Ribs – Carolina, Memphis or St. Louis? What’s the Difference?

I love ribs. I keep hearing ads on TV that say – “Carolina Ribs” or “St. Louis Style Ribs” – but what does that mean? How are they different? Well, I decided to do a little research, play with the basics and give some a try. Here’s what I came up with.

Kansas City barbecue is known for its sauce! Thick, rich, tomato based with lots of molasses. The ribs are dry rubbed, smoked and succulent. Not quite fall off the bone, but tender and juicy. Which ribs to use? Either back or spare work great with this style.

St. Louis style is similar to Kansas City, except the sauce is a little thinner – a little heavier on the vinegar and not quite so sweet. The dry rubbed ribs are slowly cooked over a low heat, smokey grill and mopped often to caramelize the sauce onto the juicy, fall off the bone meat. Most often spare ribs are used for this delicious dish.

Memphis Ribs are dry rubbed with a simple mixture, then grilled to perfection. They won’t fall of the bone, they’ll just melt in your mouth once you’ve taken a bite. The sauce is a mustard based sauce with a bit more of a kick than some of the other sauces. Most often these are made with back ribs.

And then there is the Carolina rib. I think this is my favorite. No rub, just some salt and pepper and a low, slow cooking over hickory smoke. This is a fall off the bone rib. The sauce is a spicy, vinegar based sauce that is mopped on at the very end of the cooking. The ribs used are usually spare ribs.

And now the ribs. What’s the difference between spare and back you ask? Flavor wise, not much. But where they come from is what makes the difference. Obviously the back ribs come from the back of the rib cage. These are usually less meaty and more tender. The spare rib comes from the belly side of the ribs. They are meatier, but less tender than the back. Either one makes for a great meal if they are cooked low and slow.

And so here they are. My versions of the three styles!

What you need:

Carolina Style 

  • 1 slab of back ribs
  • ¾ cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons hot sauce (like Tapatio)
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper

Memphis Style 

  • 1 slab back ribs


  • 1 teaspoon of each: Sea salt, garlic powder, onion powder, brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon dry mustard
  • ½ teaspoon pure maple syrup

      Mustard Sauce

  • ½ cup prepared barbecue sauce
  • 3 Tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon each: garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 1 Tablespoon dry mustard

Kansas City Style

  • 1 Slab of spare ribs


  • 1 teaspoon each: Salt, black pepper, chili powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 Tablespoon brown sugar


  • ¾ bottle barbecue sauce with molasses base
  • 2 Tablespoon molasses

How to Do it:

Mix up the ingredients for the rubs. Rub the ribs down on both sides and refrigerate overnight. If you’re doing the Carolina, just rub them down with some sea salt and pepper. A little more salt on the fatty area. Start soaking the wood chips for the smoker.

Fire up the smoker. Smoke the slabs for 3 hours (Kansas City and Carolina need about 4 hours). Mix up the sauce while they are slowly turning into tender deliciousness.

Move the slabs to the grill set on Medium-high. Mop them with sauce (except for the Kansas City – serve the sauce on the side for these beauties). Cook about 15 to 20 minutes on each side, mopping often with the sauce.

Remove from the grill and let them cool a bit. Cut them apart and serve them with sauce on the side and lots of wet napkins.

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