Smoked Baby Back Ribs
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.
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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’.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Place the ribs back on the grate, unwrapped, for 1 more hour to finish cooking.
- 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.
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.
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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