A while back, I was asked to share my competition rib recipe because I always maintained that I have no secrets about my BBQ. Well, months later, here it is. It wasn’t easy to write because I have never written it down before. Surprisingly, the post is a lot longer than I anticipated, but don’t let that deter you from using this technique that is wide spread in the BBQ community.
Don’t consider this a recipe, I believe cooking ribs is a process. It’s not about applying your favorite rubs and sauces. Instead, take note on the tips and tricks written between the sentences of this post, it’s more valuable than any kind of BBQ sauce. Ribs can be easy to prepare, depending how you look at it. You can put them on the grill to cook for 2 hours and they will be tasty ribs…but that is not BBQ.
To be honest, my ribs are not easy to make. At competitions, the ribs I smoke are made to be very rich, extremely sweet and tender…but not falling off the bone. Competition ribs are not what I grill for my family and friends in my backyard. Heck, I don’t make them this way for myself. My backyard ribs are slightly easier, but constant observation of the meat and the cooker is required because my cookers are not expensive insulated grills.
However, there is one thing that my backyard ribs and competition ribs have in common…the 3-2-1 method. Therefore, I’m only going to cover the 3-2-1 method because it works for me and I’ve been consistent with this technique.
What is 3-2-1?
This method is a way to smoke ribs from start to finish. 3-2-1 represents the amount of hours the rack of ribs cook at each stage. In other words, the ribs smoke for 3 hours, wrap for 2 hours and cooks without smoke for the last hour. Total, the ribs will spend 6 hours on the cooker. Details of this are broken down even further as you continue to read.
I recommend that you try a St. Louis style rack of ribs and a loin back rack of ribs to see which type of ribs you like best. There are pro and cons for each, but I’ve got calls at rib competitions using both. This choice is a popular point of debate in the BBQ community. To me, it doesn’t matter because it’s all about how they look. I’m going with the rack that looks meatier, has more fat, straight bones and resembles close to a perfect rack of ribs. Moreover, don’t be afraid to buy the cryovac ribs from a warehouse club store, they are excellent quality.
I like going to my local meat market because my butcher always have fresh ribs on hand. I make sure my meat cutter has what I’m looking for, otherwise, I’m left with a selection of meager ribs. As much as I want to support my butcher, I’m absolutely peculiar about my ribs. I don’t hesitate to buy from somewhere else anymore. Meager ribs are not worth the 6 hours of smoke paradise.
Additional notes about ribs…
Preparation and trimming of the ribs will not be addressed here. Trimming ribs is part of the smoking ribs process, however, there are lots of other resources such as The Hog Blog that does an excellent job in showing how to trim ribs. Prepare the ribs how you like them. Whether you like to marinade, brine, or nothing at all, it’s up to you. For me, I trim my ribs but I don’t prepare them.
Keep in mind that baby back ribs weigh less than 2lbs, anything above it are loin back ribs. In addition, spare ribs are trimmed to make St. Louis style ribs. Thus, St. Louis style has nothing to do with how they are cooked.
Furthermore, loin backs ribs or St. Louis style ribs benefit most from the 3-2-1 method. Otherwise, cook times will have to be modified if cooking with baby back ribs or spare ribs. Also, do not use this technique on country ribs or beef ribs, it doesn’t work as well because the country ribs are too lean and the cook times along with the flavor profile is all wrong for beef.
Here is a list for my weapons of choice when I BBQ. They include what I use to prepare a fire, maintain the grill throughout the cook and prepare the meat:
- Charcoal grill
- Charcoal briquettes
- Charcoal chimney
- Grill brush
- Silicone baste brush
- Long spatula and tongs
- Aluminum foil
- Heat resistant gloves
- Grill thermometer
- Sharp knife
- Cutting board
- Chunks of smoke wood
I won’t go through and explain the use of each instrument here because that’s an insult to your intelligence. However, if there is enough interest, I can create a post to explain.
Basically, the 3-2-1 method calls for a simple list of ingredients that are applied at different steps in the process. This list of essentials includes:
- BBQ Rub
- Liquids (for foil wrap)
- BBQ Sauce
- Canola oil
Sure, this list is short, but the ingredients themselves are complex and broad. You will find out exactly what products I use and I hope to explain my reasons for the flavor profile I choose.
If the ribs are frozen, thaw them out for approximately 3-4 days in the refrigerator. On the day of the cook, let the unfrozen ribs come to room temperature, it’s OK to set them out for 45 minutes or so. While the ribs are sitting out, coat them with canola oil, then apply a sweet, sugar based rub on the ribs. Just because the spices are called a rub, you don’t actually rub it into the meat. That just tears up the surface of the meat. Instead, gently pat the rub into the meat. Let it sit until the rub turns into a syrup glaze.
During this time, prepare the cooker for smoking. You should have a smoker or a charcoal grill to cook ribs. If you have a charcoal grill, use the 2-zone method. Set the temperature of the grill to approximately 225 degrees.
Note: I have done ribs on a propane grill and they turned out just fine. However, I have the benefit of owning a smoker, so I don’t cook ribs on the gasser anymore.
I was told that approximately 90% of all BBQ competitors use commercial rubs. The reason being that there are a lot of quality rubs on the market and cooks have better things to do than play chef. Truth be told, I am a proponent of commercial rubs and there are many that claim to be championship quality.
Once in a while, I make my own rubs, but my homemade rubs are not quite as good as the rubs on the market. For this reason, I find so many great BBQ rubs at the store that it’s hard for me to stick with one. Although, the one constant is Plowboys Yardbird rub, for several reasons this is my favorite. Many times I have used the Yardbird rub and combine it with another rub with excellent results. But just for the record, I got 1st place using Plowboys alone. Listed below are more of my favorites:
- Blues Hog
- Dizzy Pig Pineapple
- Penzey’s BBQ 3000
- Penzey’s Galena Street
- Smokin’ Guns Hot
- McCormick’s Grillmates Sweet & Smoky
Notice that each one of these rubs have a high concentration of sugar in them. In particular, brown sugar is the main ingredient in many pork based rubs. It is because brown sugar compliments pork extremely well while at the same time, the low temperatures of the smoker or grill caramelizes the sugar and gives it an eye pleasing look and a delectable aroma.
Wait about 20-30 minutes for the temperature to stabilize at 225 degrees. Add the glazed rack of ribs to the cooker, flesh side up. Remember, the lid is always on or closed with the vents wide open.
Add 2 or 3 chunks of dry seasoned hardwood/fruitwood such as: cherry, oak, apple, hickory, pecan, peach or a combination of wood. These are some of my favorites. However, stay away from mesquite, the smoke will overpower the pork. Moreover, do not use wood chips or soak the wood in water.
Let the ribs smoke for 3 hours. Check the temperature often without opening the cooking chamber and keep it around 225 degrees. Also, check the charcoal and water/liquids as necessary.
Note: One element to achieve tender, moist ribs is making sure that there is a source for water in the cooking chamber. Humidity keeps the moisture inside the ribs. Typically, large trailer smokers create moisture by cooking large quantities of meat, but doing with one or 2 racks of ribs cannot produce moisture in the grill. So, adding a pan of water directly over the heat source or next to it can recreate that moisture.
At 3 hours, the ribs could be considered ready to eat. But, the connective tissue has not broken down at this point. Eating the ribs now would be tough and chewy. This next step will accelerate the break down of connective tissue which will result in a tender product.
When the 3 hours are almost up, create a flat preparation area. Tear a sheet of aluminum foil, enough to completely wrap 1 rack of ribs. Remove the ribs from the grill and wrap the ribs in aluminum foil. Before you seal it up, add ¼ cup of apple juice. Doing this will expedite the cooking process of breaking down the meat and render off the fat. Seal it up tight so no liquids leak.
Place the ribs flesh side down on the grill grate and continue to cook at 225 degrees for 2 hours. At this point, wood chunks are no longer needed, but continue to add water and charcoal.
Note: Heavy duty aluminum foil is recommended because the rib bones tend to puncture through cheaper foil, unless you double or triple wrap.
FYI…The process of wrapping the ribs in aluminum foil is widely known as the Texas Crutch. Again, it is a topic that divides hardcore BBQ enthusiasts. For those of us backyard pitmasters without a large trailer smoker, it is essential to wrap because the extra moisture will result in tender ribs.
The purpose of a competition wrap is to impart another level of flavor on the ribs. This is important because one bite is all a judge needs to score my ribs. So, I want to load my ribs with as many sweet, savory and rich flavors as possible into one bite.
My competition ribs need this step in order to put it over the top of everybody else’s ribs. To do that, I add a special combination of rich ingredients to go into my wrap. With these ingredients, I’ve taken 3rd, 2nd and 1st place, so the judges obviously like the flavor profile.
- Parkay margarine
- Turbinado sugar (Sugar In The Raw)
- Tiger Sauce (sweet chile sauce)
Honestly, I didn’t invent this list of ingredients. This is what BBQ legend Johnny Trigg uses to wrap his ribs too. So chances are, lots of other folks are using this combination because it is a well documented recipe.
FYI…Since I find ribs to be cooked flavorless and boring at restaurants, I find ways to mix it up and taste so much better. There are other ingredients to use in wraps. Here are few ideas:
- Hot pepper jelly
- Bacon fat
- Hot sauce
- Apple cider
- Cider vinegar
- Brown sugar
- Apricot preserves
- Soy sauce
At 2 hours, 5 hours total, remove the foiled ribs and unwrap them. They should look moist and the rub looks mealy. Another thing to notice is how much the meat has pulled back from the bone. If there is about a ¼ inch of bone pulled back, you’re in good shape. If not, don’t sweat it because it is not a litmus test for doneness. Discard the foil wrap and liquid.
Place on the grill flesh side up and apply more rub one last time. Pop on the lid and cook for the last hour to firm it up.
If you use barbecue sauce, now is the time to 1) Take it out of the refrigerator and sit out at room temperature 2) Warm it up on the grill/stove. The popular application for barbecue sauce is to put it on the 10 minutes before you take the ribs off the grill.
For myself, I don’t sauce my ribs. When I have guests, sauce is served on the side. In addition, I prefer to kick up my own BBQ sauce. Just buy any inexpensive store bought sauce and kick it up with other ingredients. I pretty much use the same ingredients that I use in the foil wrap. Be sure to cook the kicked up sauce in a sauce pan on the stove or grill, this thoroughly mixes everything together.
I use a 50/50 mix of Blues Hog Original and BH Tennessee Red. I like to warm up the sauce because it’s smoother and glossy. Then I apply it when the ribs are in the turn-in box because I don’t want my finger prints showing and I want to cover up any undesirable blemishes.
Sauce is not required in competitions, but they will score higher than ones that don’t. I haven’t tried for myself, but what I’m doing seems to be working. So why change it?
Using the 3-2-1 method takes the guessing out of knowing when ribs are done. Nonetheless, there are several ways to check to make sure they are tender. Here are a few ways to tell:
- When the meat pulls back about a ¼” from the bone.
- Take a toothpick, poke between the bones at the thickest part of the ribs. If it easily slides in and out of the rack…it’s done.
- With a pair of tongs, grab one end of the ribs. If they bend easy they are done, if not, keep them in the cooker.
Note: The 3-2-1 typically does not produce fall off the bone ribs. To achieve fall off the bone ribs…cook them longer. This will further break down the meat. Do this with caution because the meat will turn to mush and you can ruin a good rack of ribs. In other words, ribs are too expensive to make them fall off the bone…you can get the same results from pulled pork and it’s cheaper!
FYI…If you didn’t achieve a tender rack of ribs, don’t be discouraged. It’s an epidemic that seems to hit everyone, yes including me. I can’t explain it because you can do the same exact steps with different results. Ribs can be a fickle beast.
Once the ribs are done, let them rest for a few minutes to let all the juices settle. When cutting the ribs, use a sharp, un-serrated knife. I cut mine into single or 2 bones so everybody can dig into those tender treats.
Tip: My family likes their ribs to be heavily sauced and burnt. So after the ribs are done, I apply a coat of barbecue sauce. Then cook them over direct heat for a minute or 2 on the charcoal or gas grill. Apply a second coat of sauce…repeat until the ribs are sticky and charred.
Better results will only come with practice, I would like to practice every weekend if I had the time to do it. No matter how perfect or imperfect they turned out to be, smoked ribs always taste good. Especially, when you worked up an appetite from all the work you just did and all the beer you consumed waiting for those meat sticks.
Congratulations, you successfully applied the 3-2-1 method to make authentic BBQ ribs.