Spare Ribs, Spices, and Smoke

Spare Ribs, Spices, and Smoke

By Guest Chef, Phillip Schaaf

Many people believe that there’s nothing more telling about the abilities of a BBQ pitmaster than the taste and texture of a spare rib. But, really, there’s no need to be an expert to make great ribs happen at home. You don’t even need a pit smoker. Great ribs are defined by the texture, tenderness, and flavor—all of which can be achieved by following a few easy steps. The best way to understand the process is to analyze the properties of the rib itself.

Tips for Brines and Rubs

Spare ribs don't have a whole lot of meat, but what is there is full of flavor and chew and fatty deliciousness. All they need is a little special care to bring out the best. The first step is to remove the membrane on the backside of the ribs. This membrane is comprised of connective tissue, and will seize up during the cooking process and be tough to chew through. But it’s very easily removed by hand just by peeling it back. A dry kitchen towel or paper towel can help grip the membrane if it seems hard to grab a hold of.

After the ribs are cleaned, they need to be brined and rubbed. When combining these two techniques, it’s important to balance the salt content between the two processes. While with another cut I would normally use a 5% brine solution, I cut back to a 2.5% with spare ribs, making the salt content of the brine only 2.5% of the total. Since we are using a spice rub, there doesn’t have to be any aromatics in the brine, but it is a good opportunity to layer flavors and add depth to the ribs. Smoked chili peppers, herbs, garlic, peppercorns, and whole spices are nice additions. Cutting back the salt content on the brine means that the ribs can hang out in the brine bath a little longer. Six hours would be ideal. Overnight would work just fine.

A rub is a spice blend that is rubbed into the meat in preparation for cooking. Much like with a marinade, the meat is often left in the rub for several hours before it’s cooked. A classic rub ratio is 1:1:1, salt to sugar to paprika. The sugar allows for the formation of bark, which is the dark and crispy exterior that’s extremely addictive. It’s like pork candy. I supplement this ratio with other spices like granulated garlic, onion, ginger, fennel, cumin, or coriander. It’s hard to go wrong. There are so many templates available in every culture—whether its Chinese five spice, Indian curry, or a traditional Southern BBQ blend The rub is essential to a bold and flavorful rib.

Last, but certainly not least, ribs need to cook slow and low. The fat content and connective tissue needs to break down and it takes some time. It doesn’t matter if you are using an oven or a smoker. Your spare ribs should cook for about four hours at approximately 250 degrees. The best way to indicate doneness is by checking the bend of the ribs. Using tongs or a kitchen towel, pick up a rack and bend it as if to break it in half. This is the most telling way to test the tenderness of the meat. If the meat is drawing back from the bone that’s a good sign that the ribs are done, too.

Most importantly, great ribs don’t require a sauce. They should be toothsome, tender, and moist. The rub and brine provide all of the flavor you need. A great sauce can fix dry meat, so don’t fret if they don’t come out quite right at first. Keep at it.


2.5-3 lbs Grass Roots forested pork spare ribs, membrane removed

For the Brine:
1 liter water
2 oz salt
3-4 dried birds eye chilis or 2-3 dried smoked jalapeños
2 pods star anise
2 tsp mustard seed
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp fennel seed
2 oz brown sugar

For the Rub:
2 tbsp smoked or sweet paprika
tbsp kosher salt
tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp granulated onion
1 tbsp toasted black peppercorn, ground

  1. Brine the ribs for 6-8 hours.

  2. Drain from the brine and allow to air dry for a few hours in refrigeration.

  3. Rub with the spice blend and let sit uncovered overnight in refrigeration.

  4. Set up a smoker or preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

  5. Cook the ribs until they reach desired tenderness, about 4 hours.

  6. Let the ribs rest for a half hour and serve with all the best fixins’. Enjoy.