Memphis-Style Pork Ribs

Got your grill going? Join Hank for some Memphis ribs! ~Elise

There are wet ribs, sticky with a succulent, spicy barbecue sauce, and there are dry ribs, where the flavor is all in the dried mixture of herbs and spices, melded into something greater than the sum of their parts by time, smoke and pork fat. This is what they do in Memphis, Tennessee, and it’s why Memphis-style ribs are some of the best in the world.

What goes into a Memphis rib rub is up to you, but most recipes rely on paprika, brown sugar, black pepper, cayenne, garlic and onion powder. All sorts of other ingredients find their way into everyone’s “secret recipe,” but the most common are cumin, dry mustard, celery salt or celery seed, dried oregano or rosemary, chili powder, ginger, allspice or even white pepper. Serious pit masters spend years perfecting the exact ratio of spices for their own personal styles.

Cooking these ribs is simple: Rub the spice mix all over the ribs and cook them slowly over low heat until they’re done. Sounds easy, right? It is, sorta.

We prefer to let the spice mix sit on the ribs overnight before we cook them, but you don’t have to. We also prefer to cook our ribs over a hardwood fire, but you can use charcoal or even a gas grill if you need to. Just don’t use an oven.

In all cases, cook the ribs away from the heat source. If you use a grill, have the fire going slowly on one side of the grill and cook the ribs on the other side. Again, slow is good. I’ve cooked ribs for 12 hours before, and I’ve never had good ribs cooked less than 3 hours.

Use our rib rub as a guide, and play with it to your own taste. What are your favorite ingredients in your barbecue rubs?

Memphis-Style Pork Ribs Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 5 hours
  • Yield: Serves 4.

Try to get St. Louis-cut ribs for this recipe, not baby back ribs. Regular spare ribs are fine, too.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 St. Louis-cut or spare rib racks

Method

1 Mix all the dry ingredients together. Rub them all over the ribs and, if you have time, set them in the fridge overnight.

2 Get your grill or smoker going. You want pretty low heat, about 200-220°F if you can measure it. Make sure you have a spot to put the ribs that is not directly over the heat source. Lay the ribs down. They should not sizzle. If they do, cool the grill down until the ribs no longer sizzle when placed down. Cover the grill or smoker and walk away for an hour.

3 Every hour or so after that, turn and rotate the ribs so they cook evenly. You should not have to baste them if you do this: The fat in the ribs will do the basting for you. Depending on how hot your set-up is and at what stage of doneness you like your ribs, they will be done in 4-8 hours.

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Links:
Another version of Memphis Ribs - from Big Flavors from a Tiny Kitchen
One more version of Memphis Ribs - from the Bungalow Kitchen

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23 Comments

  1. Joan

    Nice… it catch my attention. I am pretty sure that using a hardwood fire, charcoal or even a gas grill will add the grill flavor… but Why you should never use the oven?? What is wrong with it?

    You can’t barbecue in an oven. While you could use an oven to cook these ribs, I would not. Smoke and fire is just too important to the overall flavor. ~Hank
    Thanks,
    Joan

  2. Patsy Bell Hobson

    How do you know when ribs are done? When should you start testing for doneness?

    Depends on how you like your ribs. I live them to be almost falling off the bone, but not actually falling off the bone. Test by poking with your tongs. You’ll see when the meat separates. ~Hank

  3. Tim

    Hank is certainly correct about doing ribs very slowly over a wood fire. It takes a long time and you have to pay attention not to let the temperature get too high. 6 hours at least. 8 is better. 12 will give you the best ribs of your life as long as you keep your fire between 180 and 200 degrees. Sure, you can use shortcuts and wind up with something that’s okay. But once you do them this way you’ll understand everything you’ve been deprived of. So, at least once in your life, spend the better part of a day with your ribs. It’s worth it.

  4. Dianne

    I don’t have access to a bbq grill, so I oven roast ribs at a very low temp for a long time — 6 hrs at 200 usually works. But I find St Louis style ribs don’t work well with this method as they are fattier than baby back and the fat doesn’t melt away as well on the St Louis style as they do on the baby back ribs. Any thoughts on this?

    Sorry, I never do ribs in an oven. Maybe try upping the temperature to 225? ~Hank

  5. Cheryl

    Your rub sounds almost like mine. I add espresso powder in mine and the flavor is sooooo good, but no one can figure out that’s what it is!

  6. Mary Morris

    OK, I have a Weber, and have always cooked ribs, prefer Memphis or Kansas City style off of direct heat, with coals smoldering on 2 sides. The ribs are done in an hour, and I’ve never had any complaints, but your recipe takes ribs to a new and I’m sure most excellent level. How do I monitor ribs cooked this way? Is there a gadget that measures temps in Webers?

    Not that I know of. Just err on fewer coals, rather than more, keep one side cool and put the ribs on that side, and check them after the first hour once every 30 minutes or so. That’s what I do. ~Hank

  7. mike small

    make sure u keep top vent on far side above meat away from heat so smoke travels over meat…same for smokin butts..wood heat works

  8. Kathleen

    For Susan and other weber users- My bf & I differ on this all the time. Like so many, I like to dry rub my ribs, let them set for awhile, couple hours if you have the time, then I low and slow in the oven 275 or 300 for about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours depending upon their thickness. Then I put them on the bbq. for a little smoke and a little grill mark. My bf has a Weber and he likes to slow grill them. The very best, truth betold is a combination. I put them in the oven with my dry rub pre-prep, and then he puts a huge rock covered in tin foil in the center of his weber, builds a fire around it and when the coals are hot but ashen, he ads the ribs and puts the lid on. We use wood chips, usually a fruit wood like apple or cherry soaked in water or wine. Let them smoke up in the Weber for about 45 minutes to an hour and they are falling off the bone good. They are the very best I’ve ever had. I don’t know if its the rock or not, but he likes to thinks so….. so I let him.

  9. Metalchef

    Dear Elise;
    This recipe intrigued me, having invented my own ‘Kansas City style’ dry rub. So I went out, got a strip of baby backs and did it ‘Memphis’ style………….
    It was like eating an edible xylophone.
    Damn good according to this 30 year kitchen vet.

  10. Cecilia Gunther

    I am going to print this recipe for the Go’riller in the house. He makes his own charcoal, apple wood at the moment, though mulberry is my favorite. We shall try these this weekend. I will haul some ribs out of the freezer, make the rub and get them into the fridge today. Next summer we will be raising a couple of pigs for the freezer too so then I will have piles of ribs to cook! I LOVE long cooking. Thank you Hank. c

  11. Terri

    THANK YOU!

    I live here in memphis…have all my life..if there’s one thing we can do it’s BBQ…I am a little bias though..lol

    Wonderful Article.

    Just a small tip from my daddy:

    (if you want to do them ahead a little bit)

    Put them on the grill for a bit THEN the smoker to finish them. Just thought I’d share

    Thanks again.

  12. Reem

    Wow these look awesome, I want to eat them right now. I don’t have a smoker can I make them in very low oven? I know I won’t be getting the smoky flavor…

    You can, but it won’t be the same. Try cooking them at 225 degrees for a few hours and see. I’ve never done it, though. ~Hank

  13. Espahan

    OMG! These look unbelievably good. I am running out to buy ribs to try this recipe out. Hubby will think he’s in heaven.

  14. AA

    Should you start with the bone side or the meat side on the grill? When you say rotate and turn every hour, do you mean flip the ribs over or just rotate them? The recipe sounds great. Thanks.

    I tend to start bone side down, and yes, you flip them over. ~Hank

  15. Julie

    In answer to Susan’s question. I cooked baby backs on my Weber Kettle about two weeks ago. I used a candy thermometer stuck through one of the top vents. I laid unlit coals on one side & lit a few coals in the underside of the chimney. I placed a foil pan of water over the coals. The bottom vent was nearly closed and the top vent closed as far as I could with the thermometer in there. If I remember right, I maintained about 275 – 300 degrees. I pulled them off after 3 hours, though I certainly could have gone longer. I still had plenty of coals left.

  16. Michelle

    Hank, you say “Try to get St. Louis-cut ribs for this recipe, not baby back ribs. Regular spare ribs are fine, too.” Can you tell a newbie to rib cooking what the difference is so when I go to the butcher to ask, I’ll know what I’m asking for?

    I have wanted to try grilling ribs for some time and appreciate this recipe.

    Michelle

    Regular ribs have an extra “chine bone” attached to them that is sawed off in a St. Louis rib. A baby back rib is the uppermost 5-6 inches of the ribcage of the pig, sawed off neatly. Hope that helps! ~Hank

  17. story

    My husband was just asking about ribs with a “marinade” (I just made some slow cooked with the sauce painted on at the end of cook time). These look fabulous. The photo is so…primitive (in a good way). No need for fancy plates with some meaty ribs on the table.

  18. Kristy

    As a lifelong Memphian, I can also tell you that it’s not uncommon to cheat time on wet ribs by parboiling them in a mixture of vinegar and water for a short time. the vinegar is tenderizing, and they won’t need to smoke as long. Most people use actual smokers rather than a conventional grill.

  19. Mary

    These look wonderful. Living in Texas, I love dry rubs on ribs! I use a similar rub but I add in chipotle also. Oh my! It’s so good. I love chipotle.

    Also, I make these in the oven! I put them on a baking sheet and and then cover them tightly with aluminum foil. I set the temp at 250 and let them bake most of the day. For the last 1/2 hour I remove the foil. They are literally falling of the bone.

    All the best,

    Mary

    • onoki

      For OVEN: As Mary suggested, wrap in foil and bake in 250 F (or 125 C). I baked them for 6 hours and the ribs literally falled of the bone.

      I do not know if its because of the oven, but I feel like the recipe has too much sugar and paprika. I will definately try this again with less of both. But in any case, all the ingredients in this recipe are a really nice.

  20. Mary Brockmeyer

    Okay – I passed this recipe on to my dad, who loves ribs and to cook on his smoker. We had them last night for a special birthday dinner. I couldn’t eat them (another story) but my brother said quietly to me that he thought they were underdone. Today, my mother handed me two huge baggies of the left over ribs. Do you see any reason why I couldn’t bundle them up in foil and cook them in a low/slow oven to get that meat to fall off the bone?

    Nope. That will certainly finish them off, and they should already have some smoke on them from the barbecue, too, so I think you’ll be fine. ~Hank

  21. Kevin J Olivieri Sr

    Thank you Hank, I tried your Memphis pork Rub, when I knew my grandson Jayden was coming to visit on 11/05/2011, Ribs are a Favorite treat for him usually when we go out to dinner, But I saw your recipe and gave it a try, I used the slow low heat baking method in the oven, And cooked for about 5 hours, Let me tell you all, You do not need to make a gravy for those potatoes, Say good bye to (Outback) they were the best we all have ever ate, And the total cost was under $12.00 dollors to feed 3 people, Thank You so much again, Kevin and Family. :)

  22. liz

    Hi, here in Australia ribs aren’t common-place on our menues, but these look (and sound) fabulous – I’ll make them when summer returns. Do I use pork ribs or beef?

    Pork ribs. ~Hank

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