To start, I have been cooking in KCBS (Kansas City BBQ Society) sanctioned competitions for about 6 years now. The rib category has always been one of my team’s strongest. I personally think our success can be attributed to the fact that ribs are what my friends and I all started with when learning BBQ and has remained the one category we have tried to perfect.
Today I will give you my exact recipe that won 2nd place out of over 60 teams (exact ribs pictured above) at the Garry Maddox Rib Challenge hosted by Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia back in 2012. Our current recipe has not changed much over the years and it is still winning awards, so why mess with a good thing!
Ingredients and Supplies (I have included a brief timeline at the end of this article to make things a bit easier to follow)
Here is a list of things that you are going to need before you start.
Heavy duty aluminum foil
2 racks of St. Louis cut Spare Ribs
Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)
1 16oz bottle of Plowboys Yardbird (or you favorite rub)
1 pint of Blues Hog Original BBQ Sauce (or you favorite sweet sauce)
1 pint of Blues Hog Tennessee Red Sauce (or your favorite vinegar sauce)
1 bag of light brown sugar
1 bottle of Tiger Sauce (or…wait, this is a must!)
1 bottle of honey
1 quart Apple juice
Charcoal (either briquettes or hardwood lump)
Plastic sauce squeeze bottle
A good digital thermometer
1 large aluminum pan (13in X 22in)
Everything else you should have readily available so lets get started.
Tips and Techniques
Now I know it is popular in BBQ today to cook hot and fast. If you are not familiar with the term that means that you would be cooking at a higher temperature than what is normally considered as BBQ (300+). While this works and I know plenty of pitmasters that produce amazing results using it, I still prefer the good ‘ol low and slow method. This means I run my smoker at 250 degrees the entire cooking process.
Let’s move on to fuel. I use lump for the fact that it burns clean (this means there is little to no smoke when used on its own). This helps me ensure that all the “smoke” I am putting on the ribs comes from the wood I throw onto the coals. This also helps me know that if I don’t see smoke it’s time to add some more wood and if I see anything but blue smoke, then something is wrong. I have mixed up what types of wood I have used over the years but I seem to always go back to apple and hickory. This is one of the most popular mixes of wood in BBQ due to how well both flavors compliment each other.
Prepping Your Ribs
Spare ribs. Why do I use them instead of baby backs? One word, flavor! Spare ribs have just a bit more flavor than baby backs due to their higher fat content, and in competition BBQ you only get one bite to impress the judge so you better make it count. I try to purchase pre-cut spare ribs (called St. Louis or center cut spare ribs) whenever I can. It makes things easier and I know that I am not buying any added waste that I will be cutting off and not using. No worries though if you can’t because they are super easy to trim. All you have to do is find the end of the bone opposite of the straight cut (where the baby backs were separated) already made on the rack and cut another straight line making it parallel with the other side. Bam…Instant St. Louis cut ribs. Then the next step is to peel the membrane. This can be made easier with the help of a paper towel so you can keep a firm grip on the membrane when peeling. The membrane is the lining of the inside of the rib and when removed will allow more smoke to penetrate the meat. Once this is completed we can move to the topic of seasoning. Now I know it might sound silly to some of you newbies but seasoned pitmasters know that plain yellow mustard can be a BBQer’s best friend. Yellow mustard will give your rub something to stick to when applied before the seasoning. It is also vinegar-based and will help to tenderize the meat once applied. After applying mustard and spreading it evenly on both sides of the ribs it is time to rub them down. I always apply the rub to the bottom (membrane) side of ribs first, then flip them over and rub the top side last. This helps keep your ribs looking nice and pretty. The last step before throwing them into the pit is to let the ribs sweat. This is done by just letting them sit out for 30 minutes. Sweating allows the meat to absorb the rub and get that delicious flavor into your ribs. This will also give you time to get your pit up to temp.
The Ribs First 3 Hours
Once your pit is running steady at 250 degrees it is time to get smoking. I always cook my ribs bone side (membrane) down which again keeps them looking nice and pretty. Now you can relax and just make sure that you are continuously smoking at 250 for the next 2.5 hrs. The smoke ratio I use is 2 parts apple to 1 part hickory, the perfect mix of sweet and savory. After the first 1.5 hrs you can open the lid and do a quick spray of apple juice to keep the top of the ribs nice and moist while also helping them to build up a nice bark/color.
Foiling the Ribs
Once you hit 2.5-3 hours it is time to get your foil ready. Now, this is where a majority of your ingredients are going to go from the list above. I always start by layering 2 pieces of foil (because it seems one always rips part way through and makes a mess) before adding the ingredients. I layer a few handfuls of light brown sugar, 5 rows of honey, 3-4 tablespoons butter, 2 quick streaks of tiger sauce, and a coating of rub. I know it sounds like a lot of sweet ingredients but that is what the judges want. Next, I lay the ribs meat side down (membrane side up) and repeat all the steps again on the membrane side. Then I cross the foil over long ways and start wrapping. Just before I fold the ends of the foil I pour a 1/4 cup of apple juice into the foil pack (try and get it under the ribs). Once the foil is all sealed I move to the next rack and repeat these steps until all the ribs are foiled. This process sounds like a lot of work but once you get the hang of it’s pretty painless. At this point the ribs can go back on the smoker the same way they were positioned on the table (meat side down). Also, there is no point of adding any more wood since the ribs are all foiled up so you can save some $$ and store the rest for future cooks.
The Ribs’ Last Hour on Earth
After about 1 hr it is time to check on how the ribs are doing. Now I have tried so many ways to check this and all but one gets extremely messy. The easiest and cleanest way is to take an instant-read thermometer and poke the probe straight through the foil in between the rib bones. I am looking for a temp of about 201-203 degrees. By doing it this way you are not unfoiling the ribs and losing heat if they are not done yet and need to go back in the smoker. Trust me, this works. Once you hit your goal temp it is time to get these ribs off the cooker and vented. All you have to do to vent the ribs is unwrap the foil and let the ribs rest in the juice for about 10 minutes. As the ribs cool they will actually suck a lot of the liquid mixture they are resting in back up which packs them with moisture and flavor. While they are resting is the perfect time to get the sauce ready. Blues Hog is a must have if you want to win in competition BBQ. If you have never had it you are about to find out why. My favorite mix (and many others!) is to take a pint of Blues Hog Original and pour the entire pint into a saucepan. I then add 1/2 a pint of Blues Hog Tennessee Red to make the perfect mix of sweet and tangy (with a little heat). I heat the sauce mixture on the stove until it thins a bit and gets warm enough to melt butter. Then I take it off the burner and add 2 tablespoons of butter while the sauce cools. This allows none of the butter to burn off so the sauce gets its maximum richness and flavor. Once the butter is melted I put the sauce in the squeeze bottle since we will not be using a brush to apply the sauce to the ribs. Many pitmasters do this so they do not leave streak marks on the ribs but I do it because it is clean and easy. Just stand the ribs on their side inside a large aluminum pan and gently squeeze the sauce on both sides of the ribs, starting at the top. The sauce will run down both sides and eventually cover the entire rack of ribs. Nice, clean, and easy. The best way to get the sauce to set is by putting them back in the smoker for 10-15 minutes. It’s not 100% necessary but definitely worth it.
How to Slice a Rack of Ribs
After about 4.5-5 hour you have now made it to the best part. Slicing and eating these award winners! I usually put the ribs on the cutting board meat side down. Just be sure not to mess up your hard work by removing the sauce and rub from the underside of the rack. I do it this way because it is easier to see the direction and curvature of the ribs so you can make nice clean cuts. Remember you always have your bottle of sauce in case you need to touch things up. Now it is time to dig in!
The coolest part of this whole process is that this recipe gives you a starting point for you to make your own ribs. Try adding different ingredients, more of something, less of something, etc. That is what makes BBQ so much fun. If you don’t want to cook my ribs for family and friends then cook your own! I hope this was helpful and maybe some of the tips and tricks I provided will help you along the journey of smoking up your own “perfect ribs”.
Now get smoking!
Competition Ribs Timeline
- Trim ribs and remove membrane
- Cover ribs in yellow mustard and apply rub to both sides of ribs (let sweat for 30 minutes)
- Start smoker.
- Once up to temp (250 degrees) add wood and ribs to smoker (bone side down)
- After 2.5-3 hrs remove ribs from smoker and wrap in foil (steps an ingredients are listed above)
- Put ribs back on smoker (meat side down) in foil for 1-1.5 hrs or until ribs hit 201-203 degrees internally (between the bones still in foil)
- Once ribs are done remove them from the smoker, vent the foil, and rest (keep in foil boat).
- Make sauce (steps above) and add to squeeze bottle
- Sauce ribs and put them back on the smoker for 10 minutes.
- Put ribs meat side down on cutting board and slice.