Smoked Pork Ribs with African Spice Rub
These extra tender smoky bones of succulent meat that highlight the sweet heat of the exotic and earthy rub. These smoked ribs are surprisingly easy to make, even for a first-timer, and outrageously good. The grainy dry rub forms a delicious crust around the meat, making them savory, tender and just straight up fun to eat. NO sauce needed!
What motivated this African Spiced Smoked Pork Ribs recipe?
Simply – I wanted ribs cooked Memphis style with African flavors. I grew up in a Texas barbecue culture where sauce was non-existent at best, but in reality was frowned upon. It was all about smoke, meat, and time. The thinking was if you needed a sauce then you were compensating for poor taste and execution. I moved to Chicago where the perspective was the polar opposite. The sauce was as, if not more important than the meat. Then, there is Memphis where the dry rub is king. I’m partial to dry rubs and love the complexity and nuance they allow you to bring to such a simple, humble food like pork ribs. These ribs are cooked in the Memphis dry rub style, but the spice mix is uniquely a mix of ones used in different African regions. It’s difficult to find pre-mixed African rubs like Dukka, Berbere, or Ras el Hanout and the ones I’ve found didn’t meet the profile I was seeking. My solution was to steal a little from each mix and create my own original fusion marrying the flavors of Morocco, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa all into one rub.
Where can I find/source all the spices for these smoked pork ribs?
I imagine the first question you have is what are typical African spices and next where can I find them? Fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and piri piri dried pepper flakes are the spices/seasonings that provide the exotic, African element to the rub. If you live in a more metropolitan area local spice shops would sell these as well as some grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joes. The Spice House (Chicago), Pendery’s (Ft. Worth), and Savory Spice Shop (Austin) all have online options and will ship, plus there is always Amazon. As for more mainstream alternatives consider caraway or anise seeds for fennel. They have similar licorice flavor profiles. Fenugreek, though it’s not a popular spice, is used in most curry spice blends so curry powder can be used as a flavor replacement. Lastly for the piri piri pepper flakes, good ole red pepper flakes are your best bet.
What are keys to making original spice rubs?
Feel free to make your own spice rub, if this one doesn’t fit your tastes. I have about 100 original recipes and that list is always expanding as I continue to learn and experiment more lol. I work off of some basic guiding principles that are tried and true for me. Feel free to borrow as loosely or exact as you want.
- The basic rib rub formula is salt, pepper, paprika, and brown sugar. I typically start with equal proportions of each, but you can adjust ration based on type of meat and flavor profile you’re going for
- Balance is key as it is with pretty much everything in life. You want balanced heat as well as flavor and different combinations can help you achieve this.
- Ratio of salt to sugar should vary depending on the type of meat. A higher ratio of salt works best in rubs for beef, fish, and wild game, whereas those with more sugar work better for pork.
- Brown sugar preferred to white/cane. Brown sugar is white sugar combined with molasses so adds more flavor and color
- Use different peppers (black, white, chile, cayenne, pink) for heat levels.
- Go with kosher salt for meat. It’s additive free and more coarse which helps textually
- Include transition spices or those that unite all the other spices. These include spices like paprika, cumin, coriander, and chili powder. They don’t have overly strong flavors so can be used in greater amounts. They usually provide earthiness, some aroma, and heartiness
- While transition spices tend to be your base along with salt and sugar, use one or two “flash” spices that allow you to add personality, style, etc. These include dried herbs, ginger, garlic, mustard, cardamom, etc. They all have stronger distinct flavors that need to be used in smaller amounts
- Use fresh spices. I date and update my spices often.
- Taste and adjust before putting rub on your food
- Consider all the senses. Spices can provide texture, aroma, color, and/or taste. Keep this in mind when pairing and planning how you want to experience the end dish
What is the flavor profile of this recipe?
I grinded my spice seeds on the coarse side so that I’d have some textural contrast to the juicy tender meat. The ribs had about three levels of flavor. There is the natural pork flavor enhanced by the smoke and then the first level of spices. Finally as a finishing touch the extra layer of rub and apple cider at the end closes things out. What you end up with is a nice outer crust to bite into and a juicy explosion of the succelent pork post bite. The sweetness of the brown sugar comes through and balances both the peppery finish and spicy kick. The cooking process actually mellows the strong licorice taste of the fennel, but the sweet, floral aroma remains.
Should I remove the papery membrane from the ribs before cooking?
This is a matter of personal preference, but I’ve seen passionate perspectives for both. I prefer my smoked pork ribs without the membrane. I’m a texture guy and find it tougher, more chewy than the meat. It’s also a barrier to the meat and bones absorbing flavors from the spice rub and smoke. It’s very easy to remove the membrane but can seem awkward the first time. I insert a butter knife between the membrane and one of the middle bones under it to get started. It will be slippery, so use a paper towel to pull off wit your hands.
What are key cooking tips for making Smoked Pork Ribs?
- Lightly toast the spice seeds before grinding them for more intense flavor
- Remove the membrane from back of the ribs. Not a deal breaker if you don’t but
- About 5 minutes before taking the ribs off the smoker spray them with apple juice or cider vinegar then dust the ribs with more of the spice rub. This adds additional layers of flavor
- Never, ever ever ever boil ribs! That is just wrong!
- Experiment with different woods – oak, pecan, cherry, apple all impart great smoke flavor
- “Fall off the bone” tender is not optimal for smoked pork ribs. These means the ribs are overcooked and have essentially become mushy, un-meat like. When they’re ready, the meat will have shrunk about 1/4in from the bones and you should be able to pull them apart with your hands.
- Reserve some of the rub for popcorn seasoning!
Resources and Special Equipment Needed
I highly recommend a spice/coffee grinder to make your rubs. I buy a lot of whole seeds because I like to heat them for that extra flavor and the grinder comes in handy as far as breaking them down to the desired consistency (most of them have settings for different levels of coarseness). Here is the one I use this one by Lifesmart.
Obviously you’ll need a smoker. If you’re in the market for a new one, take a look at pellet smokers. Traeger is the standard, and is what I use. They’re easy to use, highly efficient and provide a really clean smoke taste.
If you’re interested learning more about spices check-out this book Herbs and Spices: The Cook’s Reference. It details all common and uncommon spices as well as provide info on which work best together and for what foods. Alternatively for a free rundown of all the common spices
African Spiced Smoked Pork Ribs
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Smoked Pork Ribs With African Spice Rub
- 1 rack spareribs
- 3 tablespoons smoked paprika
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoons black pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon mustard seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup apple cider placed in a spray bottle for spraying
Wash the ribs and blot dry. Remove the papery membrane skin on the back of the ribs. Pull it off in a sheet with your fingers, using a napkin for better grip.
Make the rub
Lightly toast the mustard, fennel, and fenugreek seeds in a skillet on medium heat. Quickly remove once you smell the aroma. Place seeds in a spice grinder and coarsely grind.
Place the ground spice seeds in a mixing bowl with the remaining dry seasonings and mix well breaking up any lumps with the sugar with your fingers.
Rub the mixture into the ribs on both sides.
Set up your smoker following the manufacturer’s instructions and preheat to 225 to 250 degrees. Add your preferred wood.
Cook the ribs until very tender and the meat has shrunk back slightly from the ends of the bones, 4 to 5 hours. Replenish the charcoal and wood as necessary to maintain temperature. Spray the ribs with cider occasionally about every hour after those first two hours of cooking.
During the last 30 minutes or so apply a final coat of the rub.
Serve the ribs
If you don’t have a spice grinder use a mortar & pestle. As a last resort put the seeds in a ziplock back and delicately pound them the seeds with a hammer.