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.
Ingredients in Memphis Rib Rub
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.
Indirect Heat Is Key to Memphis Ribs
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
Yellow Mustard: Yes or No?
It's almost an American tradition to argue about best way to make any kind of ribs. With Memphis-style ribs, adding yellow mustard to the ribs to help the rub stick keeps that tradition alive well.
A thin layer of plain yellow mustard, "the cheaper the better" as one of our readers put, creates a glue that helps the spices adhere but leaves behind very little mustard flavor.
Some rib aficionados would never use mustard, but use salt to draw out moisture and make the ribs wet. The dry rub ingredients include salt. Adding the rub 12 hours before hand, covering, and refrigerating will draw moisture out and the rub will adhere better to the ribs when they go on the heat. Or, salt the ribs 12 hours ahead of time, cover, and refrigerate. Then add the rub to the ribs right before cooking.
More Recipes for Great Ribs!
- Slow Cooker Bourbon Short Ribs with Cheesy Grits
- Slow and Low Country Ribs
- Braised Beef Short Ribs
- Kalbi Jjim (Korean Braised Short Ribs)
- Grilled Korean BBQ Pork Ribs (Dwaeji Galbi)
Memphis-Style Pork Ribs
Try to get St. Louis-cut ribs for this recipe, not baby back ribs. Regular spare ribs are fine, too.
The 5 hour cooking time is minimum on these ribs. They may take longer depending on the size of your ribs.
2 St. Louis-cut or spare rib racks
1/4 cup sweet paprika
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons cayenne
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Remove the membrane:
For more tender pork ribs that better absorb the flavor of the rub, remove the thin, whitish membrane found on the underside of the rack. Lay the rack on a work surface with the curved side up. Grab the membrane in a corner and give it a firm pull. If it resists, slip a knife (a table knife works) between the membrane and one of the bones at the end of the rack to loosen the membrane. Wad up a paper towel and use that to help get a better grip if you need to. Just keep pulling and the membrane should come off in one piece.
Repeat with the other rack of ribs.
Make the dry rub and 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.
Grill over low, indirect heat for 1 hour:
Get your grill or smoker going. You want pretty low heat, about 200 to 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 1 hour.
Continue grilling 4 hours:
Every hour or so after the initial hour of grilling, 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.
When you rotate the ribs, keep monitoring the grill temperature so it's in that 200 to 220°F.
Check for doneness:
Depending on how hot your set-up is and at what stage of doneness you like your ribs, they will be done in 4 to 8 hours.
How do you know when the ribs are done? When you lift a rack from the grill with tongs, and give the tongs a jostle, you should see a crack form in the slightly charred crust, exposing the rosy pink meat underneath.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 30g||39%|
|Saturated Fat 9g||44%|
|Total Carbohydrate 41g||15%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 32g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||4%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|