You have bought an excellent grill and will start cooking spare ribs for the first time. That is definitely a good choice. You have probably eaten delicious spare ribs for years and want to master cooking them yourself. So you start Googling and find the 3-2-1 method for the perfect spare ribs. You follow everything step by step and end up with incredibly soft meat where the bones fall out of the meat by themselves.
That is, of course, a great start to your barbecue adventure. You have turned tough pork ribs into wonderfully tender meat that is also very tasty. But you still didn’t quite understand the 3-2-1 method. The 3-2-1 method is only a guideline and not a prescription.
What is the 3-2-1 method
The 3-2-1 method was invented to prepare spare ribs during BBQ championships. Using this method, the end results were pretty much the same every time. And during the competition, which lasted all summer, the pitmaster was able to tweak his recipe in small steps to achieve the perfect result.
- 3-2-1 stands for 3 hours of smoking, during which the spare ribs pick up all the heat and smoke so that you build up the taste you expect from barbecue.
- The meat is then wrapped in aluminium foil for 2 hours. In this part, the meat becomes more tender due to the build-up of steam in the package. The connective tissue in the ribs breaks down, causing the meat to detach from the bone and become more tender.
- The spare ribs are unpacked again and brushed with barbecue sauce as a final step. This last step is there to form the so-called bark and add extra flavour.
The most important part of the above method is often not understood, and that is the word spare ribs. In America, spare ribs are the belly ribs of the pig. And during BBQ championships, the so-called St. Louis Style spare ribs are preferably used, which are almost rectangular in shape and have a thick layer of meat on top of the ribs.
The meat between and on the belly ribs is often tougher than the meat from the spare ribs that we know. If you order spare ribs at a Dutch butcher, you will usually get the smaller loin ribs. They are easy to recognize because the ribs are more curved than those of the belly ribs. In America, they call these ribs baby back ribs. They are the ribs that are left when the butcher cut boneless pork chops. This meat is already a lot more tender than the meat of belly pork ribs.
After that, you have the difference between thin and thicker cut pork ribs. You see the smaller thin-cut baby back ribs on the left. These are the pork ribs you usually see at your local butcher. You sometimes see them cut even thinner, and then you see the ribs through the meat. We call those shiners. There’s so little meat on them that it’s really not worth the effort to cook them. You see American baby back ribs on the right that are obviously bigger because the pig was bigger and had a much thicker layer of meat.
Why does the 3-2-1 method for spareribs not work
With all these differences in pork ribs, you may be beginning to understand that you can’t just stick to the exact same times every time you want to cook spare ribs. Although the result is always tender meat, there is a difference between tender fall of the bone ribs and pork purée.
We generally think 3 hours smoking, 2 hours wrapped, and 1 hour back on the barbecue is too long for all types of pork ribs. We love tender meat but still have our own teeth and want to use them when we eat. As far as we’re concerned, the perfect spare ribs have tender meat that you can bite off the bone in one bite without having to pull.
That is why you really have to see the 3-2-1 method as a method and not as a step-by-step plan that you have to follow blindly. We will show you that the perfect spare ribs are deliciously tender, taste great and are cooked faster than six hours.
The 3-2-1 method is not a recipe
As mentioned, the 3-2-1 method is a guideline and not a recipe where you must strictly adhere to the indicated times. The 3-2-1 method isn’t about taste either. You can make the spareribs as sweet, sour or salty as you want. Nevertheless, we have a basic recipe for you to start with. From this recipe, you can get started to discover your own taste.
We start with American baby back ribs. These pork ribs are a lot longer and thicker than the ones you find at the Dutch butcher. After that, we assume that everyone wants to make sweet, sticky spareribs for his first cook. If you feed these to friends and family, you immediately score points.
Dry rub for spare ribs
We start with a dry rub. A dry rub is a mixture of herbs and spices to flavour meat. In this case, we made a dry rub that is an excellent base for all your spare ribs preparations. The mix is easy to adjust to your own taste to become sweeter, saltier or spicier.
- 2 tbsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp raw cane sugar
- 1 tbsp chipotle pepper
- 1 tbsp onion granulate
- 1 tbsp paprika powder
- 2 tsp garlic granules
- 2 tsp ground cumin seeds
- 2 tsp mustard powder
- 2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
First, we remove the membrane from the ribs. The membrane keeps the smoke and dry rub from entering the meat.
This membrane is very easy to remove by sticking a dull breakfast knife between a bone and the membrane. Then you lift the blade until you can get a finger underneath. You can now pull the entire membrane off. If the membrane breaks and comes off in pieces, you can pull off the loose remains with a bit of kitchen towel.
We sprinkle the dry rub with an even layer over both sides of the meat. If you let the spare ribs sit for 45 minutes to an hour, the salt in the rub will remove moisture from the meat. That moisture will act as an adhesive so that the dry rub sticks to the meat. This way, the dry rub can form a so-called bark with the fat from the meat and the smoke from the barbecue.
You can create a thicker bark by first brushing the spare ribs with mustard before sprinkling the dry rub over it. Then you can sprinkle on a thicker layer of dry rub where the amount of salt in the recipe may need to be reduced a bit. But of course, you have to know that yourself.
At what temperature does the 3-2-1 method work
The method works at the magic temperature of 107ºC. If your barbecue can only be set to 105 or 110ºC, then you have a problem. This is nonsense, of course. When we all scoured the American websites for recipes 15 years ago, we saw that in the states, they all set the smoker to 225ºF.
If you convert this to Celsius, you get 107ºC. This temperature took on almost a mythical meaning, and you could distinguish yourself from the average backyard barbecuer who, of course, knew nothing about authentic barbecue like you.
Fortunately, at the moment, we know better, and we learned from Myron Mixon that you could even make excellent barbecue at much higher temperatures. But for this example, we’re going to set our Masterbuilt smoker to 107ºC. The Masterbuilt is very stable, making low and slow preparation very easy.
In principle, it does not matter much at what temperature you prepare the spareribs as long as you stay somewhere between 100 and 150ºC. Above 100ºC because otherwise the meat will not cook far enough to become tender and below 150ºC because otherwise, the sugar in the dry rub and the bbq sauce will burn. You have to consider different preparation times at different cooking temperatures.
We will prepare the two prepared American baby back ribs at different times. The ribs on the left we cook for six hours, the 3-2-1 method prescribes. We start cooking the other one an hour and a half later to show the difference between the two preparation times.
We have the very thin spareribs on the top rack. We’ll leave them until they’re to our liking. That is still a perfect way to prepare good quality spare ribs. You just have to be sure that the meat contains enough intramuscular fat to not dry out during the long low and slow cooking.
After 3 hours of smoking, we will wrap the left ribs. We do this agave syrup, raw cane sugar and butter on a sheet of aluminium foil. We place the ribs flesh side down. We do the same with the ribs on the right side and then wrap the spareribs tightly.
The sugar, syrup and butter give the meat an extra layer of sweetness while the moisture in the package increases and creates more steam, so the meat cooks faster.
We use thicker aluminium foil, but take two layers of foil if you can’t find it. The bones can sometimes be sharp and pierce through the foil, allowing the steam to escape. Your entire barbecue can also get dirty because of the sweet sauce that flows out of the package. It is even worse if the sauce falls on hot parts of the barbecue and burns. Then you get dirty smoke that the whole neighbourhood can enjoy.
Now you put the wrapped spare ribs back on the grates with the meat side down so that the meat is in the sauce and has time to stick and create an extra layer. After an hour, we also wrap the right sparerib. You know when to wrap spare ribs when the meat almost tears when you put some stress on it.
We grab the strand halfway with our tongs and hold the spareribs in front of us. You will see the meat tear if you now move the meat up and down a bit. This is the moment the ribs are ready to wrap. The right ribs have then been smoked for two and a half hours. That time is different for each type of spare rib.
When the left spare ribs have been wrapped for 2 hours and the right spare ribs for an hour, you can unwrap them. On the right, we check with the thermometer’s probe how soft the meat is. If the probe goes in and out with little resistance, they are tender enough. If the probe falls through like the ribs on the left, the meat will be “fall of the bone tender”.
When unwrapping, keep in mind that there is a lot of steam coming out of the foil, and there is hot liquid at the bottom of the package. It will be a shame if you burn yourself.
After unwrapping, you have the choice to add extra sauce to the spareribs or not. We go for the “traditional” sweet American spare ribs, so a thick layer of bbq sauce is applied over the meat.
We always have a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s in the cupboard, but grab the sauce you like or make your own bbq sauce that you can make as tasty as you want. We spread the sauce on it nice and thick and then put it back on the smoker for another hour.
If you’re afraid that the spareribs still don’t have enough flavour, you brush them with the sauce once more time halfway through, so that the sauce has a chance to caramelize for another half hour.
We didn’t wrap the thinly sliced spareribs on the top rack, and they have also become very tender. We did use a thinner layer of dry rub and only coated them once with the sauce.
As expected, the left spare ribs are so tender that you can pull the ribs out without resistance. In fact, the meat is so tender it’s actually pulled pork. Pulled pork is, of course, delicious, but then you would have been better off getting a piece of pork neck to make pulled pork.
The ribs on the right are also very tender but still so firm that you can cut the meat per rib. You can easily pull the meat clean from the bone if you take a bite, but you can still chew. That’s how we like to have our spareribs. To be honest, we didn’t hear anyone complaining when we put the different pork ribs on the table. But we have our own preference when it comes to cooking spareribs.
There were even people, who preferred the fall of the bone spareribs. Of course, they also ate the other two kinds of spare ribs with taste, but if they had to choose, they went for the spare ribs that were the softest. Bunch of barbarians.
So this is the difference between the 3-2-1 spare ribs that were cooked 6 hours and the spare ribs that we have prepared by feel and ultimately come out at 2.5-1-1.
Those times will, of course, be different for every different quality of spare ribs or the temperature at which you cook them. After cooking spare ribs dozens of times, you will eventually have enough experience to see how long they approximately need to be in the grill.
For the novice barbecuer, the result of the spareribs on the left that we cooked for six hours is absolutely fantastic, and you are assured of admiring looks and praise from friends and family.
But if you want to try to become a real BBQ hero eventually, you should really try cooking the spareribs on the right. You get a lot more feeling for the meat, and ultimately, you can cook many more types of meat this way.
Are you going to try the 3-2-1 method for spare ribs? Let us know in a comment below. Or better! Take a photo and post it on Instagram. Tag @bbq.heroes so we can see what you made.