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Tastes of Texas: The "3-2-1" Method of Cooking Spare Ribs

It's back to BBQ. Learn the first of many processes for cooking pork ribs.

After taking last week off I decided that it's time to get back to BBQ and revisit our rib conversation from a few posts ago. In the first segment on ribs we discussed the various cuts of pork ribs available to you and the benefits and downfalls of each. Now, it's time to move beyond the overview and learn the first method of cooking what many consider the holy grail of barbecue (don't worry, Tastes of Texas officially remains loyal to the brisket cause).

The first of these approaches is one of the most used for cooking ribs: the 3-2-1 method. In its simplest form this process boils down to three steps: 1) Smoke for three hours, 2) wrap for two hours, 3) smoke for one more hour. We'll look at each of these steps in depth shortly.

First, you'll want to decide what cut of ribs to make. For the 3-2-1 method I recommend using spare ribs. As we discussed in the last post, baby back ribs are much more tender than spare ribs, and they do not need six hours of cook time to ensure a quality product. Besides, if you're going to take this much time, wouldn't you rather BBQ the ribs that will yield the best finished product? Head down to your local grocery store and grab as many racks of St. Louis cut ribs or regular spare ribs as your pit will hold. The extra time and effort will be worth it.

The first step in this process is obviously preparation. After taking the ribs out of the packaging you'll notice that spare ribs have a membrane on the back side of the ribs; this needs to be removed. You'll find this membrane on the St. Louis side of the ribs running most of the length of the rack. Use a paper towel to grab the corner of the membrane and pull it off all the way down the ribs. Second, take a knife and split the rib tips off the St. Louis cut ribs. This will make the ribs much easier to handle during the cooking process and will allow you to keep the thicker St. Louis style ribs closer to your fire. Third, rub the ribs with mustard or vegetable oil, and season the ribs with your rub of choice. I tend to use much more brown sugar in my rib rub than I do in my brisket rub because I think the sweetness complements the pork very well. Additionally, you don't smoke ribs as long as you smoke a brisket, so there is less time for a good bark to form. The sugar will help alleviate this issue because as it will caramelize on the meat forming a solid bark.

Now that you have your ribs prepped, let them marinate in the rub for at least two hours; be sure to let the meat get to room temperature before you put it on the pit. While the meat is marinating build the fire in your smoke box and let the wood logs burn down to coals. As I mentioned in the brisket post, any hard wood will do, but sweeter woods like pecan or cherry tend to work very well with pork. Once your fire is built and burned down it's time to actually begin the cooking process.

For the first three hours you will smoke the ribs with indirect heat. Try to keep the temperature of your pit between 225 and 275 degrees, and don't let the temperature flare over 300. Whether you decide to mop the ribs with a mop sauce is entirely up to you. I have done it both ways, and there are benefits to each. Mopping can add another level of flavor to the ribs, and it helps keep them moist if the temperature in the pit is inconsistent. However, because you're only smoking for three hours, the rub will likely not have a chance to adhere to the meat, and the mop can wash off your flavor. If you do decide to mop, dab the sauce on the ribs or put the mop sauce in a spray bottle to prevent the delicious flavor from washing off during the process.

After three hours of smoke, the ribs should be ready to wrap in foil. One of the main reasons I believe in the 3-2-1 method is that it's incredibly easy to over-smoke ribs. Unlike a brisket or a pork shoulder, you're dealing with a relatively thin cut of meat, and if you're not careful you can easily pour too much smoke into the ribs. Moreover, wrapping the ribs in foil after three hours not only prevents your product from a developing an oversaturated smoke flavor, but it also allows the meat to tenderize and keeps the ribs from drying out. When you wrap, pour some beer or apple juice in the bottom of the foil, and seal the foil as tightly as you can. Put the ribs back on the pit at about the same temperature as the first three hours; if you were smoking below 225, feel free to ratchet up the temperature a bit during this time; the foil will protect your meat.

After two hours in the foil, it's time to take the ribs back out and put them back on the smoker for one more hour to allow the bark to re-solidify. If your ribs are already tender enough, keep the temperature very low and let the smoke do the work. If they aren't quite there, keep smoking at the same temperature you've been using throughout. Contrary to what most people think, ribs should not be "fall off the bone" tender. The rib meat should pull away from the bone with ease and should be about as tender as a very tender steak; if you can't even cut the ribs without them falling apart, they're too tender. That said, you'll rarely find a dinner guest that will complain about ribs being too tender, so it's always better to aim for that particular side of the spectrum.

After that last hour, pull the ribs off, let them rest for about 20 minutes, and slice and serve to your dinner guests. Be sure to hoard all of the delicious rib tips for yourself.