Monday, April 27, 2015

The McRob: A McReal McRib (Recipe)

McRob McRib v1.0.

Like so many other American high school kids who needed gas money, my first job was at the local McDonald's. This was back in the old days when we actually grilled burgers in a hurry because there were no food warmers to store cooked patties. Before the fancy double-lane drive-thru with video cameras and whatnot. Before anybody even thought to put TVs in the dining area. Credit cards? We didn't take no stinkin' credit cards. It was also a dark period in history when the McRib was unavailable, at least locally. But the perks were good -- we'd get a free meal on work breaks! Had the McRib been on the menu back then, I might still be working there.

If ever there was a fast food item with a cult following, it is the McRib. It doesn't really make any sense, although scarcity and nostalgia probably play big parts. I might go a year or two without visiting any McDonald's anywhere, but when the "McRIB IS BACK" sign grabs my attention I'll pull the e-brake and slide backwards into the drive-thru line if need be. In today's social media-driven world everybody seems to know when the McRib is making another temporary appearance and I know folks who aim to eat one per day while it is in town. People who wouldn't otherwise be eating at McDonald's. People who remember.

(Photo from

The McRib in one word: messy. The bun would leave a cornmeal dusting in its path even if you were just eating the bun. The mostly tasteless mystery meat is slathered in so much sauce that it's hard to keep everything between the lines and even harder to keep everything off your shirt. This isn't a sandwich you eat while driving. This is a destination meal and that destination better have a lot of napkins. Somehow it works. The sweet & tangy sauce reminds one of backyard BBQ fare so overly sauced that sauce is all you taste. The contrasting crunch of sliced onions and pickles adds a welcome touch of reality.

Taste, texture, fame. It's got it all... almost.

The weak link is the meat patty, which is somehow colorless and tasteless at the same time. The only redeeming quality is that precious form it takes after being stamped into a shape that resembles a cute little rack of ribs.

What if we could make a McRib sandwich at home by using real smoked rib meat without the bones? One that would look and taste like a BBQ rib sandwich, because it is!

We can.

The Plan

I'm fortunate to have a Farmer's Market that is stocked with local producers of top-notch beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Our beef farmer is the one who named this sandwich The McRob. I really should have thought of that first, but I didn't. And as pretentious as it may sound, it's also kinda funny and it stuck. 

My market friends from Stoney Creek Farm specialize in pork products. Among other things, they make the best bacon ever and they sell small packages of pork ribs you won't find at the grocery store -- back rib sections that are often cut into perfect sandwich-sized portions. [We'll figure out how to make a sandwich from any rib cut later, but these are a great place to start.] 

Stoney Creek Ribs.

So, how do we turn these ribs into a sandwich patty without the bones? Overcook them! Fall-off-the-bone ribs won't win any BBQ contests, but they sure are popular in many a chain restaurant. Those restaurant ribs are sometimes smoked first and most times not. We'll smoke these for sure. And then we'll experiment with various ways to keep cooking them until the ribs fall out or slip out.

Take I

The plan is to smoke the ribs for a couple hours and then cook 'em in a steam pan with some liquid stuff and some sweet stuff until they're fall-off-the-bone tender. When the meat has drawn back from the bones a bit, we would normally consider them ready to sauce and eat. But for these purposes that is the point where we'll put them in the pan to continue cooking on the grill or in the oven. Once they're in the pan it doesn't matter how you cook them, but we want to stay in the 225 - 250 temperature range for the whole process.
Stoney Creek Ribs & Philly Steak Rolls work well together.
Trading cornmeal for sesame seeds looks good to me.

We're not being picky about rubs or sauce yet -- here we used Rendezvous seasoning and a homemade BBQ sauce because they were on the counter already. No need to waste a trip downstairs to the pantry for an experiment!

NOTE: It is absolutely crucial that we remove the membrane from the back of the ribs before smoking. Otherwise, the bones aren't going to fall out or slide out. We learned that on Take IIIA, but we don't talk about Take IIIA anymore.

Before going on the grill, the rib cuts seem perfectly sized (just a tad over-sized) for the rolls.

Stoney Creek Ribs on the Weber Kettle.
Indirect heat with hickory smoke.
Always hickory smoke.

1) Smoked ribs in steam pan with butter, brown sugar, and beer. 2) Ribs after cooking for a couple hours in covered steam pan. 3) Rib sandwich patty after the bones slide right out. 4) Sandwich patty bathing in homemade BBQ sauce. 

Wow! It worked better than expected. Using these steamer pans makes it easy to periodically check tenderness while cooking. When the bones are ready to slip out, we have the perfect sandwich patty. One that deserves a BBQ sauce bath before meeting the bread, the pickles, and the onions.

Bam! The McReal McRib.

McRob v1.0
The Realest.

I used more pickles than McDonald's does because I've always thought the pickle's contribution to the McRib is way undervalued.

This could be the best sandwich we've ever made at home. It doesn't even seem real! But it is real. It's McReal Deal Holyfield real!


It might be impossible to understate the beauty here. This is exactly what the McRib wants to be. It looks like a rib patty because it actually is a rib patty.


McRob v1.0, outdoors.
January 1, 2015.
Great way to ring in the New Year!

Take II

For the second attempt we used a slow cooker to overcook the ribs after they were smoked. The same Rendezvous rub and homemade sauce was used this time.

More Stoney Creek Ribs.

1) Ribs getting started in the kettle smoke. 2) Ribs well smoked. 3) Ribs in the slow cooker with some onions, peppers, and apple juice. 4) Sandwich patties and bones, separated.

Before going in the slow cooker, these ribs had a nice smoke ring.
McRib patties do not have a nice smoke ring.

The onions and peppers added a little flavor, and -- like the first method -- it was easy enough to periodically check the ribs to see when the meat was ready to leave the bone behind.

These sandwich patties were not very uniform in size, so the small one went on a hamburger bun with some mustard greens and grilled onions and peppers. It did not follow the McRib formula, but on a table where there were no losers it was the winner.

McRob v2.0 Assembly Station.

v2.0 x 4


We don't talk about Take IIIA.


This time we tried cooking the ribs in foil for a few hours after smoking. The popular 3-2-1 method for spare ribs translates into a 2-2-1 method for baby backs. For these small cuts we tried a 2-2-0 plan -- two hours in the smoke followed by two hours in the foil and that's that.

NOTE: Since we're not talking about Take IIIA anymore, it's worth remembering that we always remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. That's all!

A couple more packages of Stoney Creek Ribs.

1) Ribs on the Weber kettle using the Smokenator. 2) Ribs well Smokenator smoked. 3) Ribs ready to wrap with some brown sugar, butter, and honey, while still waiting on the apple juice. 4) Rib patties separated from bones after cooking.

I don't usually wrap BBQ ribs when smoking them. But when I do, I like to lay them upside down on a strip of brown sugar before adding pats of real butter and a strip of honey on top (the bone side). Before closing the foil I also add some beer or apple juice. This works great for our sandwich purposes, and cooking them this way has the added bonus of making it easier to pull the bones out when they are unwrapped because the ribs are already bone-side up. BONUS: If all else fails (re: Take IIIA), you still have some sweet smokey rib treats to snack on!

These patties were pretty small, so here's to the first Double McRob. As far as flavor goes this one was probably the closest to the McRib because we used Sweet Baby Ray's for sauce. Cheers.

McRob v3.0
The Double.

Pink smokey goodness x 2.
McRibs don't have that color!

Conclusions [Not Really]

Winner, Winner, Homemade McRib Dinner! We can definitely make a better rib sandwich at home than we can purchase in a drive-thru. Sandwiches that feature real rib patties full of smokey goodness that are shaped like ribs because they are ribs. We can mimic the original formula (which is pretty darn good), or we can use the bread of our choice, the sauce of our choice, and the toppings of our choice. The first method we tried seemed to work best, but all three delivered. THE CONCEPT WORKS. Fall-off-the-bone ribs have finally found a purpose around here.



There is an elephant in the room.

What if we don't have access to small rib cuts, such as the ones from Stoney Creek? What happens if we try this idea with a full rack of ribs? Why has nobody done this before?

Read on...

The obligatory motorcycle or Corvette pic that has nothing to do with nothing.
Buell XB9R during the first ever motorcycle event at the new NCM Motorsports Park in October '14.
National Corvette Museum Skydome on the right. That's where the sinkhole is was.

Uncharted Territory [St. Louis]

If the concept works for small rib cuts, it should work for a full rack of ribs, right? Let's find out.

Breaking in a new-to-me offset smoker with an important experiment. Also, some chicken and peppers.
The first cook went great. I think I've already got my $50 out of it.

We experimented with a rack of St. Louis-style ribs using Steven Raichlen's All-Purpose BBQ Rub, and of course we removed the membrane before applying the rub. And this time I added another step. Unfortunately there are no pics [UPDATE: scroll down for pics], but after removing the membrane I cut a slit down each side of the rib bones hoping that would help them separate from the meat after cooking. It worked.

1) The ribs had a great color when they passed the bend test. 2) Following the same ol' formula they were wrapped upside down with brown sugar, butter, honey, and beer. 3) Overcooked, super-tender ribs after 2 1/2 hours wrapped. 4) The full rack of boneless ribs.

Normally we would eat the ribs when the bend test says they are ready, but we're trying to overcook them so they were just getting started after Step 1.

I won't lie -- the last step was a delicate one. After four hours of smoke and another 2.5 hours of cooking while wrapped, the meat was very tender. Most of the bones pulled right out along the cuts we made before cooking, but some took a little work with a small knife. After about eight minutes all the bones were out and we had one full-size rib patty ready for the biggest legit McRib-style sandwich ever. It was fully intact, and it was beautiful.



Bread? OK, fine, I tried to make a custom-size roll and I failed miserably. Fortunately, a large loaf of French bread from the grocery store bakery was a perfect fit! We sauced the bottom of the ribs first and put the bottom bun on before flipping the whole thing over onto a cutting board. Then more Sweet Baby Ray's for the top before the onions and pickles.

And here it is. I don't even know what to call it. It deserves a better name than The Full McRob. It's glorious. Magnificent! A whole rack of real smoked ribs turned into the biggest and most authentic McRib-style sandwich we've ever seen. Or tasted.

McRob v4.0
St. Louis-style.

McRob v4.0
Mind. Blown.


This is either one ridiculously big sandwich, or five big-enough sandwiches!

v4.0 / 5

The Full McRob.

McRob Samplers.
Stick a toothpick through them.
Put them on a platter.
Share them with friends and guests.
You win the party!

Conclusion [Maybe]

What's next?

Baby Backs, of course!

Conclusion [Maybe]

I'm not sure why we saved these for last, but the baby backs are the best. Why? Because the bones pull out so cleanly and easily.

For both of these baby back tests, I cooked the ribs the same way we cooked the St. Louis-style ribs above, but the baby backs don't need as much time (instead of the 2-2-1 method, try something like 2-3-0). You definitely want to cut slits down the side of each bone, and I removed the smallest two ribs to make for a more uniform size.

The baby back rack with the membrane removed and slits cut down both sides of each bone.
Ready for some rubbin'.

Baby backs.

It was amazing how easily and cleanly these bones were removed after some time in the foil.

McRob v5.0 I.

OK, so now we know.

Baby backs definitely work better than St. Louis-style racks. The bones pull out more cleanly and the full rack fits on a regular-sized loaf of French bread so you don't need to shop for a bigger loaf like we did for the St. Louis-style ribs.

These babies worked so we decided to do one more test to make sure it wasn't a fluke. This time we changed things up a bit by topping the sandwich with a homemade bourbon BBQ sauce and smoked peppers. The nice thing about making these rib sandwiches at home is that you don't have to follow the McDonald's formula -- you can do whatever you want.

Always remove the membrane.
Always cut the slits.

Ribs and peppers in the smoke.

No fluke!
These bones fell right out, just like the first time.

McRob v5.0 II.
The best McRob of them all.

McRob v5.0 II / 6.
Ready to share!
Ready to show off.

Conclusion [For Real]

Well, that's that, and that was fun. What have we learned? We've learned a lot:
  • If you can find small rib cuts, they're perfect for personal-sized sandwiches.
  • If you want to do a full rack of ribs, go with baby backs for sure.
  • Always remove the membrane from the back of the ribs.
  • Always cut slits down both sides of each bone after removing the membrane.
  • Smoke the ribs for a couple hours to get a good flavor before wrapping.
  • Wrap with some sort of butter, liquid, sugar combination and finish cooking the ribs this way until the bones are ready to fall right out.
  • The possibilities are endless when it comes to toppings and sauces. Heck, you could even go crazy and use a buttered and grilled bun!

Try it. You'll enjoy it. You'll look like a hero. And you don't really have to call it a McRob...


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