The Tastes of USA BBQ: Tennessee style BBQ

There's nothing better than barbecue. Legs, shoulders, ribs, and anything else you can toss on the grill always taste so much better with that distinctive smokey-sweet spice rub. But did you know there are actually many different ways to barbecue your meat?

Which spices you use and what techniques you employ can drastically change the taste of your finished meat. Why not mix things up a bit and try out some traditional Tennessee-style barbecued ribs?

What makes Tennessee-style ribs so special? How do you make them? Today in our Tastes of USA BBQ series we’re going to answer these and many more questions as we cover one recipe for making authentic Tennessee-style barbecue ribs.

Tennessee Style Barbecue

Tennessee-style barbecue differentiates itself from other regional styles in a number of factors. In terms of flavor, Tennessee (with Memphis being the barbecue capital of the state) defines itself through the making of both dry and wet barbecue. With dry barbecue, only a spice rub is applied prior to smoking, while wet barbecue involves meticulously basting your meat throughout the cooking process.

In terms of sauces, the eastern parts of Tennessee are often associated with a vinegar-based variety similar to those most famous in the Carolinas. For Memphis, tomato-based sauces are what's most common. Their traditional barbecuing meat is pork, which is why we'll be showcasing a pork rib recipe to demonstrate their barbecue style.

Supply List

Before we can start barbecuing, though, we need to gather the necessary supplies. For the purposes of this recipe, we'll be smoking on a dedicated charcoal meat smoker. If you don't have one of these, there are plenty of guides you can follow online for how to use either a regular charcoal grill or even a propane grill as a meat smoker.

  • Chunk charcoal
  • Wood chunks (details below)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Digital Read Thermometer
  • Apple juice, apple cider vinegar, or vinegar sauce (optional)
  • Spray bottle (optional)
  • Tennessee spice rub (details below)
  • Memphis barbecue sauce (details below)
  • Pork spare ribs (6 to 8 lbs)

One of the most critical aspects of authentic Tennessee barbecue is the wood used for smoking. In Tennessee, the most common wood to smoke with is hickory. Applewood may also be added in small amounts to give fruitier undertones to the rich smokiness, with some cooks even using pieces of oak whiskey barrels in their fires for an extremely unique taste. While that last part may not be viable for an at-home smoker, both hickory and applewood chunks and chips should be easy to get your hands on. You can find more about different smoke flavors in this article.

As for the spice rub, there are several essential ingredients for making an authentic Tennessee-style rub. For the amount of meat listed in this recipe, you'll need:

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons celery salt
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sweet paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

With the sauce, if you choose to use one (the great thing about Tennessee barbecue is that it's plenty flavorful even without any), is that there are many ways to change the recipe to suit your tastes. For a Memphis-style sauce, you will want something with a large amount of tomato in it, ketchup being a popular option. For a vinegar-based basting sauce, it's even simpler than that.

You can often find pre-made barbecue sauce in many styles at your local grocery, but if you'd like to make your own, it's fairly simple.

Tomato Sauce

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons onion powder
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon mustard powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon Worcester sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons dried herbs (oregano, thyme, etc.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Vinegar Sauce

  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup yellow mustard
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Barbecuing the Ribs

With your ingredients gathered, we can finally move on to cooking the meat.

Step 1: Prepping the Ribs

Before you can begin cooking, you need to prep your ribs for seasoning. Depending on the ribs you buy, this step may not be necessary. On the underside of the ribs attached to the bones will be a thin, white membrane. To make your ribs as tender as possible, simply remove it by taking a sharp pairing knife and making a cut on one end, cutting and pulling back along the bones until the membrane is torn free.

Step 2: Season the Ribs

Once you've removed the membrane from your ribs, mix up your spice rub and applying it liberally to each slab of ribs. Massage the rub into the meat, making sure to thoroughly coat both sides. When you're done, cover the ribs in plastic wrap and refrigerator for at least an hour if not overnight to allow the flavors to develop.

Step 3: Making the Sauce

While your ribs rest in the fridge, now would be a great time to make your barbecue sauce if you wish to use it. For the tomato sauce, simply combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and reduce on medium heat until thick and syrupy, tasting and adjusting based on your flavor preferences. For the vinegar sauce, just mix it together in a bowl, optionally adding it into a spray bottle for easy application later.

Step 4: Prepping the Smoker

About half an hour prior to when you intend to begin cooking, it's a good idea to start prepping your smoker. Load it with charcoal and your wood of choice, lighting it and adding water to the tank. The goal is to let both smoke and steam build up inside the covered smoker while raising the temperature to about 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 5: Smoking the Ribs

After you've lit the smoker, take your ribs out of the refrigerator and allow them to sit at room temperature for at least half an hour. Letting the ribs warm up helps them cook more evenly and tenderly, meaning this is crucial to having the best ribs you can get.

Once they've had a chance to warm up, lay your ribs against the grate and close the lid. If you want to cook dry ribs, then all you need to do is be attentive to your smoker's needs, refilling charcoal, wood, or water as needed. If you want your ribs to be wet, then you'll need to baste them with apple juice, apple cider vinegar, or the vinegar sauce prepared earlier every half hour or so.

Step 6: Finishing the Ribs

The ribs are done when they reach an internal temperature of around 185 degrees (anywhere from 3 to 5 hours is typical). Visually, you should be able to see they're finished cooking once the meat has begun to recede away from the edges of the bones. You can also try twisting a bone and pulling it, as the bone should release with little to no trouble if the ribs are cooked.

If you wish, apply a healthy coating of barbecue sauce to the meat side of your ribs during the last half hour of cooking, letting it caramelize on top. Once you've determined the ribs are done, remove them from the smoker and wrap them in aluminum foil, letting them rest for half an hour to relax and tenderize.

Step 7: Serving the Ribs

With this, your ribs are done. After the resting process has finished, unwrap your ribs and get ready to eat. While you can go through the trouble of cutting between each bone to pre-separate each rib, it's a lot more fun to simply plate the slab and tear off ribs as you go.

Conclusion

Barbecue ribs are great no matter where they're from, but you'll find that the Tennessee-style barbecue rub is a great treat with plenty of unique flavors to experience. If you've yet to partake in this regional delicacy, now is a great time to change that.

Did you like this recipe? Have any tips on making your own Tennessee-style barbecue ribs? Tell us about it in the comments, and don't forget to share this recipe (and your leftovers) with a friend.

Frequently Asked Questions​

What Are the Different Styles of BBQ?

Do You Have to Remove the Membrane from Ribs?

Should You Marinate Ribs?

How Do You Smoke Ribs?

Which Barbecue Sauce is Best for Ribs?

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