Baby Back Ribs – Good, not Great

Cook date: June 2, 2020

I hesitate to say this for fear of jinxing myself but I’m pretty good at grilling and barbequing: I can grill chicken thighs a number of ways; I can roast a spatchcocked chicken; grill a skirt steak; my pulled pork game is strong; and I have even successfully smoked 3 full packer briskets. But the perfect rack of ribs – St. Louis cut or Baby Backs – eludes me. In the cooking logs I keep I have a “Next Time” section. For pulled pork, it says “do it exactly like this”; but for ribs I write “try blah or blah-blah”

I was hoping to change that this week. I spent some time watching YouTube videos and reviewing my old cooking logs and I was ready to try again. A classic technique for Baby Backs is the 2-2-1 method. That is 2 hours of smoke; 2 hours with the ribs wrapped in aluminum foil and some liquid for braising; and 1 hour of saucing and firming the ribs. But a number of sites said that 2 hours of braising in the aluminum foil was too much; and the videos I watched proved it – the ribs were not only falling off the bone, they were falling apart.

So, I planned a hybrid 3-1-1 method: 30 minutes on a low setting to generate lots of smoke; 2½ hours at 245°; wrap with apple juice, brown sugar and honey and cook for 1 hours at 250°; and finally, 1 hour at 245° when I would apply the sauce. But I was flexible: before wrapping, the rub needed to turn into bark on the ribs and I didn’t want to pull the ribs from the wrapping stage until some of the ribs started to pull back from the bone.

If you’ve followed me a while you know my blogging style is not to cook a dish many times before publishing the perfect method. I’m more “Let’s see if this works” and sharing the results. Okay, let’s see how it went…

I dry brined the ribs for about 4 hours before cooking. I removed the membrane from the back side and sprinkled with kosher salt then returned to the refrigerator.

Dry brined ribs ready for the rub.

I used my go-to Meathead’s classic Memphis Meat Dust rub from the Amazing Ribs website.

Memphis Meat Dust. No salt so the dry brining step was necessary

I rubbed the ribs.

Rubbed Ribs

One rack was a full 3.5 pounds while the other two had been previously trimmed and rang in at about 1.5 pounds each. About 11:30 they went on the grill.

Ribs fresh on the grill

The smoker did its thing and I did my thing; sat outside on a lounge chair reading a book.

The Mak 2-Star smoking away.

I spritzed the ribs with some apple juice every 30 minutes; here they are about 1:30 into the first stage.

Ribs about an hour and a half into the cook.

After 3 hours the rub should be creating a nice hard bark; they were still a little tacky at that point so I cooked for an additional 30 minutes.

I’ve cooked ribs both wrapped and unwrapped over the years. My family likes ribs fall-off-the-bone tender. I understand that that isn’t the way they are done in competition, but then again I’m not competing. Wrapping helps get that texture I wanted. When I have wrapped before I’ve just used apple juice. I went all in this time, sprinkling a little brown sugar on top and then drizzling with honey. I didn’t use a lot nor did I use pats of butter – which some people swear by but I can’t get my head around.

Wraps treated and ready to be wrapped.

During the wrap stage the meat should start to pull back exposing the ends of the bone. But that didn’t happen after an hour so I left them in another 30 minutes. I started my cook early, figuring I’d have a couple of adjustments to make along the way. Although the meat never pulled off the bone as expected, they were tender when I probed them with a paring knife point. So, time for the next step.

I didn’t make my own sauce for this cook; instead I used some of Podnah’s Pit sauce. Podnah’s Pit is a fantastic barbecue joint in NorthEast Portland. It is only a few blocks from my oder son and his wife’s home so we get to eat there when I get the bug. Or at least I could eat there whenever I wanted before COVID-19. The spicy sauce would be a nice reminder.

Barbecue sauce from Podnah’s Pit; my favorite BBQ joint in Portland.

Here are the ribs with the sauce setting up.

Sauced ribs firming up on the grill

While I was manning the smoke pit, Carla made some cornbread and sautéd corn. That’s a lot of corn in one dinner, but it just seemed right. The ribs had nice smoke rings and some of them were very tender.

Baby Back ribs for dinner.

Here is my cooking log (click for a larger image).

The result? The ribs were good; while they were tender, I really had to tug to get them off the bone. And they could have been more juicy. I wonder if the fact the ribs had been frozen for about a week before cooking contributed to the ribs not pulling from the bone more easily.

Next time? I think I’ll try a classic 2-2-1; the full 2 hours of braising may help keep in moisture and get that pull back I want.

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