I have been working on barbecuing ribs and am finally getting to a consistency and flavor that I am happy with. One part of my learning curve involved trying to understand how the professionals cooked their ribs.
I learned that cooking ribs is more about the technique than it is about dry rubs and sauces. This article covers the rib techniques of some great competitors as well as the dry rubs they are using. I will start with the most basic technique (Mike Mills) and step through more and more complex techniques (Tuffy Stone, Chris Lilly, Myron Mixon). Please note that more complex does not necessarily produce better ribs; ribs are what made Mike Mills a legend.
The rib type employed is either baby back or St. Louis spares. Nobody cooks a full slab of spare ribs. The benefit of baby backs is that they are incredibly tender to start with so you don’t have to cook them as long. The benefit of St. Louis spares is that they are meatier than baby backs. For competition purposes it is a slight benefit to using St. Louis spares as the bones are longer and straighter than baby backs. The long straight bones make presentations easier.
The items in common among all of the techniques are that the membrane is removed, the ribs get cooked with apple juice during the process and multiple layers of flavor are employed. There is a large preference for very sweet ribs.
Let’s start with Mike Mills of the Apple City Barbecue team. Mike’s technique is the least complicated but requires the most attention to detail. Mike cooks his ribs at 210 to 225 degrees which is the lowest temperature range I have seen.
The Rib Dry Rub (Magic Dust) Now available from Amazon.
- 1/2 cup paprika
- 1/4 cup kosher salt, finely ground
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons mustard powder
- 1/4 cup chili powder
- 1/4 cup ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup granulated garlic
- 2 tablespoons cayenne
Mike coats his ribs with the dry rub and likes to let them sit overnight. The ribs get added to his smoker bone side down and are cooked for six to seven hours until he gets the desired tenderness. Mike sprays the ribs with apple juice about every thirty minutes while they are cooking. At no point do the ribs get foiled.
Mike mentions that several times during the cooking process the ribs will open up and start to sweat. When the ribs are sweating they can take up extra flavor so that is the time to hit them with a little more Magic Dust. This summary comes from Mike’s book Peace, Love, & Barbecue as well as his appearance on Good Morning America.
Next up is George “Tuffy” Stone of Cool Smoke barbecue who uses the 3-2-1 method (3 hours in smoke, 2 hours in foil, 1 hour setting the glaze). The dry rub recipe and technique description below comes from the June/July 2011 issue of Saveur magazine.
The Rib Dry Rub:
- ½ cup light brown sugar
- ¼ cup sweet paprika
- 1 tbsp. chili powder
- 1 tbsp. onion powder
- 1 tbsp. garlic powder
- 1 tbsp. cayenne
- 1 tbsp. kosher salt
- 1 tbsp. ground black pepper
Tuffy brushes his ribs (he uses St. Louis Spares) with a light coating of oil, applies the dry rub and lets them sit for an hour. The ribs go into the cooker bone side down at a temperature between 225 and 275 with some apple wood providing the smoke. About every thirty minutes the ribs get spritzed with apple juice while they cook for three hours.
After three hours the ribs are removed from the grill, placed on foil and coated with butter, honey and sugar. The ribs are wrapped up and put back on the smoker, bone side down, for another two hours (I believe Harry Soo of Slap Yo Daddy has a technique that is the same as this except the ribs are placed meat side down.). After two hours the ribs are removed from the foil and cooked directly on the grate. After thirty minutes he starts brushing with sauce. After about another thirty minutes the glaze has set and the ribs are done.
One of Tuffy’s tips to folks starting out is that most rookies tend to over smoke their meat. I know that this described my initial attempts at ribs. If you are just starting out you might want to cut back on your wood a little.
Next is Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s barbecue who has a different approach to the 3-2-1 technique as well as a two step dry rub application. Since Chris is using baby backs which cook faster than spares the 3-2-1 method is modified to 3-1-1. The description below was taken from a Food Network show, “Southern Foods: Memphis in May” Episode CL 9699. The episode is a little bizarre in that they have him cooking ribs in an oven but the technique would be identical in a smoker.
The Rib Dry Rub:
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup paprika
- 1/3 cup garlic salt
- 2 tablespoons onion salt
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin
Chris used baby backs and gave them a heavy coating of dry rub front and back. The ribs were cooked bone side down at 250 degrees for a little over two hours. At what Chris calls the “second stage” the ribs are placed in foil, meat side down, with ½ cup of apple juice and ½ cup of grape juice. The ribs are tightly foiled and cooked meat side down for one hour. By cooking meat side down Chris is letting the meat braise directly in the sweet liquid.
After the ribs have braised with the fruit juices they are removed from the foil and given a second coating of dry rub. In this “third stage” the dry rub consists of three parts of the original dry rub combined with one part brown sugar. The ribs get a medium coat of the new dry rub on the meat side and are cooked bone side down for another thirty minutes.
In the “fourth stage” the ribs are glazed with a mix of 3 part barbecue sauce and one part honey. The temperature of the cooker is raised to a little over 300 degrees to help the glaze set. After about thirty minutes the ribs are done.
Last up is the Myron Mixon Rib Recipe of Jack’s Old South barbecue. This is the technique and recipe he gave during an appearance on Good Morning America. The ingredient list is extensive so I haven’t copied everything onto this post but you can get the full list at the GMA interview or in his book Smokin’ with Myron Mixon. Myron is cooking with baby backs so again, the cook time is shorter than if he was using spares.
The Myron Mixon rib recipe stands out in that he marinates his ribs in a salty mix of ginger ale and orange juice for four hours. After the ribs marinate they are patted dry and given a thorough coating with the following:
The Rib Dry Rub:
- 1 cup (packed) light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 2 tablespoons dry mustard
- 2 tablespoons onion powder
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
The ribs are placed, bone side down, into an aluminum baking pan and cooked meat side up in a 250 degree smoker for three hours. After thirty minutes of cooking Myron starts spraying the ribs with a mix of apple juice and vinegar with a little bit of imitation butter. Myron says he sprays the ribs about every fifteen minutes.
After two hours of cooking he adds a cup of apple juice to the aluminum pan and tightly covers the pan with a layer of aluminum foil. The ribs get cooked for another hour in the steaming apple juice. After an hour the foil is removed (I believe the apple juice is poured off) and the ribs are glazed on the bone and meat side. The foil is reapplied and the glaze allowed to set for thirty minutes.
So there you go; four different techniques and dry rubs for pork ribs. The cook times given in these techniques are all approximate. Your cook times will vary depending upon the size of your ribs, configuration of your cooker, etc.
If you would like to see some beautiful pictures that walk you through the process I highly suggest you check out the work of Mister Bob over at The Hog Blog. Mister Bob has some really spectacular stuff. Another good tutorial with pictures is given by Paul Ostrom over at The Pickled Pig.
If you would like to see a Rib Master at work then sign up for Ray Lampe’s online barbecue course. There are about seven hours of videos, is extremely affordable and comes with a 100% money back guarantee. The course is more designed for beginners than experienced grill masters. Ray covers ribs in Video Lesson Six of the series.
Full Disclaimer: If you sign up for Ray’s course then I will make a buck. If you decide to enroll I thank you in advance.