Memphis-Style (Dry Rubbed) Baby Back Ribs

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


  • Grill
  • Foil pan
  • Wood chips
  • Charcoal
  • Thermometer
  • Basting brush
  • Sheet pan
  • Aluminum foil


  • 2 slabs baby back ribs
  • 2 cups beer
  • 1 cup applesauce
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar

Dry Rub

  • 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, you need to soak your wood chips. I just soak them in a foil pan. You’re going to fill the pan with water and put it under the grill grate anyway (to catch dripping and act as a heat sink), so go ahead and just use the water to soak the chips. You can take them out later and toss them into a bowl. They’ll stay damp. I use two or three big handfulls of wood chips when smoking. I add even parts dry and wet wood chips to my coals at a time. Some people complain that soaking the chips does nothing, and they’re right from a flavor standpoint. But soaking some of the chips creates a delayed burn, meaning that I can smoke longer before I have to open the lid and add more chips.

Now you need to get the grill going. I don’t know how many briquettes of charcoal I add; whatever fills up a chimney starter. Anyway, fire it up and let it burn for a half an hour. While the coals are heating up, you need to make the mopping liquid for the ribs. Just combine the beer, applesauce, and vinegar in a bowl. 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 anything wet (and non-flammable) that you happen to have on hand. You could put some water in a spray bottle and that would suffice.

When the coals are nice and hot, pour them in the grill/smoker and rake them all to the front of the grill. Take the wood chips out of the water pan, toss them into 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°.

Each time you check on the ribs, sprinkle some more wood chips on the grate 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. If you don’t have a baking tray, just double-wrap the ribs tightly in foil. They’ll render and boil in their own juices, so you might want shorten the cooking time.

After 1½ hours in the oven (3½ hours total cooking time), remove the foil and let the bark on the ribs dry out in the oven for the final thirty minutes. You can crack the oven door to let the steam escape if you want.

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. Some people like their ribs to fall apart when they try to bend them, but I think that means they’re either dried out or they rendered too much liquid, making them a little less flavorful.

Transfer the slabs to a cutting board. Dust with a tiny bit more rub mixture and separate the ribs between the bones. If this is your first time to cut ribs, you’ll probably find it a little tricky. But you’ll eventually figure it out.

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. If you prefer a Western North Carolina style barbecue sauce (thin, hot, and full of vinegar), then click here for a recipe. I think SC-style goes better with ribs and NC-style goes better with pulled pork.

These are really good. They might not be exactly like Charlie Vergos’ ribs, but they end up just the same…

UPDATE 1/2012

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 links to this recipe. It was a great gift that cost me around $4 per jar. Learn more here: DIY Barbecue Spice Rub Jars

If you’re new to barbecuing—which should not be confused with grilling—then click here for a tutorial on smoking a pork shoulder. I got tired of giving the same advice to so many people, so I wrote it all down.

Memphis-Style (Dry Rubbed) Baby Back Ribs
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