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..
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.
Preparing the Ribs for Smoking
I keep the prep pretty simple when it comes to ribs.. some folks put the rub on then 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 often do and that will yield excellent results as well.
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 don't 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 Jeff's original rub recipe (get the recipes here) 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 cheese shaker or you can repurpose a large coarse-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, gas or pellet 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 original 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°F. This is a very good temperature simply because it will get the ribs done in around 5 hours without burning the rub. I like to use a 50/50 mix of pecan and apple for great smoke 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.
Make sure you are set up for indirect cooking and if your smoker has a water pan, might as well fill it up.
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°F, I am ready to add the ribs to the smoker grate.
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 don't really have to use a thermometer to tell when it is done. Due to the close proximity of meat to bone, it is more difficult to get a good reading with most thermometers and therefore, we use tenderness to tell us when the meat is done and ready to eat.
Having said that, the digital thermometers made by Thermoworks, and this includes the ThermoPop, the Thermapen and the awesome leave-in thermometer with dual probes called the “Smoke”, all have probes that reduce in size right at the tip and this means you can actually get a decent reading in pork ribs, right between the bones.
You can still cook them as tender as you like but you can also check the temperature and when they get to about 190-195°F, they oughta be pretty darn near perfect.
Step “1”: Once the smoker is going at 225°F 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°F and the smoke is flowing out, 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 considered “fall-off-the-bone” which might be just the way you like them and that is perfectly fine 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 really tender to the point of falling off the bone, that they are way over done and are not fit to eat. This is true (unfortunately) 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.
Order Jeff’s Rubs and Barbecue Sauce TODAY!
✅ My rubs and sauce will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted and it’s a great way to support what we do!
Smoke, Wood, Fire: The Advanced Guide to Smoking Meat – Unlike the first book, this book does not focus on recipes but rather uses every square inch of every page teaching you how to smoke meat. What my first book touched on, this second book takes it into much greater detail with lots of pictures.
It also includes a complete, step-by-step tutorial for making your own smoked “streaky” bacon using a 100 year old brine recipe.