Living in North Carolina for most of my life, there are two great debates. UNC vs Duke and Western vs Eastern Carolina BBQ.
Western Carolina-style BBQ ribs are smoked low and slow and mopped in a tangy, sweet, vinegar-based sauce.
These ribs will end the debate and show you why Western Carolina Ribs are a clear winner.
Western Carolina BBQ Ribs
Western Carolina BBQ, sometimes referred to as Lexington BBQ, originated in Lexington, NC.
The sauce combines apple cider vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, salt, and red pepper flakes. It brings a sweet, tangy, sweet heat to your favorite BBQ.
Ingredients you’ll need
- Pork ribs – St. Louis Cut is my go-to choice, but baby back ribs or full spare ribs will work.
- Rib rub – I made a homemade rib rub with coarse salt, pepper, and BBQ rub. Using our Pitmaster’s Pick Rub would also be a great choice.
- Mop sauce – Apple cider vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, salt, and crushed red pepper.
Equipment you’ll need
- BBQ Mop – a BBQ mop is key to mopping the sauce on your ribs, which is the traditional way to do it. Alternatively, a basting brush will work.
- Aluminum Foil
- Instant read thermometer
What is Eastern North Carolina barbecue?
Eastern North Carolina Barbecue is known for whole hog BBQ and vinegar sauce.
A whole hog is traditionally cooked low and slow to get a crispy skin with juicy, tender pulled pork. The meat is then chopped finely with some of the skin and mixed with a vinegar sauce.
While Western and Eastern-style BBQ both feature a vinegar-style sauce, Eastern BBQ is predominantly a mixture of white vinegar and apple cider vinegar, with hot sauce and cayenne pepper added for a little kick.
What is Western North Carolina barbecue?
Western North Carolina Barbecue is known for its pulled pork using the more traditional pork shoulder (a Boston butt is the most common part of the shoulder for your backyard barbecue).
Western North Carolina-style BBQ starts to separate itself with its sauce. Similar to Eastern-style BBQ, it is vinegar-based. However, it also uses ketchup or tomato sauce that helps cut the vinegar while bringing a touch of sweetness and some richness to the sauce.
Here in North Carolina, people refer to it as tomato-based, which is a bit misleading, as it’s still a tangy vinegar-based sauce compared to a sweeter tomato-based BBQ sauce, like Memphis-style BBQ that is primarily ketchup, brown sugar, and spices. The mix of vinegar and ketchup brings the perfect balance of sweet and tangy.
What kind of ribs to use?
I prefer St. Louis-style ribs over baby back ribs. Most BBQ restaurants tend to use either full spare ribs or St. Louis style ribs, which are a more aggressive trim on spare ribs.
While baby back ribs have more meat, St. Louis-style ribs have a good balance of fat and meat, making for the perfect bite.
How to make Western Carolina BBQ Ribs
1. Fire up the smoker
Preheat your smoker to 250°F degrees.
Remove your ribs from the package, patting any excess liquid.
Trim the ribs to your liking and then remove the membrane. If you’re not sure how to do this, check out our more detailed instructions here.
3. The rub
For my ribs, I want the vinegar from the mop sauce and the smoke to shine, so I keep the rub simple so it doesn’t overpower them.
I use a mix of coarse salt, coarse black pepper, and BBQ rub.
Season the bottom sides of your ribs lightly, letting the rub adhere for 10 minutes.
Flip the ribs over and season the meat side heavily, making sure to get the edges, as well.
Let the rub adhere for another 10 minutes.
4. The mop sauce
The mop sauce is the star of the show. It’s what makes Western Carolina BBQ, Western Carolina BBQ.
To make the mop sauce, add apple cider vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, salt, and crushed red pepper to a mason jar or bowl. Mix the sauce thoroughly so everything is combined.
I find for the best results, it’s best to make the sauce the day before to let the flavors develop. Store in the fridge overnight.
Place your seasoned ribs in the smoker and leave for three hours. After the first hour, start to mop every 30-45 minutes.
After 3 hours, you should see the bones starting to pop through. You’re looking for an internal temperature of around 175°F. That’s when it’s time to wrap.
You can skip this step if you want to, like we did for our no-wrap baby back ribs but I find it helps get the ribs extra tender.
I use two pieces of aluminum foil on top of each other and add ¼ cup of mop sauce to the foil. Place the ribs meat side down onto the sauce.
Tightly wrap the ribs and place them back on the smoker, bumping the temperature up to 275°F.
You want to cook them until you see the bones popping through about ½”. Typically, this will take an hour, but check after 30 minutes.
Remove them from the foil and place them onto the smoker meat side up.
At this point, they only need 15-20 minutes to tack up the sauce before serving.
Your ribs should be reading anywhere from 200-205°F internally.
Make sure to let them rest for 15 minutes before slicing.
For more great rib recipes, check these out
- Smoked No-Wrap Baby Back Ribs
- Smoked Pastrami Dino Ribs
- Hot and Fast Smoked Baby Back Ribs
- St. Louis Pork Ribs
- Smoked Beef Ribs
- Gochujang BBQ Ribs
Western Carolina BBQ Ribs
- 3 lb St Louis cut ribs AKA trimmed spare ribs
- 2 cups apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup ketchup
- ⅔ cup brown sugar
- 1½ tbsp salt
- 2 tsp crushed red pepper
- Preheat your smoker to 250°F degrees.
- Trim and then season ribs on all sides with rub.
- Place ribs in the smoker for 3 hours. After the first hour, mop your ribs with mop sauce to help keep them moist and build flavor. Continue mopping every 30-40 minutes or when you notice the ribs are drying out.
- After about 3 hours, the bark should be set, and your ribs should have an internal temp of around 175°F. Remove from the smoker.
- Using 2 pieces of aluminum foil on top of each other, add ¼ cup of the mop sauce, place the ribs meat side down onto the sauce. Tightly wrap the ribs and place them back on the smoker, bumping the temperature up to 275°F. You want to cook them untill you see the the bones popping through about ½”. Typically this will take an hour, but check after 30 minutes.
- Remove them from the foil and place them onto the smoker meat side up. At this point, they only need 15-20 minutes to tack up the sauce before serving. Your ribs should be reading anywhere from 200-205°F internally.
- Remove from the smoker and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
- Place all ingredients in a mason jar or small bowl and combine well.
- Add all the ingredients to a mason jar or bowl. Mix the sauce thoroughly so everything is combined. For the best results, make the sauce the day before to let the flavors develop. Store in the fridge overnight.