Memphis-Style Pork Ribs

Memphis-style dry rubbed pork ribs barbecued slowly to perfection!

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Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

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.

Memphis-style Pork Ribs

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?

Updated from the recipe archive, first published 2011

Memphis-Style Pork Ribs Recipe

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

2 Grill over low, indirect heat initially for one hour: 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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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank

Links:

Memphis-style Dry Ribs from Barefeet in the Kitchen

12 Recipes for Smoky, Tender Ribs from Serious Eats

Memphis-style Pork Ribs

Showing 4 of 25 Comments

  • irene

    You have made my love for pork to grow, this looks yummy and delicious, thank you for this recipe.

  • Chris

    i’m from chicago, but my folks are from outside of memphis (in mississippi), and this is how i’ve always done my ribs, to the tee. i will say that living “up north” it’s not always fun or feasible to pull my weber out, so i have done ribs in the oven. you miss the smoke and the bark, but what you do get is a nice collection of very flavorful pork fat that you can use.

    also, i actually prefer spare ribs to baby backs, because of the extra fat, although i do trim any excess fat when i’m taking off the tip and silverskin (st louis ribs are merely spare ribs with the “tip” portion removed).

    finally, and this isn’t me being a “bbq snob”, never EVER boil ribs. if you want to take a shortcut, grill the ribs first to infuse with smoke, then wrap in foil and finish in the oven at 250-275.

  • Amanda

    Hank, is it possible to make them ahead in the morning and put in the fridge than reheat at dinner? If so how do you go about timing it? Thanks

  • 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. :)

  • 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

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