Smoked Spare Ribs Recipe: Southwest BBQ Style
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Sweet and Tender Smoked Spare Ribs with Southwest BBQ Rub
Just about everyone loves the sweet smoky taste of tender smoked ribs cooked over natural hardwood heat. Over the past few years I have come to appreciate the added flavour that you get with pork spare ribs over the somewhat more popular baby back pork ribs. While I still smoke baby backs now and then, spare ribs are my go-to rib of choice these days and this recipe is one of my current favourites.
Here in Southern Ontario, spare ribs can be a little harder to find than baby back ribs, but it’s worth the effort to search them out. I can usually find Spare Ribs at Whole Foods and Longo’s here in Oakville. Look for St. Louis Cut (aka St. Louis Style) Spare Ribs and you will be good to go. These will be trimmed in a nice rectangular shape ready for your smoker.
For this recipe you will need a charcoal smoker that can maintain a steady temperature of somewhere between 225F to 250F for up to six hours. I typically use my Big Green Egg for smoking spare ribs. While I sometimes cook spare ribs for a shorter period of time at a higher temperature (around 275F), for this cook I am going with a slightly lower temperature for added tenderness. If you are using a true charcoal smoker (not an electric smoker) where you need to adjust and maintain your temperature using vents, then setting an exact temp can be less precise. With this cook it is fine to go with any stable temperature between 225F and 250F, however, you will need to pay attention to your ribs and adjust cooking times as needed. Once you smoke ribs this way a few times you will get an idea of how things generally go for you.
Spare Ribs Smoking Method
For smoked spare ribs I use the following approach:
- 3 hours at 225F-250F, indirect heat and ribs uncovered.
- 1 to 1.5 hours foiled (aka the Texas Crutch), depending on your actual cook temperature (1 hour if 250F and 1.5 hours is 225F)
- 30 minutes to one hour out of the foil (glazing period)
Again, remember that this recipe should be adjusted to match wherever your smoker settles on a cook temp. If you are cooking at 225F, go with the 3-1.5-1 approach the first time you do it. You can adjust from there on future cooks. However, if you smoker settles in at a temperature closer to 250F, go with the 3-1-1- approach.
I have tested this approach with spare ribs many times and when a cook temp approaches 250F, leaving the ribs in the crutch for more than one hour increases the risk that your ribs will be overdone before going into the final phase. I tested this approach at 240F and the bones were literally falling away from the meat when I opened the foil after 1.5 hours. Despite all of the restaurants that promote “fall off the bone ribs,” ribs cooked to this level are way overdone. When ribs go this far in the crutch phase, it was a challenge to get the rack of ribs back onto the smoker in one piece (because they can fall apart in the tongs when you try to lift them). Some people like their ribs cooked this way, but fall-off-the-bone ribs are overcooked ribs. In my test, the ribs did firm up when I gave them the final 30 minutes of cooking uncovered, but adjusting the foil time downward is the better way to go.
Every rack of ribs is different, so remember that smoking ribs is as much art as it is science. With each cook you will become more and more knowledgable about any adjustments that you may need to make due to cooking temperature, rib thickness and so on.
The Rib Rub
The rub below is enough for up to three racks of pork spare ribs.
Mix together the following ingredients to form the rib rub:
- 2.5 tablespoons lemon pepper
- 2 tablespoons Lowry’s seasoning salt
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1/4 tablespoon cayenne pepper
You will also need additional items for the crutch period
- a few tablespoons of brown sugar
- liquid honey
- pineapple or apple juice
- heavy duty aluminum foil
Prepare the Ribs and Apply the Rib Rub
As with all pork ribs, start by rinsing each rack and removing the membrane on the bone side of the ribs. If you aren’t familiar with how to remove the membrane on the back of ribs, there are a ton of good videos on YouTube showing how to do this. Just search “removing rib membrane” and you will find them. The process is the same for baby back ribs and spare ribs.
At least four hours before cooking time, apply the rub to the ribs. Turn the ribs meat side down and squeeze some mustard across the bone side of the ribs. Spread it evenly with your fingers or a brush to cover the entire rib and edges with a thin layer. The mustard with help the rub to adhere and will not affect the taste.
Sprinkle the rub evenly across the ribs and then flip the ribs and do the same to the meat side. Your ribs are now ready. Cover the ribs lightly with plastic wrap and return them to the refrigerator to allow the rub to set in on the surface of the ribs. This will make for a better bark.
The Cook: Time to Start Smoking Those Spare Ribs
Remove the ribs from the refrigerator one hour before you plan to put them on the smoker. Remove the plastic wrap and let them come to room temperature.
Thirty minutes before the cook, moisten your woodchips in water — let them sit in the water until you are ready to place them on the coals. Despite the great debate on this topic, I find that moistened woodchips smoke much better than dry chips (which tend to just catch fire and burn quickly).
Light your smoker with natural hardwood lump charcoal and get the temperature up to a steady 225F-250F. Anywhere within this range is fine, it just means that you may need to adjust the cooking times slightly as per my comments above. This will be an indirect cook, so configure your smoker accordingly.
Once your smoker has stabilized at the temperature you want, add the woodchips to the hot coals and place the ribs into the smoker, meat side up. Close the lid and do not open it again until the three hour mark.
The Texas Crutch
After three hours, it is time to put your ribs into the crutch phase. During this phase the ribs will tenderize and the meat will pull away from the bone along the edges.
Tear off enough heavy duty aluminum foil to completely wrap each rack of rips separately. One at a time, place the ribs into the foil and turn up the sides a bit to contain the ingredients that you will add. Sprinkle the ribs lightly with brown sugar and then drizzle some honey on top of that. Add roughly a quarter cup of apple juice or pineapple juice to the bottom of the foil and then fold the foil neatly over the rack of ribs so that each rack is sealed up tightly in foil. Place the ribs back onto the smoker and let them cook for 1 to 1.5 hours (depending on the temperature).
The Final Step to Perfect Ribs
After the allotted time in the Texas Crutch, open the smoker and remove the foiled ribs. Open each foil packet and carefully place each rack of ribs back onto the smoker for the final step. The purpose of the final hour is to allow the ribs to firm up after the Texas Crutch. They will be nearly done at this point, so it is a matter of testing them for readiness. After 30 minutes in the final phase, check the ribs for doneness. My preferred method is to lift each rack with the bbq placed halfway down the rack (hold them lengthwise from the end). If the ribs begin to tear, they are done. If they fall apart, they are overdone — but still quite edible. If you want to put a final glaze of bbq on your ribs, now is the time to do that. If you glaze the ribs, give them an additional 15 minutes or so to allow the glaze to set.
When your ribs are cooked to your satisfaction, remove them from the smoker and allow to cool before eating.
For a killer chicken and ribs combo, serve these ribs with Huli Huli Chicken. Your guests will love you for it. You can find my recipe for Huli Huli Chicken here.
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