There are few American foods that elicit more passion than barbecue. Questions like pork vs. beef (even lamb), “wet” vs. “dry”, ribs, butt or brisket, mustard or vinegar in the sauce all make for dozen of varieties of barbecue. Depending on where you are from, passions can run very, very high. Particularly in the American south if you ask for the “wrong” thing in some areas you may get the “around here we serve “real” barbecue and we use…X”. The only thing most aficionados will agree on is that barbecue may be the perfect summer meal.
As a Californian, we don’t really have a regional style (unless you count Santa Maria-style Tri-Tip, which is more of a roast), so we get to “pick and choose” a bit. We will cop to a preference for Carolina-style pulled pork- the hot vinegar sauce variety, but mustard-based is good, too. But the kids and many of our friends prefer ribs, and they do take less time, so we make them pretty often. And when we barbecue ribs, we go for Memphis-style.
If you are unfamiliar with Memphis style ribs, they are ribs prepared using a dry spice rub and a vinegar-based “mop” during smoking. Unlike ribs from St. Louis or Mississippi / Alabama that feature a sweet, “wet” sauce, Memphis-style ribs develop a nice dry, spicy “bark” and a very light glaze from the “mop”. Sauce is usually tangy and served on the side, although like all barbecue, opinions on sauce vary. You can use either baby-back ribs or St. Louis-cut ribs (middle of the ribcage) and get good results. Memphis-style ribs are more like pulled pork than most ribs. Good stuff. Really good.
And relatively easy to make. One of the misconceptions about making barbecue is that it is difficult. In fact, it’s easy, and requires relatively few ingredients. But the main ingredient you need is time, and there is no substitute. It isn’t an accident that barbecue mostly gets made, and consumed, on weekends. If you need an excuse to laze about with friends for an afternoon (perhaps with a beer or cocktail), making ribs will certainly do the trick.
The steps are pretty basic. Get some baby-back or St. Louis-style ribs. Make or buy spice rub (recipe here and below) and rub into the ribs and let them rest in the fridge for at least 6 and up to 48 hours. Soak some wood chips or chunks- we like a mix of hickory and fruit woods like apple or cherry. Get you smoker or grill ready at a temperature about 210 degrees (follow the instructions for your grill or smoker). Set up your smoker with a drip pan, and it helps to put some liquid like beer or apple juice in the drip pan, and then start smoking the ribs. Meanwhile make the “mop” with some vinegar, salt, apple juice and a touch of your dry rub. Liberally “mop” the ribs with the sauce every 30 minutes or so.
Smoke the ribs until done, usually when about 1/4 inch of the ribs show. Or until the internal temperature is at least 185 degrees. The ribs are technically “done” at 165 degrees, but not all the connective tissue will dissolve until you reach 185. The extra time will be worth it, the ribs will be smoky, tender and juicy. Plan on 2-3 hours for baby-back ribs and 4-5 hours for St. Louis-style ribs.
And while the ribs cook, enjoy the lovely smoky, porky smells and visit with friends. Take a dip in the pool or listen to a ballgame. And then serve the ribs with some cole slaw, perhaps some home-made pickles (our sweet pickles are in the photos) and some corn on the cob. And if you have peach pie to serve (recipe soon), you may just have a perfect summer meal…
Memphis-Style Barbecue Ribs:
Notes Before You Start:
- Smokers and grills vary, make sure to keep the heat between 200-225 degrees and use indirect heat.
- Soak your wood chips or chunks in water at least 30 minutes before smoking. Hickory, apple and cherry wood are good choices.
- Hardwood charcoal lasts longer and works better than briquettes for low-and-slow barbecue.
What You Get: Smoky, slightly spicy and juicy ribs. Barbecue in 1/2 the time of pork butt or beef brisket.
How Long? at least 3-4 hours of smoking. And 6-48 hours of time resting the ribs with rub in the fridge.
- 3 full racks of baby back or St. Louis-style ribs
- 3 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons dry thyme
- 2 teaspoons ground coriander
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup apple juice or cider
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons dry rub
- 1 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar (or molasses)
- 1 teaspoon salt (add more to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce (add more to taste)
- For the dry rub, combine all the ingredients and store in an airtight container. When ready to use, generously “rub” the dry rub onto the ribs, covering all available surfaces. Allow the ribs to “marinate” in the rub for up to 48 hours, or smoke immediately (but at least 6 hours is better).
- For the mop, whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Set up your smoker or grill for smoking with indirect heat. Smoke the ribs at 210 degrees. Flip and brush the ribs with the mop every 30 minutes. Smoke 2-3 hours for baby-back and 4-5 hours for St. Louis ribs, or until internal temperature reaches at least 185 degrees.
- Meanwhile, if making sauce, combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and stir until combined. Taste and adjust salt and hot sauce, if you like. Store in the fridge (the sauce will be ok for about a week).
- When ribs are done, pull from the heat and let them rest, covered with foil for 20-30 minutes. Then dust with a few tablespoons of the rub, slice the ribs and serve.