How to Make the Best St. Louis Spareribs
Why St. Louis is the best cut, plus the easiest bbq rub, bbq sauce, and techniques to create smoky, sweet and tangy, lip-smacking, fall-off-the-bone ribs
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Article, recipes, and photographs by Krysten and Marrekus Wilkes of Cooks with Soul
When you’re talking about staples of barbecue, whether competition-style or just good ole backyard ‘que, ribs should absolutely be on the menu. Growing up in Memphis, when we had summertime family cookouts, this was always the case. We had my dad or uncles manning the grill and smoking or grilling slabs of baby back ribs or spareribs. The family would hover around waiting for the ribs until they were bite-through tender and smothered in some sweet and spicy sauce. Then there was the spread of sides, including potato salad, baked beans, corn, and a plethora of desserts ...
As I got older, I wanted to perfect my barbecue skills and try to carry the torch from my dad and uncles, who were the proven pitmasters. I would sit around and watch closely, taking mental notes about how often to flip the ribs and when to spritz them.
The first ribs I cooked on my own were OK, but it was clear to me that I had some work to do. Over the years, the more I cooked ribs, the better I got at it, and was able to start putting my own spin on them. Now when it comes to cooking ribs for family gatherings, I have taken the reins and my dad and uncles can sit under the shade tree with a cold beer, knowing that the grills are in good hands.
Jumping into this recipe, I’m going to share some of my secrets to making my favorite kind of ribs, the St. Louis style, with a super easy rub and a killer barbecue sauce that your family will love.
Jump ahead to:
What are St. Louis spareribs?
In Memphis, baby back ribs are the dominant rib due to the huge competition barbecue scene, so I grew up eating those, but honestly, I am partial to spareribs, especially St. Louis-style ribs, which are pork ribs that are cut down to a uniform shape that allows for the perfect even cook. Baby back ribs, which are shorter in shape, meatier, and leaner, are cut from around the pork loin. Spareribs come from the belly area of the pig, are juicier, and pack a sweet and porky flavor.
Most markets carry the squared-off St. Louis style that I use in this recipe. If all you have are full spareribs, follow along the side of the bones and remove the top flap. On the back side of the ribs, remove the skirt that is folded over on the ribs. Lastly, cut off the smallest bone or two on the end of the slab to get that perfect St. Louis cut.
How to make a simple rub and sauce for ribs
Now that you have purchased St. Louis-style ribs or have your ribs squared off and cut into the St. Louis style, let’s get into this cook.
The first thing you want to do is get your dry rub mixed up. This is a simple rub that can be used on not only ribs but anything that you plan on throwing on the pit. In a small bowl, just combine brown sugar, smoked paprika, kosher salt, ancho chili powder (which adds an earthy flavor with a little spice), black pepper, granulated onion, granulated garlic, and dry mustard. About 5 minutes prep time and it's done.
Next, get your sauce simmering so when those beautiful, smoky ribs are done you can go right in with the sauce. This sauce is sweet and tangy from vinegar and works as a great beginner’s sauce. It’s a combination of ketchup and apple cider vinegar with more brown sugar, smoked paprika, granulated garlic, ancho chili powder, and black pepper, plus a little salt.
The best thing about the rub and sauce in this recipe is that they are perfect bases for you to expand your spice and sauce game and let your creative juices flow. For the rub, try adding crushed red pepper flakes and celery salt. For the sauce, sometimes when I am feeling creative I add minced fruit or preserves to kick it up a notch.
Also note that the rub and sauce make enough to season two slabs of ribs, so you can cook double what we’re showing you here. If you have extra rub, it keeps a few months in the cupboard. Any leftover sauce keeps in a mason jar in the fridge for a few months, but I highly doubt it will last that long.
St. Louis spareribs in the grill or smoker
Any type of smoker or grill can produce excellent ribs. I like to use my pellet smoker (with pecan or cherry wood pellets) because it lets me set the temp to 250°F, put the meat on, and relax. If you don’t have a pellet smoker, no worries, just set up your cooker for indirect (two-zone) cooking at 250°F as recommended by the manufacturer — see more on this below. Then add either 4-6 wood chunks, or 1-2 cups wood chips that have been soaked in water 30 minutes and drained (use chunks or chips as recommended with your cooker).
If you are using a charcoal smoker or grill, you want to have your coals and smoker wood on one side of the cooker to create a hot and cool (indirect heat) zone. The ribs will go over the cool zone. For a gas smoker or grill, preheat the grill with all the burners on, then turn off the center burner or one of the side burners. (If possible with gas grills, I recommend keeping the burner lit that’s furthest away from where you put your ribs.) The area with no heat underneath it is indirect heat.
Once you see smoke coming from your smoker or grill, you’re ready to start cooking. As the ribs cook, add charcoal if needed to maintain the heat at 250°F.
How to prep St. Louis ribs for smoking
The pit is set up and coming up to temp, so now it’s time to get the ribs prepped and seasoned to go on the grill. First thing we need to do is remove the membrane. This is a piece of silverskin that comes on the back of the ribs and if you leave it on, it can get chewy. Taking the membrane off is super easy to do. Just start in the middle of the rack of ribs and use either a butter knife or your finger to get under the membrane. Then grab it with a paper towel, pull, and discard.
How to season ribs
Using a binder is totally optional, but I like to coat ribs with a little yellow mustard to help my rub stick and to develop that great bark, or crust, that we all love when it comes to grilled and smoked meat.
To apply the rub, I season my ribs from up high, around 10-12 inches, to make sure that I get a good even coat. Season both sides of the ribs, patting the rub in to make sure it sticks. Let the ribs sit and sweat a little bit (the rub will appear wet) until your pit is up to temp and ready to cook.
Smoke and wrap your ribs
Set the ribs in the cooker bone side down and gently scrunch them up. This helps the ribs plump up when you cook them, for a meatier bite. I cook my ribs for around 2 hours, spritzing them every 30-40 minutes with a combination of cider vinegar and water to keep the meat from drying out.
At this point, we are just smoking to create a nice deep mahogany color on the ribs, and the spritzing and smoke work together to achieve that. The cook time may be less or a little more than 2 hours depending on how hot your cooker is and what type of wood you are smoking with.
Once you achieve the color you want, it’s time to wrap the ribs. This lets the ribs cook until they are tender without getting too dark. Some people wrap their ribs in aluminum foil, but if you have it, I prefer peach butcher paper. It’s uncoated paper that’s used to wrap meats for smoking while letting some moisture escape, so you don’t steam the ribs and soften the bark that you worked to create. After you get your ribs wrapped, put them back on the pit and cook them to 205°F (check with an instant-read thermometer), about 1 more hour. The meat should have pulled back about 1/4 inch from the ends of the bones and the ribs should have a nice bend to them when you pick them up in the middle of the rack.
Apply the rib sauce
Remove ribs from the smoker or grill and let them rest for a few minutes (a baking sheet is handy here). Unwrap, set on a serving board, and brush on both sides with sauce. You can serve them at this point; or if you want, add a little more rub to the top, then set them back on the pit for 15-20 minutes to allow that sauce to set up. Total time for the recipe is about 5 hours, but most of this is hands-off.
Get the ribs recipe
Slice the bbq ribs into individual pieces, serve with your favorite backyard barbecue sides, and any additional sauce on the side. Whether this is your first time smoking ribs or you're just looking for a new best ribs recipe, this one is super simple and is guaranteed to have your friends and family craving more of the smoky, meaty goodness.
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