As soon as the first signs of warm weather present themselves, our thoughts turn to—BARBECUE! We can't get enough of cooking our food outdoors, and breathing in the succulent aromas that only a smoker can create. This time of year we cook everything that we possibly can on the smoker, from vegetables and sausage, to our all-time favorite – the low and slow flavor of tender spareribs. We love trying new seasoning blends, mop recipes, and styles of cooking, so we can pass our best tips along to you. While there are regional variations on how ribs are cooked across the country, one thing that rib chefs, from the home cook to the competition crew member, agree on is that using a mop or spray during the cooking of your ribs can be a major advantage.
What Is A Mop?
To clarify a bit of vocabulary: there are two kinds of mops. One mop—the kind we focus on in this article—is a flavorful liquid that is daubed on ribs during smoking or grilling, for seasoning and flavor. The other mop is the actual utensil used to distribute the mopping liquid, and it looks just like a small, hand-held mop. You put on your mop, with a mop. You can also use a heat-resistant silicone brush as a mop, or put your mop liquid in a spray bottle and spray the meat instead.
Why Use A Mop?
There are plenty of arguments for and against using a mop when cooking ribs, but we think the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Many people argue that using a mop will make the outer crust soggy and prevent the formation of the crisp “bark”, but not if you apply it with a gentle hand at the correct time.
The moisture from a mop will attract smoke to your ribs in a good way, giving them more smoky flavor in a shorter amount of time. Also, if you are cooking your ribs low and slow—which we hope you are—a mop will help keep your meat from drying out.
Depending on the ingredients that you use to make your mop, it can help caramelize your meat and add complexity to the flavor and texture of your ribs. Many people think you can achieve this by using BBQ sauce, but you should be wary of applying sauces because the extremely high sugar content can burn fairly easily, cause your meat to become charred and dry.
Competition barbecuers like using a mop during smoking because it gives them a chance to add even more mouthwatering flavor to their ribs. It is a great way to experiment with how to tie different flavor profiles together to create your signature smoker style.
Before making your mop, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, mops should be thin - no thicker than fruit juice. We suggest that you mix your mop from liquids and spices, rather than taking a shortcut and trying to thin barbecue sauce with vinegar or juice. This may work in a pinch, but it’s not ideal. As we mentioned earlier, commercial sauces have a high sugar content. Although sugar is a necessary ingredient for forming a crust, too much sugar can burn, charring the meat and creating large amounts of non-aromatic smoke that can negatively impact flavor.
So what can you use? Many people like to use apple cider vinegar to make their mop, along with other complimentary liquids such as whiskey, bourbon, Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, lemon juice, or sweet juices like cherry, apple, or pineapple. If you use soda in your mop make sure it is not diet, and let the soda sit open for a while so it goes flat; this will keep your mop from foaming and fizzing when you use it to baste your ribs. Take some time to play around with your favorite flavor profiles to find the one—or ones!—that works for you. A super simple mop can be made with apple cider vinegar and your dry rib rub. We recommend adding 1-2 tablespoons of seasoning to one cup of vinegar, juice, soda, whiskey, or personalized combination thereof.
Make your mop with a balance of sweet, hot, and tart elements that deliver layered, intriguing flavors. Try cola with cider vinegar and ground chipotles. Mix bourbon with cider vinegar powder, Vermont maple sugar, and ground, chocolatey ancho chiles. Fans of heat can try pineapple juice, white wine vinegar, and ground habanero. The possibilities are wide open and subject only to the limits of your imagination.
When to Mop
The best time to apply your mop is right after the crust has started to form. Many people are under the impression that you should never open a smoker or grill while meat is cooking. While you shouldn't leave the lid open for long periods of time, it is okay to open the smoker or grill to spray or mop your meat. This is because most of the heat that is used to cook your meat thoroughly is actually stored in the outer layers of the meat and slowly transferred to the inner sections of meat. This temperature won’t fluctuate that much when the cooker is opened for a short period of time, and the internal air temperature will quickly reheat once the lid is closed.
As you can see, a rib mop can not only help you create a more complex flavor for your meat, but it will also help keep it moist while cooking low and slow. When you mix your mop, remember: balance your flavors, keep the mop thin, and too much sugar is the enemy. Follow these tips and you should be well on your way to rock star ribs. Just be ready for your friends and family to ask you for your secrets!