A day in the life of barbecue pitmaster Myron Mixon, aka "the winningest man in barbecue," involves plenty of smoking (as in cooking meat over a peachwood-fueled fire), lots of concocting (of spice rubs, sauces, and injections), and a healthy shot of daydreaming about how to take foods prepared with what is likely the world’s oldest cooking method and make them taste even better. It was during one daydreaming phase that the King Rib was born.
Last summer, when Mixon began devising a follow-up to his best-selling barbecue cookbook Smokin’ (full disclosure: I worked on the book with him), he turned his attention from the time-honored traditions of his craft, such as smoking whole hogs, to the kind of cooking that people can do every day in their backyards. The cult-classic McRib sandwich popped into his head.
Now, Mixon himself is not a huge fan of the sandwich, which debuted on McDonald’s menus in 1981 (and has had a tortured relationship with the chain ever since, going on and off menus more than five times since). Love it or love to mock it, the McRib is a testament to both modern food science and old-school ingenuity. It all began as the brainchild of the corporate giant’s then-head chef, a dude from Luxembourg named René Arend, who had been inspired by his first taste of South Carolina pork barbecue. The McRib is made of "processed restructured pork product," which is essentially the less desirable cuts of pork (think tripe) that are flaked or chunked and then mixed with salt and water to become a kind of "meat log" or "meat glue stick" that can be sliced, doused in barbecue sauce, and laid with pickles and diced raw onion on a bun. "I know a lot of people who like that sandwich," Mixon says, "and I knew there had to be a better way to make one, and it was going to start with my prize-winning baby back ribs."
Mixon can do what no restaurant, let alone an international fast-food corporation, can do when he smokes his ribs: treat them with lots of love and care. "Baby backs" refer to the loin back ribs that come from the top of the hog’s rib cage between the spine and spareribs. And they’re Mixon’s favorite: He loves that they’re tenderer than spareribs, that they’re shorter and meatier, and that it’s easy to pop their bones out (essential for a McRib). He also loves them because they’re the official ribs of the Memphis in May professional barbecue association, in whose contests he got his start (and which he’s been the grand champion of an unprecedented three times).
Mixon marinates a rack of baby backs in a beef-stock-rich marinade, rubs them with a savory mixture of chili powder, garlic, dry mustard, and some other ingredients, spritzing them with apple juice every 15 to 20 minutes during the smoking process, and then glazes them with homemade vinegar-based sauce. Then he lops off the top layer and lays that boneless slab between a soft bun along with pickles and diced onions. And that’s the King Rib, which will be available at Mixon's new hip Pride and Joy barbecue restaurant in Miami, scheduled to open in September.