

Several years ago, we added pictures so you could see what that week's finished recipe looks like in my kitchen and what it might look like in yours.

In celebration of this column's 26th anniversary, I'm sharing one of my favorites: a dry rub for slow-roasted baby back rubs. My partner, Nan, joined in the celebration and made a sensational scratch-made, gilding-the-lily barbecue sauce to finish those ribs. (you'll find Nan's recipe at

My dry rub started with one from a well-known grill guy: Bobby Flay. If anyone knows about spicy dry rubs, it should be Flay. I've used my version of his rub for several years, and my ribs always come out "flavor perfect" not too spicy; not too sweet.

My dry rub differs from Flay's since I use as many organic herbs and spices as possible. Here's why "organic."

You may not know this; all imported dried herbs and spices must be sterilized before they can enter the United States. There are three acceptable methods to reduce bacteria in imported herbs and spices: irradiation, fumigation (ethylene oxide), or steam. Only one of those methods is certified for using organic herbs and spices: steam.

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Yes, it may seem picky to not want herbs and spices that have been either fumigated or irradiated, since it would take just a teaspoon of this herb or a half teaspoon that seasoning for a single dish. OK, call me picky.

Flay likes tongue-tingling spiciness, which may be why his rub recipe calls for a full teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Nan's not big on highly spiced foods, so I switched Flay's cayenne to 1 teaspoons smoked paprika; delivering both heat (not as much as cayenne) and a smoky note, enhancing my ribs with added flavor complexity.

Finally, Flay adds kosher salt to his rub. For the last few years, I went with Himalayan pink salt for my rub, believing that was better for me. Plus, one brand of Kosher salt is more than salt; containing an anti-caking ingredient: yellow prussiate of soda, also known as sodium ferrocyanide. Pass.

Recently, I found an all sea salt (and nothing more) kosher (flake) salt at that I use in my brines, as well as this rub.


Low and slow is how I roast my baby back ribs. After a refrigerated 24 hours with the rub, I roast them, covered, at 250 degrees for at least 3 hours. My ribs take on a beautiful deep brown color, and the rub's flavor permeates to the bones. Low and slow roasting produces meat so tender it just barely clings to the bone. Yummmmmm.

Happy anniversary!

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write to him at don@

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