Smoking and grilling ribs is something that takes a bit of practice. But the rewards are so worth it. Ribs can be grilled at high temperature, but if you want to experience tender and smoky ribs the way professional pitmasters prepare them, try using the 3-2-1 method.
The method calls for roughly six hours of cooking time over low heat, so it’s best done on the weekend when you have some time. The reason “low and slow” works so well is ribs are full of a connective tissue known as collagen. When you cook quickly over high heat, the collagen doesn’t have time to break down. When they are smoked low and slow, the collagen has time to liquefy, adding to the moistness and flavor of the rib.
When using the 3-2-1 method, it is definitely best to use spare ribs. If you use baby back ribs it’s more like 2-1-45 minutes. So what do these numbers mean? You smoke the ribs at 230 degrees uncovered for three hours, you then wrap them in foil and cook them at the same temperature for two hours, then cook them uncovered again at the same temperature for one hour. You can do this on an oven too, but obviously there will be no smoky flavor. And don’t even think of using liquid smoke.
The first thing you need to do is properly trim the spare ribs. Use a smallish and extremely sharp knife to do this. There are many good videos online that show you how. Once trimmed, flip the ribs bone side up and peel the membrane off the bones. Start it with a knife and then grip it with paper towel to pull the membrane off. It will come off like a sheet of cellophane. If you can’t get it off, don’t stress it. Some pitmasters don’t go to this trouble.
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Rub the ribs with your favorite pork rub and allow to sit for a half-hour or so. Prepare your smoker.
For these ribs I used 3/4 apple chips and 1/4 hickory chips, a total of two handfuls of chips. Place the ribs on the smoker for three hours. After three hours, pull the ribs and lay them on a large sheet of foil. A secret ingredient at this point that many competitive pitmasters add (don’t laugh) is a liberal squirt up and down the meat side of the ribs with Parkay margarine. Some add other things – spicy jelly, more rub, chili sauce, etc. Seal the foil around the ribs and place them back on the smoker. This technique is known as “The Texas Crutch.” Theoretically it holds the moisture as well as tenderizes the ribs.
After two hours, pull the ribs again. Remove the foil from the ribs and place the ribs back on the smoker. This will firm up the rub, which has basically been steamed while wrapped in foil. The ribs will be left on the smoker for another hour or so. If you like to sauce your ribs, smear on the sauce with roughly 20 minutes left. The meat should have pulled away from the bones a bit and when you take the ribs off the smoker, they should be floppy and not stiff.
While this takes some time, it is really worth it. And again, if you don’t have a smoker, use this technique indoors for delicious and tender ribs. 3-2-1. Enjoy!
Dave Lobeck is a financial adviser by day and a barbecue enthusiast on nights and weekends. He is also a Kansas City Barbecue Society judge.