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?
Updated from the recipe archive, first published 2011
Memphis-Style Pork Ribs Recipe
Try to get St. Louis-cut ribs for this recipe, not baby back ribs. Regular spare ribs are fine, too.
- 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
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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