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Cooking with Fire

Cooking With Fire: Competition Pork Ribs

Justin Cary

Few barbecued foods are as revered as pork ribs.

But pork ribs also create a lot of confusion, because so many people believe that ribs that “fall off the bone” are the holy grail of barbecue… but for many of us we know that “fall off the bone” is simply a nice way to say overcooked.

You see, making ribs fall off the bone is easy… just keep cooking them past when they are done and the connective tissue will break down in such a way that they simply slide off the bone when picked up off the grill or smoker.

The problem here isn’t that the ribs fall off the bone, but that the overcooked meat has a mushy texture that just isn’t quite right.

So then, how should ribs be cooked? Look no further than the criteria used to judge ribs for contests sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. The rib meat itself should pull off the bone with the slightest tug, and after you take your bite you should see that the rest of the meat has stayed put and not slipped off or shifted.

This is harder than it sounds.

You see, the meat is attached to the bone with a fibrous connective tissue, and must be cooked just right to release just slightly. There is a small window in which this process takes place, but when you hit it the results will make you understand why ribs are so loved in the first place.

Competition Style St. Louis Spareribs


  • Pork spareribs
  • Yellow mustard
  • BBQ rub (recipe below)
  • Ground cayenne pepper
  • Brown sugar
  • Wildflower Honey
  • BBQ Sauce (recipe below)

 For the BBQ Rub:

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp ground mustard
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

 For the BBQ sauce:

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp celery seeds
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp garlic powder


  1. Trim the ribs into an evenly shaped rectangle. Remove the end bones, especially where the bone has been cut in half and has a sharp edge protruding. On the bone side of the rack, remove any excess meat or fat to make a flat even surface. Then remove the parchment layer from the backside of the ribs by taking a paper towel and rubbing at the corner until the parchment layer starts to peel up. Grab hold of the membrane with the paper towel and pull to separate from the rack. Look for any areas of excess fat than can be trimmed down to expose the meat on either side of the ribs.
  2. Preheat your smoker to 275ºF.
  3. Apply a small amount of yellow mustard to the bone side of the ribs. Rub the mustard around to cover all surfaces. Combine all BBQ rub ingredients in a small bowl. Mix well. Apply a moderate amount of the rub to the surface of the ribs. Rest a few minutes to allow the rub to attach to the meat. Flip the rack over and repeat the process on the meat side of the ribs. Rest 5-10 minutes until the rub has darkened in color and begins to appear moist.
  4. Place the ribs in the smoker, rib side down, and cook until the ribs have a dark red, rich mahogany color. This will likely take about two and a half hours, but the color is what will dictate when you’re ready to wrap the ribs.
  5. Remove the ribs from the cooker. Lay out two sheets of foil that are large enough to wrap a rack of ribs. Put a handful of brown sugar and some honey in the center of the foil. Add about 1/2 tsp cayenne to 1/4 cup of BBQ Rub. Sprinkle the rub over the honey and brown sugar. Place a rack of ribs meat side down on the brown sugar and honey. Season the bone side of the rack with more of the spiced up rub. Then add another handful of brown sugar and more honey   to the ribs. Carefully double wrap the rack tightly, leaving no room for steam to form in the foil. 
  6. Return the ribs to the cooker, meat side down this time. Continue cooking another 1-2 hours. After an hour begin to check for doneness. First check by simply picking up the foil wrapped ribs. If the rack is rigid, doesn’t bend, it’s not done yet. If there is a good amount of flexibility, open the package to examine the ribs. The meat should be shrunken from the ends of the bones, exposing the bone ends. If you look at end of the bone and twist the meat, the meat should move freely from the bone. If the meat is attached and moving with the bone, return to the foil and continue cooking. 
  7. Combine the bbq sauce ingredients in a small sauce pan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce to low heat and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Add about 1/4 cup wildflower honey to the sauce and stir to combine.
  8. With the ribs still on the smoker, open the foil package and brush on a thin layer of the sauce. Flip over and do the same on the meat side. Let cook open until the sauce is tacky, about 20 minutes.
  9. Remove the ribs from the foil package and place on a cutting board, meat side down. Carefully slice between the bones. Take care to slice the ribs as straight and even as possible. Flip the ribs over and touch up any blemishes by lightly brushing a little more sauce on. Transfer to your prepared box for turn in.