Smoky, sweet, juicy, meaty ribs.
If you look around the Web, the popular way to barbecue ribs is to use the “3-2-1 method.” The numbers “3-2-1” represent hours: smoking the ribs for three hours at a low temperature; braising them in a “Texas Crutch” foil wrap for two hours; and finishing them on the grill for one hour – for a total of six hours cooking time. I’ve come up with my own five-hour variation of competition ribs, as well as some less-than-obvious tips for how to maximize your results.
One great aspect of this recipe is that there’s a lot that you can personalize and experiment with: the dry rub, the wrap ingredients, your choice of sauce, and your choice of wood for smoking.
- 2-3 Racks of fresh pork ribs
- McCormick Smokehouse Maple or your choice of dry rub
- BBQ Sauce such as Rufus Teague’s Honey Sweet or Blues Hog
- Apple juice
- Soft margarine
- Personalize it: Tiger sauce, honey, agave syrup or other sweet or heat
Items From the Pantry
- Two large foil, steel or plastic work pans
- Foil pan to collect smoker drippings
- Wide roll of Reynold’s heavy duty tin foil
- Roll of paper towels
- Wood chips or chunks for smoking (I use apple)
- Natural lump charcoal
- Disposable gloves (optional for handling raw meat)
Step 1: Light the smoker and bring to 225 degrees
Light the smoker with your combination of lump charcoal and wood chunks or chips. In this case, I’m using BGE lump with a generous helping of wetted apple wood positioned toward the center. The important thing is to bring the smoker up to temp slowly; it’s easier to bring it up than it is to back it down. For my Egg, that means keeping the airway openings at a half-inch to an inch after an initial open period to get the charcoal going. I also clean out any ash prior to smoking, as well as make sure the air holes in the fire box aren’t blocked by small pieces of lump or ash. You want to make sure you’re controlling heat via airflow and external controls, not internal blockage.
Step 2: Prepare the ribs
Having tried both fresh and frozen ribs, I’m a big fan of buying fresh ribs from the butcher that have been mostly prepared at the time of purchase. Before smoking, the ribs need to have any excessive fat, the meat flap (if it’s present) and the membrane removed. The membrane is a semi-transparent, white, silvery lining on the “bone side” of the ribs. Using a kitchen utensil such as a butter knife, find an edge of the membrane to lift a corner. Be careful if you’re using a sharp knife! The membrane is slippery and hard to grasp. Once you’ve got a little bit raised, use a paper towel to firmly grab the edge of the membrane and pull it off. After the membrane is removed, apply a thin coat of mustard to both sides of the ribs.
Step 3: Prepare and apply the dry rub
There are hundreds of commercial rubs and rub recipes available. They typically combine salts, sugars (turbinado sugar, molasses, etc.), onion or garlic powder, heat (paprika, chili powder, etc.), and other spices. After trying dozens, I’ve found that most commercial rubs allow the salt, pepper or heat to overwhelm any sweetness and other flavors. I’ve started to create my own mixes based on a foundation of McCormick Grill Mates Smokehouse Maple Seasoning. Considering that the McCormick rub has received over 400 five-star reviews on Amazon, it appears that I’m not alone in liking it’s smoky sweetness and coarse texture. Some people like to refrigerate the ribs with the rub overnight; others can’t tell a difference.
Step 4: Prepare the grate, rib rack and drip pan
Once the ribs are prepped, it’s time to make sure that the plate setter, drip pan and rib rack are in place, and that you’ve got a good smoke going at a steady 225-degree temperature. I’ve been using a few inches of water in my drip pan – it seems to increase the amount of moisture in the cooking chamber by adding humidity. Water pans are said to help with temperature control.
Step 5: Smoke the ribs for 3 hours
Those wood chips and chunks should be smoking now. Once the temperature is steady and the ribs have come to room temperature, smoke them in the rib rack for three hours, checking the smoker occasionally to make sure the temps haven’t crept up or down. Some folks will spray the ribs with apple juice every hour, but it’s important to try to resist opening the smoker repeatedly, since a rapid influx of oxygen could cause your temperatures to rise. As you’re approaching the end of the third hour, take some time to make foil envelopes in anticipation of the next step of the process (see below).
Step 6: Wrap the ribs in a “Texas Crutch”
After three hours are up, it’s time to wrap the ribs in what is known as a “Texas Crutch.” This consists of wrapping the meat in foil along with a liquid (I use apple juice), margarine and occasionally, some additional flavors such as Tiger Sauce or honey. The liquid simmers with the meat in the foil, trapping heat and steam and tenderizing the meat.
The amount of liquid can vary – some suggest simply brushing the ribs with liquid, but I put in at least a half-cup of apple juice. Use heavy-duty foil, since the bony ribs have a tendency to puncture cheaper foil. I’ve been creating “envelopes” for the ribs by taking an arms-length piece of foil, folding it in half and then half-again, and rolling the two side edges to make a pocket for the ribs and juice, rolling the last edge once the liquid is inside.
Put the foiled ribs back on the smoker for two additional hours.
Step 7: Remove and sauce the ribs
Once the ribs have been on for another two hours, in all likelihood, they’re already at 160-170 degrees and safe to eat, but not yet quite cooked to taste. Once you remove the ribs, you can check their temp with an instant thermometer. At this point, the meat should have pulled back from the ends of the bone and there should be a distinct tenderness to them. Just be careful – there’s still hot liquid and steam in the foil, and it can easily drip out and burn you if you’re not careful. I like to open the wraps above a large bowl or foil work pan for that reason, then sauce them after discarding the excess liquid.
Step 8: Finish the ribs on a gas grill
The 3-2-1 method calls for the ribs to go back on the smoker grill for another hour, but I prefer to simply sauce them at this point and sear them on the gas grill, which adds a little caramelization and char. Don’t overdo it – I personally enjoy a little seared meat and burnt tips, but you don’t want to burn the sauce. I like the Rufus Teague line of sauces, which forgo corn syrup and have tomato paste, brown sugar, honey, molasses, mustard and raisin paste as top ingredients. Blues Hog is also a good sauce, but it’s a little spicy and goes on like a glaze – just don’t use too much.
That’s it! Let the ribs cool for a little bit, cut and serve. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
Postscript: When Things Go Wrong – The Stall
The first time I made ribs, they hit 140 degrees or so and wouldn’t budge. I assumed that the time to cook was proportionate, so I kept them on for another hour or more and walked away, only to subsequently have the temps suddenly shoot up past 190 degrees. Was the thermometer broken? Had I miscalculated? No. I had found the dreaded “stall.”
The “stall” is a time period in which meat temperatures can plateau due to moisture changes in the meat. I won’t attempt a full explanation here, but feel free to read this lengthy explanation. Using a Texas Crutch, a water pan, and finishing on the gas grill seem to render the “stall” somewhat moot. The important thing is to keep a regular eye on your temps if you’re under where you’d expect to be, and never assume that cooking time is proportionate when temps seem to have plateaued.