It was 32°F on December 31st here in central New England, and so it seemed as good a day as any for barbecue to me. We were attending a New Year’s Eve get-together that evening with some friends and offered to bring some ribs. Now ribs are something that I’ve done quite a bit of over the last couple of years, but it seems that each time I go to do them, there’s something new I need to change-up.
Maybe it’s an adjustment to the rub recipe – a little more spice? a little less? Perhaps it’s a different cooking method – going with the smoker rather than the grill? No matter what, I still can’t say I’ve actually discovered my perfect rib.
On this day, I thought I would take on a variation to the tried and true 3-2-1 method. A variation I had been reading about on the Barbecue! Bible website. Certified Chez Villa food god, Steven Raichlen has been both a proponent and an opponent of the 3-2-1 method – lauding its greatness for the consistently fall-off-the-bone, crowd pleasing results, yet lamenting the down side to over-boiling the pork in the process, and the lacking bite experience. Not one to stop with observations alone, through his constant research and relentless experimentation, Raichlen proposes a new formula, one that changes the “2” to a “1” – the “3-1-1.” You can take the time to read his whole post on the method for yourself. You can find it here – 3-2-1 Ribs Revisited: Is It Time for New Math?, but feel free to follow along with me below.
I essentially live blogged the experiment on my Facebook timeline to my friends every few hours of the cook with photos and summaries of each major step along the way. They’ve all been compiled below for you.
Starting with the ribs and the rub
Personally, I prefer the extra meat of St. Louis cut ribs, and I typically make my rubs from scratch. I’ve tried a few different recipes from various sources, but keep coming back to the classic barbecue rub from The Cooks Illustrated Cookbook. It has 12 ingredients, and yes, I buy most of my dry spices in bulk from the local warehouse club and have taken over most of the cabinet above the stove to store them all.
I apply the rub after rinsing, drying, trimming the ribs and removing the membrane on the back side. I used about 6 tbsp of rub on each rack evenly covering both sides and all edges. Next, I wrapped them in plastic wrap and let them sit in the fridge for about an hour.
Getting the Fire Going
I chose to do this round on the Weber kettle to better align with Raichlen’s method (plus, I had been waiting to take advantage of the Weber charcoal baskets I had gotten for Christmas too!)
With it being such a cold day, I wanted to make sure I had no problem with the grill temp, so I lit up the charcoal chimney, filled 3/4 with briquettes, and let it go for a good 25 minutes until the top coals began to ash over.
After dumping out the lit coals, evenly distributing them to the two baskets set up on either side of the grill for the indirect cooking method, I covered the grill and let it go until the temperature started dropping to around 330°F on its way towards the desired 250°F I was aiming for.
I monitor my temps using my ThermPro dual probe, wireless RF thermometer with the grill probe positioned in the middle of the grill.
Starting the Cook: The “3”
As temps continued to drop and regulate, I spread a handful of hickory wood chips, that had soaked for about a half hour and were drained, across either side of hot coals and again covered the grill.
Next, I unwrapped the ribs and got them out to go onto the grill. Once smoke from the chips began to flow freely from the top vent of the grill, it was time to start cooking.
I put the ribs on the grill, bone-side down, in the middle of the grate with an aluminum pan filled about 1/3 with water below them. The thought was that the pan would catch any drippings making clean up easier, but also help to regulate temperatures inside as well. (Note how you can see my grill temperature probe and wire in the photo).
From here the cover went back onto the grill with the intent of letting them cook undisturbed for the next three hours. Truth being told though, while monitoring the digital display of the remote thermometer throughout the three hours, I was back outside adjusting the vents (both top and bottom of the grill) every 15 minutes or so trying to keep the grill in the range of 250°F – 275°F. Also at about 2 hours into the cook, I added about 6 pre-lit, gray and glowing coals to each side of the grill as temps were on the downward trend heading lower than my target. When I did so, I also threw another handful of chips on them to add some more smoke flavor into the mix.
Not one to disturb the ribs without doing a little something to them here, I did spray them down as well with a few squirts of apple juice from my sprayer, jusr for good measure. Then made sure the lid was secured and continued to monitor through the rest of the 3 hours.
Phase Two: The First “1”
At the three-hour mark, the ribs were looking mighty fine, and it was time to wrap these puppies in some heavy-duty aluminum foil for the second phase of the cook.
To help with the magic that occurs in the foil, adding moisture is key, so pouring 2 tbsp of apple juice in with each rack would do the trick.
I wrapped each rack and then placed them back onto the grill, this time rotating them so that the meat side was down. This would then allow the juice and drippings to do their thing.
This is where some real magic of the method happens. The juices are meant to almost braise the pork, further accelerating the rendering down of the fat in the ribs while also imparting more flavor as the liquid flows in and out of the meat.
Phase 3: The Last “1”
Opening up the foil, I could really see all that was going on as the steam rose from the racks into the now cooler December darkness of evening, I was glad to know the final phase was about to begin.
The final phase of the cook, is one last hour, out of the foil and back on the grill.
Carefully moving the racks from the foil back to the grill, I placed them bone side down for the first half of the final hour of cooking.
While that was going on, I combined the drippings from the now ribless foil with some
barbecue sauce and heated it up on the stovetop until well combined.
30 minutes into the last hour of the cook, the ribs looked pretty well near complete. Notice how much the bones are now protruding from the meat versus the earlier photos above. This is the result of the shrinking of the rib meat as the fat and such rendered out – especially during the time it was wrapped.
So, I carefully removed them from the grill, transferring them to a rack over a baking sheet wrapped in foil (the sheet, not the ribs – to make the clean-up later easier).
I then brushed each side of each rack with the barbecue sauce before placing them back in the grill for the final 30 minutes of the cook. I moved quickly, and was sure to put the cover back on the grill while applying the sauce to help minimize the loss of heat.
At the end of the 5th hour of the cook, it was time to pull the ribs from the heat. Resting the ribs is really the final “1” not listed in the 3-1-1. I tempered my cooler with a gallon of boiling hot water for the 20 minutes before pulling the ribs from the grill. After removing the ribs, I wrapped them again – this time in a double layer of heavy-duty foil – and placed them into the warmed cooler (after emptying it of the hot water and wiping it down). Finally, I wrapped a few clean bath towels in the cooler around the foil-clad racks and got them ready for transport.
When we got to our destination, only then, I unwrapped and cut the ribs – slicing them cleanly in between each rib bone using my chef’s knife (which I took with me, protected by my homemade cereal-box sheath).
As billed by Raichlen in his post, these ribs have a great bite and mouth feel. They are not fall-off-the-bone in the traditional sense, but the meat came from the bone easily with each bite.
I have to admit, of all the ways I’ve done ribs, this to date is my favorite result. Next time, I plan to do the exact same setup, but I’ll do one rack 3-1-1 and the other 3-2-1 for a side-by-side comparison, and I’ll be sure to blog those results then.
As always , I’d love to hear your comments, questions or even learn about your own experimentation with ribs, or any other barbecue endeavors. Feel free to comment below by leaving a reply.