There’s a ton of background information about which ribs are best, and like everything it is mostly personal preference. We’re a little bias here at Graceland BBQ so we dub Memphis style ribs cream of the crop. This article is dedicated to the authentic ribs of Memphis; the same style you’d find if you visited Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous BBQ joint located in the heart of Memphis.
Simply put, envision a cross section of a pig as a slightly oval clock face. You lose a few minutes at the top which is the spine. 12:00-2:00 and 10:00-12:00 are your baby back ribs, often just called back ribs, the loin runs on top of these, and sometimes the butcher will leave a slightly thicker layer of meat on this rack. 2:00-4:00 and 8:00-10:00 are called “St. Louis” ribs, from the packing houses in that region, anecdotally the name was codified by the USDA because of a diehard Cardinals fan. Spare ribs actually straddle the St. Louis cut, running from a bit past 2:00 down to 6:00, from 6:00 to about 10:00, and have the cartilage from the sternum attached making these the most inconsistently shaped product with a higher fat content. Not as pretty, these are typically the least expensive and a great item to practice with if you are so inclined.
Classically, Memphis ribs use back or St. Louis cut ribs, and that is what we will focus on here. Back ribs have the smallest bone structure, and will cook the fastest. You’ll increase the cooking time by about 20% for St. Louis and another 20% for spare ribs.
Unless you have a very thorough butcher, all ribs will still have a membrane that runs along the back surface. With a little practice, this is very easy to remove. It will remain chewy and tough after the ribs are cooked, so you do want it gone for a better end result.
To remove the membrane start at the small end, and slip a butter knife under the membrane, loosening the first inch or so. Using a paper towel, grab the end of the membrane and slowly peel it back. If you’re careful it will peel the entire length of the ribs.
Starting with the backside, generously sprinkle the rub over the the ribs until you can just barely see the meat through the rub.
Flip them over and repeat the process.
Now let them sit for an hour while they come up in temperature and to let some of the rub penetrate the meat.
Smoking Low and Slow
Pork is such a natural meat for smoking because it has great flavor absorption. As a result, you do need to be aware of what impact the wood can have. Hickory is the traditional wood for Memphis barbecue, your palate will certainly recognize it from bacon where it is prevalently used. Mixed hardwoods, apple, cherry of pecan will all give you good results. Mesquite is intense and generally not recommended for pork, or only used judiciously if blending woods.
Preheat your smoking device to 225 degrees. Plan on holding that temperature for the next few hours, straight through to the finish.
Place your ribs on the rack, centered and spaced to get good smoke circulation.
Close them up and leave them alone for the first hour. Really, no peeking. Besides, now is when you should be making your barbecue sauce and prepping your side items.
To swab or not to swab?
Your back ribs are going to cook for 3 to 4 hours depending on how much meat your butcher left on top of the bones. Remember, longer times for St. Louis ribs and spare ribs. Sealing and shutting them up for that entire time will give you a delightful meal to enjoy. This is the classic dry style that made Memphis famous. However, larger pit barbecues will often have more humidity. Conversely it is easy to have too dry of an environment in your home smoker. And some people just don’t want to take the chance, so swabbing the ribs with a mop sauce is your best option.
There is an actual thing called a basting mop, it looks just like a miniature cotton mop for cleaning a floor. The softness of this device helps you leave the rub on your ribs because you don’t actually brush the sauce on. You dip the mop in your sauce and gently tap it along the length of our ribs to moisten them.
Memphis mop sauce recipe
In a bowl combine:
- 2 cups vinegar
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup Memphis rub
- ¼ cup barbecue sauce (optional)
Remember to apply gently without disturbing your spice rub as it forms a nice crust on the ribs. After the first hour (seriously no peeking!) mop liberally every 15-30 minute throughout the cooking process.
Other saucing options
Using a sprayer is an excellent way to keep the rub intact on the ribs as they cook. The spices can be problematic, some people will run them through a coffee grinder to avoid clogging the sprayer.
I prefer the sprayer approach, and I trust my rub to get the flavor I want. So I simply use 1 cup cider vinegar, 1 cup water, and ½ cup apple juice for my spray swabbing.
The other option is to actually use your barbecue sauce for a basting sauce. Since your barbecue sauce will have sugars, you need to wait until late in the process to apply it to avoid scorching. Usually the last 30 minutes is the best time to begin applying the actual sauce. This should give the rub time to incorporate well, because the thicker barbecues sauce will loosen it up somewhat as it is brushed on the meats. Apply once or twice as they finish up the smoking process.
This has now shifted your ribs to the wet style, also readily available in Memphis barbecue, though slightly less common than the dry style. Remove your ribs from the smoker, brush one more layer and let them sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
The fruits of your labor
Pull the ribs form the smoker, let them rest for 5-10 minutes and get ready to enjoy. Serve as a whole slab or cut them down to 4 or 5 rib sections. Now is the time to bring out your barbecue sauce, nicely warmed in a pitcher is a fun way to go. Let your guests decide on dipping, spreading, or if they just want to enjoy a classic dry rubbed Memphis rib the way it came to the table. Choose your favorite sides, and have the feast you have earned with your efforts.