Western Carolina BBQ Ribs

If you like your ribs tender and juicy, with a clean bite, then Western Carolina BBQ ribs are the way to go.
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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

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.

1. Prep

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.

raw seasoned wester carolina ribs on a wooden chopping board
Salt and pepper are BBQ’s best friend, while the BBQ rub adds a touch of sugar to help the bark without overpowering the flavors.

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. 

5. Smoke

seasoned western carolina ribs in the smoker

Place your seasoned ribs in the smoker and leave for three hours. After the first hour, start to mop every 30-45 minutes.

western carolina ribs in the smoker being mopped

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.

6. Wrap

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.

western carolina ribs sitting on foil with mop sauce on it

Tightly wrap the ribs and place them back on the smoker, bumping the temperature up to 275°F. 

foil wrapped western carolina ribs

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.

western carolina ribs sitting on foil in the smoker

Remove them from the foil and place them onto the smoker meat side up.

western carolina ribs in the smoker tacking 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.

western caroline ribs on a wooden chopping board

Make sure to let them rest for 15 minutes before slicing. 

side on sliced western carolina rib
I like my ribs tender and juicy, but not where they fall off the bone. I want to be able to take a clean bite.
western carolina rib, sliced, looking down on it

For more great rib recipes, check these out

western carolina ribs in the smoker being mopped

Western Carolina BBQ Ribs

Tender and juicy St. Louis Ribs with a sweet, tangy Western Carolina BBQ Sauce
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 5 hours
Resting Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 5 hours 45 minutes
Servings: 4
Calories: 864kcal
Author: Brian Gerwig

Ingredients

  • 3 lb St Louis cut ribs AKA trimmed spare ribs

The rub

The mop

  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • cup brown sugar
  • tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp crushed red pepper

Instructions

  • 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.

The rub

  • Place all ingredients in a mason jar or small bowl and combine well.

The mop

  • 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. 

Nutrition

Calories: 864kcal | Carbohydrates: 47g | Protein: 38g | Fat: 56g | Saturated Fat: 18g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 10g | Monounsaturated Fat: 20g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 191mg | Sodium: 6603mg | Potassium: 844mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 43g | Vitamin A: 485IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 103mg | Iron: 3mg
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