May 31, 2013

Smoked Dry-Rub Pork Ribs

Nathan, I, and the entire Modernist Cuisine team were saddened earlier this month when barbecue legend John H. Willingham passed away.

This year, I had the opportunity to be a member of his River City Rooters team, which competed at the Memphis in May World Championship a few days after his passing. Although Willingham’s absence was keenly felt by everyone on the team, it strengthened our determination to honor his memory by delivering strong showings in both competition and vending. Willingham’s daughters, Karla, Kara, and Kristi, were a constant presence in the pit, always working, encouraging others, and keeping spirits up. Willingham’s son-in-law, Clay Templeton, orchestrated the vending, and Paul Holden, long-time pit-master of the Willingham team, simultaneously managed six W’ham Turbo Cookers, including a giant version built inside a trailer!

Although Willingham was most famous for his contributions to barbecue, he was a true renaissance man. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals, served as a county commissioner, and was known for providing shelter to the homeless. An accomplished inventor, he held 17 patents, including the patent for the nasal spray bottle. Perhaps his most intriguing invention was the W’ham Turbo Cooker, which was unlike any other barbecue cooker at the time and offered a giant leap forward in the accuracy and consistency of cooking over a live fire. Electronic controls in the turbo cooker slowly feed pellets into a firebox to generate heat and smoke, which waft into an offset chamber where food is hung on rotating racks. The system ensures even heating and flavoring of the food. The influence of Willingham’s inventive ideas is clearly visible in many other cookers; vision and offset fireboxes with electric controls are now very popular on the competitive barbecue circuit.

Willingham was an avid participant in barbecue competitions for decades. He crisscrossed the country to compete in events from Boston to Alabama, collecting trophies almost everywhere he stopped. Over the years, he twice captured Grand Champion at Memphis in May (once when he invited Nathan to join his team) and also took Grand Champion at the American Royal in Kansas City, two events that many be considered the most competitive in barbecue.

During my time in Memphis this spring, I soaked up Willingham’s wisdom on how ribs should be cooked. By combining those insights, with tips mined from Willingham’s cookbook, I was able to produce the recipe below, which consistently produces delicious ribs and can be reproduced at home even if you don’t have a dedicated smoker. Although this recipe might not win any trophies, it will definitely result in a great meal. I hope it inspires you to get out your grills and gather your family and friends for some fun outdoor cooking. That would be the perfect way to remember John H. Willingham.

-Sam Fahey-Burke, Research and Development Chef

Recipe Tags

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Ribs (2)

Willinghams-1991-square

Nathan Myhrvold on the River City Rooters team, 1991. We adapted techniques used by John Willingham for home use.

Tips & Substitutions

  • We use apple wood chips in this recipe because that is what John Willingham would have used. You can, however, substitute other varieties of wood chips, such as hickory.
  • Find the sweet spot on your grill by following our table.
  • Wait until the charcoal coals turn gray and ashy before banking them.
  • Use a clean grill grate.
  • Do not place the ribs directly above the banked coals.
  • You can also make this recipe in a traditional smoker or a W'ham Turbo Cooker.

Discussion

  1. Mgreen908@aol.com June 1, 2013 Reply

    These really look great. I’m curious about doing ribs sous vide. I’m experimenting now. My first sous vide ribs were tender but the flavors didn’t penetrate the meat well.

    I will take this recipe and play with it sous vide style.

    If anyone has had success doing ribs sous vide style, please let me know.

    I’d like to chart my experiences.

  2. Bob June 5, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this article, I’d been wondering how it would work.
    I’m wondering why there’s no mention of the pressure cooker? I’ve gone to the pc over the oven for the last year.

  3. Seth June 8, 2013 Reply

    I’m curious if anyone has been able to get a good bark with sous vide BBQ ribs or has suggestions.

  4. John Paul Khoury August 17, 2013 Reply

    I have been doing this method for a number of years- LOVE IT!! You get nice smoke and you don’t have to watch a pit all day.

  5. Christos Chalakatevakis November 4, 2013 Reply

    I’m making them sous vide in the restaurant with great success. Trim , liquid smoke rub , dry rub , 60 deg 24 hours , rub BBQ sauce , finish in the oven

  6. MSG January 25, 2014 Reply

    Just used this rub recipe for some smoked St. Louis pork ribs. By far the most saltiest rub I have ever tried. It was terrible!

    Cut the salt by a half if trying this rub recipe.

  7. Trax September 16, 2016 Reply

    I suggest using Amazing Ribs’ dry brine technique. For ribs, 1/4 tsp kosher salt per lb ribs.

    Let the salt penetrate for 8 hrs or so. Then use the rest of the rub as prescribed per the recipe (but not necessarily all of it, you still want to see/appreciate the ribs).

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