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In this edition, I am going to explain how to do super tender smoked baby back ribs using a version of the 3-2-1 method which is actually more of a 2-2-1 for baby backs and I am going to show you how to do them the regular way as well which is to leave them on the smoker grate the entire time with no foiling.

Hopefully one of these methods will suit your fancy and help you to produce smoky, succulent ribs that have your friends and family begging for more..

Purchasing the Ribs

Baby backs are usually around 2.5 to 3 lbs.. look for slabs that are marked “MINIMALLY PROCESSED” to ensure that they have not been shot up with a lot of saltwater solution and extra flavorings. I also like to see a good bit of fat marbling within the meat.

Baby back ribs top side Baby back ribs bottom side

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Preparing the Ribs for Smoking

I keep the prep pretty simple when it comes to ribs.. some folks put the rub on them and let them sit overnight in the fridge. That is perfectly fine but you can also just apply the rub right before you smoke them like I usually do and that will yield excellent results as well.

As usual, I use my own rub recipe simply because I can’t seem to find anything else that I like. I guess I am spoiled by the awesome flavor and the beautiful mahogany crust that forms on the outside;-)

Before adding the rub though, I highly recommend that you remove the membrane on the bone side of the ribs.

Start by prying up the top layer of plastic-like skin. Then use a paper towel to get a really good grip and pull it clean off.

Note: Some folks use catfish pliers instead of a paper towel to get a grip on that membrane and pull it off. Whatever works for ya’.

Pry up the membrane with a sharp object Pry the membrane up off the bone

Use a paper towel for great grip Pull firmly and steadily to keep from tearing

completely remove the membrane Membrane removed from ribs

Some folks do not remove the membrane and most restaurants don’t mess with it for obvious reasons of time and effort but in my opinion it lets a lot more smoke get to the meat and I think taking the time to remove it is worth the time and effort required.

ok.. now we can add the seasoning or rub.

Start by mixing up a full batch of my rib rub recipe and don’t taste test too much or you won’t have enough for the ribs. Put the rub into a shaker with fairly large holes like a toothpick dispenser or you can repurpose (I like that word) a large course-ground pepper bottle. They usually have larger holes.

Jeff's Rub RecipeBottles for rub

With the ribs still in the bone-side up position, shake a good covering of rub all over the ribs. The best way I can tell you is to shake enough on there so that you can no longer see the ribs. Here’s what I mean:

Rib bottom covered in rub

Don’t move the ribs, we are waiting for the rub to get a “wet” look and this will take about 10-15 minutes. This is a great time to go get the smoker going or go get something cold to drink, check the score, check your email, etc..

Once the rub has that “wet” look which means it will now stick to the ribs, you can flip them over and rub down the meaty side in the same manner making sure to get full coverage.

Top side of ribs covered in rub

Now that the top side is covered in rub/seasoning, you have to wait for it to get that “wet” look as well. If you procrastinated and didn’t get the smoker going earlier, you really must do that now.

Just as soon as the rub has changed color and is sticking to the ribs, they are ready to smoke. This is how they will start to look when they are almost ready. As you can tell, I got the rub a little heavier in some areas than in others so I’ll give it a little more time.

Rub has a "wet" look to it

You could use a light layer of mustard, oil, etc. to help the rub to stick if you are in a hurry but I prefer to do it naturally if I have time.

Getting the Smoker Ready

You might have a nice wood burning trailer rig or you might just have a charcoal, electric or gas smoker. Regardless of what you are using, if you will follow my temperature recommendations and my cooking instructions, you should end up with something mighty tasty and especially if you use my rub recipe. You don’t have to use my recipe but then you’d be missing out on a lot of flavor in my way of looking at things;-)

You’re going to want to get the smoker set up for cooking at about 225 degrees. This is a very good temperature simply because it will get the ribs done in around 5 hours without burning the rub. I recommend using hickory, pecan or mesquite for the ribs and some cherry mixed in wouldn’t be a bad idea if you have it available. I like to use a 50/50 mix of pecan and cherry or pecan and apple for great flavor.

For this experiment, I used a big old chunk of pecan that I custom cut to fit in my smoke box and piled apple chips in around it to fill in the voids. This will give me solid smoke for about 2.5 hours or so.

Pecan with apple chips

Here in the midwest, we are still under a burn ban due to the dry spell we are under and I am still confined to my gas smoker which is nice and enclosed and there’s not much way for a spark to get out and ignite any of the nearby dry grass or leaves.

Lucky for me, it works pretty well and I can do these ribs up nice and proud in that thing.

I turned the heat on high for about 5 minutes to get the wood to smoking but I’ll turn it down to a more medium setting once I add the ribs to the smoker.

Smoke the Ribs

This is the fun part.. well except for the eatin’ part that is. Once the smoker is clicking along at around 225 degrees, I am ready to add the ribs to the smoker.

For this newsletter, I am going to show you how to cook the ribs in a very normal way and I’m also going to show you how to do them with a 2-2-1 method.

I cooked them both at the same time, but the 1st rack got some extra attention during the process.

What is 2-2-1? Well, I’m glad you asked.. this is the baby back version of the 3-2-1 method designed for smoke cooking spare ribs. The numbers correspond to 3 steps in the process.

  • Step 1 is x number of hours on the grate
  • Step 2 is x number of hours wrapped in foil
  • Step 3 is x number of hours, unwrapped again and back on the grate

Sound confusing? I hope not but if it does, that’s ok. I’ll walk you through it very slowly.

By the way, ribs are one of the few meats that we do not use a thermometer to tell when it is done. Due to the close proximity of meat to bone, it is near impossible to get a really good consistent reading and for that purpose, we use tenderness to tell us when the meat is done and ready to eat.

2-2-1 Method

Step “1”: Once the smoker is going at 225 degrees and the smoke is starting to roll out, place the ribs bone side down directly on the grate.

Once they have been smoke cooking for 2 hours..

Step “2”: Pull the ribs out of the smoker and wrap them in foil. I like to pour in about 1/4 cup of apple juice just before closing up the foil. Place the wrapped ribs back on the grate as they were before, only this time, in a wrapped configuration.

Been smoke cooking for 2 hoursWrapped in foil

 

When they have been on the grate, wrapped in foil for 2 hours..

Step “3”: Remove them from the smoker and unwrap them from the foil. You will probably notice that the meat is starting to pull back from the bones and there will be quite a bit of rendered fat in the bottom of the foil.

Been cooking in foil for 2 hours

Place the ribs back on the grate, unwrapped, for 1 more hour to finish cooking.

Notes:

  • Spare ribs use a 3-2-1 method which is identical except the first step requires 3 hours instead of only 2.
  • These times are not etched in stone, you may find with practice, that you prefer to leave them on the grate for a little longer and in the foil a little less. You could end up with something like 2.5-1.5-1 or something similar.

When they are done, which just means they are tender enough for you to make the executive decision that they are ready to eat, slice them up and go after it.

Done and ready to slice All sliced up

Rib bones

My “Normal” Method

What is normal? Well that’s very subjective so we won’t delve into that vein of philosophy but when I am talking about ribs, normal just means that I am going to put them bone side down directly on the grate and pretty much leave them alone until they are done.

Once the smoker is maintaining 225 degrees and the smoke is coming up, I place the ribs directly on the grate bone side down. The only time I open the door is to add more water, wood chips/chunks or to check progress occasionally.

I fully expect these to take about 5 hours so I’m gonna find something else to do while they cook and let the smoker do it’s thing for a while.

To check and see if they are done, I am looking for a certain level of tenderness. For me, this is not quite “meat falling off the bone”but it’s pretty close. For you it might be something else.

I like to grab the ribs on one end with a pair of tongs and lift them up a little. The amount of bend I get on the other end tells me how tender they are. If they start to break in half, they are probably over done which might be the way you like them and that is perfectly ok with me.

My usual method for checking doneness is to slice one off and take a bite.. I can tell pretty quick if it’s “there” yet.

"normal" ribs done "normal" ribs sliced

Just so you know..

There are a lot of folks out there saying that if your ribs are too tender, that they are way over done and are not fit to eat. This is very true for official barbecue competitions but not for cooking at home. Those of you who know me, know that I am a “no rules” kind of guy when it comes to these things. If it tastes good and your friends and family like it then who am I to tell you what the rules are.

If you like the meat falling off the bone then that’s how you should prepare them. My opinion and I’m sticking to it!

For a KCBS barbecue competition, that’s a different story but fortunately we don’t have to get into that today.

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Love the sauce and rub recipes. So far I have used them on beef ribs, pork ribs, and different chicken parts. Can't wait to do a beef brisket. Texas rub is great as well! ~Peter S.
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..I tried the rub on a beef brisket and some beef ribs the other day and our entire family enjoyed it tremendously. I also made a batch of the barbeque sauce that we used on the brisket as well as some chicken. We all agreed it was the best sauce we have had in a while. ~Darwyn B.
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 Love the original rib rub and sauce! We have an annual rib fest competition at the lake every 4th of July. I will say we have won a great percent of the time over the past 15 years so we are not novices by any means. However, we didn't win last year and had to step up our game! We used Jeff's rub and sauce (sauce on the side) and it was a landslide win for us this year! Thanks Jeff for the great recipes. I'm looking forward to trying the Texas style rub in the near future! ~Michelle M.


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14 Comments on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Aaron July 11, 2016 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Quick question, you mention adding water during the “regular” smoke, but no mention of water during the 2-2-1 smoke. Do you put water in the smoker during the 2-2-1 smoke?

    • Jeff Phillips July 12, 2016 at 2:03 pm - Reply

      My normal recommendation is to always add water or other liquid if your smoker is equipped with a water pan. The only time I don’t do this is if I am having trouble creating a nice crust due to excess moisture in the air. This happens in some electric smokers due to limited airflow. I also sometimes forego the water pan if I am drying meat as in making jerky.

  2. Lyle Phelps August 15, 2015 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    Please describe the flavor of your rub recipe. I am looking for a sweet rub as opposed to the common spicy variety.

    • Jeff Phillips August 16, 2015 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      The original rub recipe is a great balance of sweet and spicy. You can make it less spicy by adjusting a couple of ingredients and I am always happy to help with this.

  3. Kaye Riggs July 5, 2015 at 12:08 am - Reply

    For those having trouble making tender ribs, check your temperatures. I finally got a remote thermometer and found my electric smoker was 25 degrees too cool. I just did my first batch of baby backs and they were perfect with the 2-2-1 method. I had to set 250 to get 225. Temperatures are key.

  4. Bob May 21, 2015 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    Please help! I have tried the 2-2-1 method for my baby backs and every time it turns out poorly. I have an electric smoker and keep trying the rib recipe. Actually the best luck I have is cooking in the oven covered.

    I am about to give up on smoking them…one more time this weekend…I feel like I am just wasting money buying the ribs and smoking them.

    Please … Any suggestions?

    Thanks in advance

  5. Chris Caputo April 25, 2015 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    Thanks for all the info. I love your rub as well.

    I have a RecTec pellet smoker. I hear that you shouldn’t smoke ribs past the 2nd hour or so. When I take the ribs out of the foil for the final hour, I cannot turn off the smoke. Is it true? What should I do?

    • Jeff Phillips April 27, 2015 at 10:39 pm - Reply

      This is not really true.. in real wood smokers where wood is the heat source and the smoke by default, there is no way to turn off the smoke and there is no better smoked meat anywhere. You can wrap it in foil to protect it from the smoke but this is not really necessary. Keep plenty of airflow into and out of your smoker and you can add smoke for the entire time with great end results.

      Having said that, you don’t have to add smoke for the entire time if you don’t want to and some folks find that they prefer adding smoke very lightly for a short period of time. Some like a more subtle smoke flavor while others like it more pronounced. Both ways are correct and it just depends on your personal preference.

  6. Dave July 18, 2014 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    Do you keep the smoke going for the full 5 hours when doing your normal method or for only part of the time?

  7. austin hamblin June 13, 2014 at 11:57 am - Reply

    Hey Jeff!
    I tried the 2-2-1 method for baby back ribs just as described in this article and I didn’t have an luck? My ribs were really tough and had to be cut off with a knife. I know it has to be something I did wrong because I have found most people love that method for cooking ribs. I am using an electric smoker by the way. What do I need to do get my ribs to fall off the bone? cook longer?
    Any help would be great!
    Thanks,
    Austin

  8. Dennis April 30, 2014 at 8:26 pm - Reply

    I plan on making some baby backs this weekend. I plan on following the steps you recommend in this article to see if I can improve on my ribs. Currently my friends and family love my ribs, but I’d also like to see if I can get them to competition grade. As you said home cooking and tournament cooking a completely different. Do you have an article that would detail how you would prepare these ribs for a competition? I would really appreciate seeing how the final products differ.

  9. Byron Bradley May 15, 2013 at 7:37 am - Reply

    I would like a copy of your rib rub and sauce.  Im smoking my 1st slab this weekend.

    • Jeff Phillips May 16, 2013 at 12:30 am - Reply

      The recipes can be ordered at the following link:

      http://order.smoking-meat.com/jeffs-rub-recipe-and-sauce-recipe/

      Let me know if you have further questions about this. 

      • Larry Green June 1, 2013 at 1:28 pm - Reply

        Jeff,

        I have been using your rub and sauce recipe for 2 years now. I bought ribs at my local Dillons that were already rubbed and I added some of your rub just to be safe. I didn't like the way that they turned out, so I went to my local Sams Club and bought a 3 pack of Baby backs to try again this weekend. I am sure that with your rub exclusively, that they will be the bomb. I also purchased a Pitmaster IQ110 temp controller for my smoker. I am going to put it on my Weber Gold 22.5 grill and use it to smoke these. Shouldn't be an issue and I am looking forward to having some killer bbq. Thank again Jeff.

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