I’ve been experimenting with ribs for the past few months. I’ve been trying to recreate the ribs they serve at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis, and I think I’ve pretty much nailed it.
Ribs are pretty easy to cook. As long as you’ll be home for about four hours, they’re not much trouble at all. There’s a little prep involved, but most of the time you’re just checking the grill and adding wood chips. What makes these ribs so good is the dry rub. Cook’s Illustrated published a feature on Memphis-style ribs this summer, and I’ve been using their spice rub mixture with great success. I’ve deviated from their grilling/smoking instructions a little, but my version is still pretty close to theirs.
Here’s everything you need for the ribs:
Memphis-Style Baby Back Ribs
- Foil pan
- Wood chips
- Basting brush
- Sheet pan
- Aluminum foil
- 2 slabs baby back ribs
- 2 cups beer
- 1 cup applesauce
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) sweet or smoked paprika
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 2 tablespoons table salt
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons cayenne
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
There’s not much to the dry rub recipe. Just combine everything in a bowl and break up any lumps.
Next, you need to trim the slab of ribs. There’s usually a chunk or two of meat at the big ends of the slab. I cut those off and save them for other recipes. Then you need to pull off the membrane that runs along the bottom of the ribs. This is one of many places where Cooks Illustrated and I differ. They say leaving it on helps to keep the fat in the meat, which keeps it moist throughout the cooking process. But if you leave it on, what’s the point of rubbing the spice mixture on the bottom side of the ribs? The flavor won’t permeate the membrane. More importantly, it doesn’t really break down in the cooking process, so it’s like have a piece of wax paper on the underside of your ribs. If I was cooking hundreds of slabs of ribs per day, I probably wouldn’t bother removing it. But it’s worth the effort when you’re only doing a couple of slabs.
Removing the membrane can be a little tricky. Use a paring knife to cut away the membrane on the smaller end of the slab. Then get a firm grip on it with a folded paper towel and pull it off.
Finally, rub most of the spice mixture all over both sides of the ribs. Leave enough left over to lightly dust the ribs at least two more times. You can do this as far in advance as you like, but I usually just do it before I light the charcoal and leave it out on the counter to come to room temperature.
Next, soak your wood chips in a foil pan. You’re going to fill the pan with water and put it under the grill grate anyway, so go ahead and just use the water to soak the chips. You can take them later. I add two or three big handfulls of chips. I guess that’s probably about two cups.
Now you need to get the grill going. I don’t know how many briquettes of charcoal I add. Maybe a gallon? Get it fired up and let it burn for a half hour or so. While the coals are heating up, you need to make the mopping liquid for the ribs. Just combine the beer, applesauce and vinegar. Cook’s Illustrated calls for apple juice, but I never have any at my house. Anyway, the mixture isn’t going to impart hardly any taste on the ribs. But by using apple sauce, I’ve found the texture makes it stick to the meat a little better. Honestly, though, don’t go out of your way for this step. Just use something you have on hand. I’ve poured Sprite over barbecue before and it came out fine.
When the coals are nice and hot, rake them all to the front of the grill. Take the wood chips out of the water pan, toss them in a bowl, and carefully set the pan in the back half of the grill. I use this same indirect heating method for all of my barbecue recipes. Set the ribs over the water pan, stacking them a little if necessary to avoid placing them directly over the hot coals. Make sure the thicker section of the meat is always facing the flame. Go ahead and brush the mopping liquid over the ribs.
Sprinkle a third of the wet wood chips over the coals. Adjust the vents so the heat stays between 225-275° and check on it every thirty minutes for the next two hours. You want it to be closer to 225° than 275°, but not less than 225°.
Each time you check on the ribs, sprinkle some more wood chips and baste with the mopping liquid. At the one hour mark, flip the ribs over. At the two hour mark, put them on a cooking rack and transfer them to a 300° oven. Add a half-cup of water to the pan so the ribs steam, dust them with a little dry rub, cover tightly with foil, and place the pan in the middle of the oven. Cook for about 1½ hours.
After 1½ hours in the oven (3½ total hours), remove the foil and let the bark on the ribs dry out in the oven for the final thirty minutes.
After the ribs have baked in the oven for two full hours, they should be done. The bones should be protruding from the sides of the slab and you should be able to bend the whole thing easily.
Transfer the slabs to a cutting board. Dust with the remaining rub mixture and separate the ribs between the bones. These ribs don’t need to be slathered in sauce like the folks do in the Midwest. The spice rub and the wood smoke provide plenty of flavor. The wife and I like to put a little bit of South Carolina-style barbecue sauce on the plate to dip the edges of the ribs into.
These are really good. They might not be exactly like Charlie Vergos’ ribs, but they end up just the same.
UPDATE: In 2011, I made a huge batch of Memphis-style spice rub and packed it into a dozen pint jars to be given away as Christmas gifts. On top of each jar, I placed a QR code that linked to this recipe. It was a great gift that came in around $4 per jar. Learn more here: DIY Barbecue Spice Rub Jars