smoked st louis ribs

Smoker Recipe: Smoked St. Louis-style Ribs

Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series we're dubbing "The Summer of the Swine," in which we'll look at a few great ways to prepare and enjoy pork on your Smokin' Ugly Drum Smoker.

Sometimes, preparing a great feast of smoked ribs means bringing out the big guns.

A more polished version of the largest type of rib you can get from a hog, (the spare rib) St. Louis-style ribs deliver on size, meatiness, flavor, and tenderness without much compromise or additional effort.

The next step up from the standard-setting baby back rib, St. Louis-style ribs can be a full meal in and of themselves and only take a little bit longer to cook.

While St. Louis-style ribs can be beef or pork, we'll be focusing on those that come from the hog. This is our Summer of the Swine, after all.

St. Louis-style Ribs: Robust & Succulent

Despite their commanding appearance, St. Louis-style ribs are celebrated for their rich flavor and tender texture. Cut from the belly of the hog, this type of rib boasts a meatier and more uniform shape compared to its smaller cousin, baby back ribs. The distinctive trimming style removes the cartilage and rib tips, resulting in a rectangular rack that's perfect for even cooking.

This cut originated in the 1930s in St. Louis, where butchers trimmed the ribs to create a more aesthetically pleasing and easier-to-cook product – one that was considered to be upscale.

Known for their perfect balance of meat and fat, St. Louis-style ribs are a favorite among pitmasters who appreciate their robust taste and succulent bite. The extra fat content helps keep the meat moist during the long smoking process, ensuring every bite is juicy and flavorful. These ribs are also incredibly versatile, working well with a variety of rubs and sauces, making them a staple at any barbecue gathering.

One of the unique aspects of St. Louis-style ribs is their ability to hold up to intense smoking sessions, absorbing flavors deeply while maintaining their structure.

St. Louis-Style Ribs Vs. Spare Ribs

While they are technically one-in-the-same, St. Louis-style ribs shouldn't be confused with spare ribs.

So what's the difference?

It's all in the butchering.

Like St. Louis-style ribs, spare ribs are cut from the belly side of the rib cage, below the baby back ribs. They include the sternum, cartilage, and rib tips, making them larger and more flavorful but also more fatty and tough. St. Louis-style ribs, however, have been trimmed down by removing the sternum, cartilage, and rib tips, resulting in a more rectangular shape.

Prepping St. Louis-style Ribs for Smoking

Where does every great rack of ribs start?

It's all about the prep work.

After selecting your St. Louis-style rib rack – one that has a rectangular shape with consistent thickness and a balance between meat and fat – you'll prep work should include:

  • Trimming: Start by removing the skirt meat on the bone side of the ribs. Trim off any excess fat from both sides, but leave a thin layer to keep the meat moist during smoking.
  • Removing the Membrane: Flip the ribs so the bone side is facing up. Use a butter knife to lift the edge of the membrane at one end of the rack. Grab the membrane with a paper towel for better grip and pull it off. Removing the membrane allows better smoke penetration and results in more tender ribs.
  • Squaring the Rack: For a more uniform appearance and even cooking, square the ends by trimming off any irregular pieces. This step is optional but can enhance the presentation.
  • Final Inspection: Check for any bone fragments or remaining cartilage and remove them. Pat the ribs dry with paper towels to prepare them for seasoning.

Did You Know ...

Those trimmings you removed – they don't have to be the latest addition to your garbage can.

You can smoke the rib tips separately for a tasty snack, make a flavorful pork stock with the bones and cartilage, or add the trimmings to beans and stews for extra richness. Additionally, if you have a meat grinder, you can grind the trimmings to create pork sausage or enhance ground beef for unique burger patties.

[How to] Smoking Your St. Louis-Style Ribs

There's no denying that by first appearances, St. Louis-style ribs come across as strong – perhaps tough, even. The simple fact is they are larger, meatier, and take a bit more effort to prepare and enjoy than baby backs.

But despite all this, there's no reason why your St. Louis-style ribs can't be tender, juicy, and have the meat fall off the bone.

For this, we'll turn to a rib-smoking standard and what we’ve found to be the best way to smoke St. Louis-style ribs – the 3-2-1- method. Wondering about the answer to “How long to smoke St. Louis-style ribs?” 

That’s easy: the 3-2-1 method. You might remember the slight variation of the answer that  we used for smoked baby back ribs (a 2-2-1 method)

What's the 3-2-1 method?

It's a phased approach to smoking ribs rooted in specific time increments. It looks like this:

  • 3 Hours of Smoking: The foundational phase, the ribs are smoked unwrapped for three hours directly on the grill. During this phase, the ribs develop a rich, deep flavor and a mahogany color.
  • 2 Hours of Cooking Wrapped: After the initial smoke, the ribs are wrapped in foil with a splash of liquid (like apple juice, beer, or a vinegar-based mixture) to braise in their own juices and added moisture. This step is crucial as it gently steams the ribs, making the meat incredibly tender and allowing it to pull back from the bone.
  • 1 Hour of Finishing: In the final phase, the ribs are unwrapped and returned to the smoker. This allows the exterior to dry slightly, forming a sticky, caramelized crust if a sauce is applied. It’s also a chance to firm up the ribs a bit after their moist braising.

Smoked St. Louis-style Ribs Recipe

In this recipe, we'll be preparing a single rack of St. Louis-style ribs & a rub for them with a little kick to it.

Ingredients

Rib Preparation

  • A rack of St. Louis-style ribs
  • Yellow mustard (for binding)

Rub

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp cumin

Spritz

  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup apple juice

Sauce

  • Your favorite BBQ sauce

Smoker Wood Recommendation: For this recipe, may we suggest apple wood as your smoker wood of choice? It imparts a mild, sweet, and fruity flavor that compliments the richness of the pork without overpowering it.

Instructions

Preparing the Ribs

  • Remove Membrane: Start by removing the membrane from the bone side of the ribs. This can be done by sliding a butter knife under the membrane and pulling it off with a paper towel for grip.
  • Trim Excess Fat: Trim any excess fat from both sides of the ribs.
  • Apply Mustard: Rub a thin layer of yellow mustard on both sides of the ribs. This acts as a binder for the rub.

Applying the Rub

  • Combine Ingredients: Mix all the rub ingredients in a bowl until well blended.
  • Coat the Ribs: Generously apply the rub to both sides of the ribs, ensuring an even coating. Press the rub into the meat to help it adhere. Let the ribs sit with the rub for at least 2 hours. 

Preheat the Smoker

  • Set Temperature: What temperature to smoke St. Louis-style ribs? Bring your smoker up to 225°F. 
  • Add Smoker Wood: Place wood chips for chunks in the smoker to start creating smoke.

Phase 1: Smoking the Ribs (3 Hours)

  • Smoke: Place the ribs on the smoker grates, bone side down. Smoke for 3 hours, spritzing with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and apple juice every hour to keep the ribs moist. Add more smoker wood as needed during the entirety of the smoking session.

Phase 2: Wrapping (2 Hours)

  • Wrap in Foil: After 3 hours of smoking, remove the ribs and wrap them tightly in aluminum foil. Add a small amount of the spritz mixture to the foil packet to braise the ribs.
  • Cook Wrapped (2 hours): Return the wrapped ribs to the smoker for 2 more hours. This step makes the ribs tender and juicy.

Final Smoking Phase (1 Hour)

  • Unwrap and Sauce: After 2 hours, unwrap the ribs and place them back on the smoker. If you like saucy ribs, brush on your favorite BBQ sauce.
  • Finish Smoking: Smoke the ribs for an additional hour to set the sauce and form a caramelized crust.

Rest and Serve

  • Rest: Remove the ribs from the smoker and let them rest for 10-15 minutes.
  • Slice and Enjoy: Slice the ribs between the bones and serve. Enjoy your perfectly smoked St. Louis-style ribs with a bit of a kick!

Hungry for More? 

Check out our other Smokin’ Ugly Recipes. Download our cookbook: 

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