One of the most frequent questions that I get in my email inbox is how to achieve “fall off the bone” tender ribs and while some of our competition friends and judges frown on ribs that are that tender, this is what many rib lovers and barbecue enthusiasts are looking for.. and I'm here to show you how to make that happen using what we call 2-2-1 ribs using baby backs. The spare rib equivalent is called 3-2-1 ribs.
The trick is to get them extremely tender without drying them out and there is a method that we use to make that happen. I will show you how in this issue complete with plenty of pictures to show you how it's done.
I am going to show you how to get “fall off the bone” tender ribs on a ceramic cooker called the Big Green Egg but you can also use these same instructions in all other smokers as well including gas, electric, charcoal and wood smokers using the same temperatures and times.
I highly recommend that you play around with the times in each of the cooking steps below and take careful notes to develop the tenderness and crustiness that is perfect for your family's taste.
What You'll Need
- Baby Back Ribs (loin back ribs)
- French's spicy mustard or regular yellow mustard
- Jeff's naked rib rub recipe (purchase recipes here)
- Jeff's barbecue sauce recipe (optional)
- Heavy Duty foil or large foil pan
How to Prepare
Ribs are extremely easy to prepare making them a great “spur of the moment” thing to cook on the smoker if the mood strikes you.
If you're the kind of person who plans ahead, you can also do the prep ahead of time, wrap in saran wrap and place in the fridge overnight for cooking the next day.
The first step is to remove them from the packaging and place them bone side up on the cutting board or in a pan as I did.
Remove the membrane which is a thick plastic-like skin over the boney part of the ribs. removing this allows the smoke to penetrate the meat better.
Pry up on the membrane using a knife or other sharp utensil. Then grab the membrane with a paper towel and pull it clean off.
You can also use a pair of catfish skinning pliers if you like.
Now the ribs are ready to season up using my rub.
Simply make up a batch of my original rub (purchase recipes here) or if you're like me, I always have some made up in an air-tight bowl in the freezer. Then I apply a light coating of yellow hotdog mustard on the boney side of the ribs to help the rub to stick real good. This time I chose to use French's spicy mustard instead of the regular and it turned out very well.
Once the boney or bottom side of the ribs are coated with mustard and rub, I flip them over and do the same with the top side.. light coat of mustard then sprinkle on the rub. Not too thick but enough to cover the ribs real good.
Note: I don't use quite as much of the rub on the boney side as I do on the meaty side but then that's up to you. My rub recipes calls for very little salt and allows you to add as much seasoning as you like for flavor without fear of it being overly salty.
Once the ribs are coated on both sides with rub and mustard, I leave them there to go get the smoker ready.
Preparing the Big Green Egg or Ceramic Cooker for Smoking
Make sure you have plenty of lump charcoal in the fire bowl. I like to have it up to the top of the bowl which is an inch or two above the air holes.
Make a slight impression in the center and place a fire starter. I don't use the Big Green Egg brand but you can use whatever you like. I buy an off-brand at my local department store and they work great. They're basically wax and sawdust and they light quickly and get the coals going within just a couple of minutes. Be sure to use the kind that are designed for barbecue.. some are not and say so on the warning label.
Note: You can also use an electric fire starter which is just a heating element that you bury into the coals and plug it in. It gets red hot and starts the coals within just a few minutes.
Once the fire starter is burning, pile a few larger pieces of charcoal on top of the flames making sure it can get a little air.
Most folks recommend placing soaked wood chips in a spiral pattern on top of the coals but that's just not enough smoke for me. I purchased a chip box casinoplay for this purpose which I place just off center a little and it provides much better smoke in my opinion. I leave the chips dry instead of soaking them. This is a mix of pear, cherry and sugar maple.
Place the plate setter in place with the legs facing up then place the food grate on top of that.
Tip: If you are worried about the drippings on your plate setter, you can place a drip pan on it or some foil which can be easily thrown away when you're finished cooking.
After the coals have been burning for about 7 minutes, close the lid on the ceramic cooker and leave the bottom and top vents all the way open until the smoker reaches about 230 degrees.
While the smoker is heating up, go ahead and get the ribs and place them on the grate bone side down.
How to Smoke the Ribs Using the 2-2-1 Method
Once the smoker reaches 230 degrees, adjust the vent at the bottom and the top to hold this temperature. For me, that means the daisy wheel at the top is only slightly cracked open at about 20% open and the bottom vent is open about 3/4 of an inch or so as shown in the picture.
This is where the 2-2-1 method of making the ribs tender really starts. Start a timer or just make note of the time because the ribs will only stay in this current configuration for 2 hours.
Once 2 hours are up, the ribs should be wrapped in heavy duty foil or an easier method is to place them in a large foil pan with foil covering the top tightly. Some folks put apple juice down in the pan to create more steam and flavor but I have found lately that I much prefer to leave the pan or foil dry and let the natural juices do the job. It is this steaming action that super tenderizes the ribs.
This is the 2nd step in the 2-2-1 method and lasts 2 hours just like the first step.
After 2 hours have expired with the ribs in foil or in the covered pan, remove them from the pan or foil and place them once again directly on the grates for 1 hour.
It's hard to see in the pictures but you will notice when they come out of the foil or pan that they look wet and there is no crust to speak of. The last hour on the grates, dries the top a little and develops the crust on the outside that is usually desired.
This is the last step and when the hour is up, the ribs are ready to slice and eat.
A Few Words on The 2-2-1 Method
I recommend doing them exactly as I have done them above the first time you do them but if you find that they are too tender or more done than you desire, you can adjust the time in the pan or foil to compensate for this.
The initial 2 hour step is where the smoke flavor gets into the meat, the middle 2 hour step is where the super tenderizing takes place. The last 1 hour step is where the crust develops on the outside.
Reducing this middle step by about 30 minutes will do a lot of good if you find that you want them a little less tender. Also feel free to increase the last step to help the crust to develop better.
Wanna Do Spare Ribs Instead?
That's easy, just add an extra hour to the first step, making them 3-2-1. Once again, feel free to adjust the middle and last step if you want less tenderness or more crust.
Dome Temperature Vs. Grate Temperature on the Big Green Egg
Usually, in most smokers, there is a difference between what the temperature reads in the lid and what it reads at food or grate level so just out of curiosity, I've been watching it. Surprisingly enough, the two temperatures are very, very close to the tune of +- 5 degrees once the temperatures settles out.
As you can see in my picture below, the digital was reading 241 and the dome lid thermometer was at about 243.. very close. I have been noticing this on mine and I have to say that I did not expect this. Both thermometers have been calibrated and are accurate.
- Remove ribs from packaging and lay bone side up
- Remove membrane
- Light coat of mustard then Jeff's original rub (purchase recipes here) on both sides
- Get smoker ready to cook at 230 degrees
- Place ribs directly on grate boney side down for 2 hours
- Wrap ribs in foil or place them in foil pan and cook for 2 hours
- Remove ribs from foil and place bone side down on grate for 1 hour
- Slice and serve
- These can be done in exactly the same way on ANY smoker and even the grill if you like. Maintain 230 degrees or so over indirect heat and follow the 3 steps.
- If you want to decrease the tenderness, reduce the time in the pan or foil.
- Spare ribs are done in exactly the same way by adding 1 hour to the initial step making them 3-2-1 ribs.
- If you like sticky ribs as many folks do, brush my sauce onto the ribs a couple of times during the last hour depending on how “wet” you want them.
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