Memphis Style Baby Back Pork Ribs

Ask Chef Phyllis:
My family’s specialty for any get-together, wedding, or potluck is BBQ style spare ribs. Our family ribs are steamed in aluminum foil over an open pit of applewood chips for hours, and then drenched in sweet, thick BBQ sauce. Recently, I went to a restaurant in Oklahoma. Their baby back ribs were very different from what I know, and I loved them. (By the way, I don’t know the name of the ribs that we make.) They served a not-very-sweet mustard sauce on the side. The waitress said the recipe was a secret from the boss, who came from Kentucky. This small restaurant isn’t a chain, so can you shed light on this style of ribs?
—Marlin Carlyle, Venice, Louisiana

Barbeque and the South share a long history. Long before the Civil War, beef was seldom served and rarely mentioned in cookbooks. However, the pig was ubiquitous. In the Deep South, they barbequed, smoked, pickled, salted, brined, cured, or preserved every part—including the skin, intestines, and feet.

In the South, pigs were considered low-maintenance animals. They could be left out alone in the forest to forage, and caught when food supplies were low. Of course, meat from these semi-wild pigs was tough and stringy, so it required a long, slow cook time. Little equipment was needed—just smoldering hot coals in an earth pit. Easy enough to set up, and something akin to what you’d find today at some festivals and rallies. This dish caught on even more at church picnics, where roasted pig is supplemented by covered dishes prepared by the ladies of the congregation.

Aside from the succulent taste, the delicious sauces, and the smoke-filled atmosphere, BBQ is an icon of southern cooking that’s endured and flourished over the decades. It’s a time-honored tradition worthy of celebration.

It’s my understanding that your family’s specialty is called St. Louis style barbeque. But the entire world enjoys this style of pork ribs, and I found numerous recipes ranging from Nashville, Birmingham, Kansas City, and Memphis all the way to Bangkok, Peking, Korea, and France.

Memphis Style Baby Back Pork Ribs

4 lbs. baby back pork ribs

For the dry rub:
¼ cup paprika
5 teaspoons black pepper
1 tablespoon brown sugar (I use Muscovado sugar)
1 tablespoon each sea salt, celery seed, cayenne, garlic powder, cumin and dry mustard

For the sauce:
2 cups cider vinegar
½ cup yellow mustard
2 teaspoons salt
3–4 tablespoons honey


  1. Mix dry rub ingredients together. Remove the silver skin (thin papery membrane) from the ribs. Pat the dry rub on front and back of baby back ribs. Marinate for at least 30 minutes or as long as 4-plus hours (longer is better).
  2. If using a conventional oven, heat to 250°F. Set ribs on a rack inside a shallow pan and bake low and slow, uncovered, for 3 hours.
  3. If using a gas grill, heat to the lowest setting (250°F). Place ribs in a shallow pan, lower the cover, and cook for 3 hours.
  4. Ribs are done when the meat shrinks slightly from the bone and each rib can be pulled apart easily.
  5. Stir all ingredients for the sauce together. Serve on the side.

Chef’s note: Though it’s quite popular, I’m personally not a fan of traditional BBQ sauce. So I gave this mustard sauce a try and found it unique and refreshing. Thanks, Marlin, I didn’t even know this sauce existed before your email.

Image from iStock/bhofack2

Phyllis Quinn

Phyllis Quinn is a chef, food writer, and founder of Udderly Cultured, a class that teaches how to make homemade fresh mozzarella, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, and other cultured products. Private lessons are available. For a reservation, call Phyllis at 970-221-5556 or email her at Rediscover nearly lost cooking methods and get one-of-a-kind recipes in her books The Slow Cook Gourmet and Udderly Cultured: The Art of Milk Fermentation.

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