Some newbies are daunted by the prospect of preparing baby back ribs on the smoker. After all, you want to get the perfect combination of smoky flavor and mouthwatering texture. Fortunately, there are ways to achieve this even if you don’t have a ton of grilling experience. Take a look at our guide to smoking baby back ribs 2-2-1.
Smoking Baby Back Ribs 2-2-1
The term “2-2-1” refers to the amount of time that the ribs spend on the grill with the cooking broken down into three stages. When you use this method, the unwrapped ribs are smoked for two hours, then wrapped in foil and returned to the smoker for another two hours. During the last hour, you’ll remove the foil to finish cooking the ribs.
About Baby Back Ribs
Despite the name, baby back ribs don’t actually come from baby piglets. Rather, they’re cut from the upper spinal region of pigs that are fully grown, but smaller than their brethren. If the meat is labeled as “back ribs,” that just means that the pig—and hence the rib rack—was larger.
Baby back ribs can be a tricky choice for the smoker because they contain less fat than spare ribs. When you use a low-and-slow cooking application to cook lean meat, it’s important to make sure that the recipe doesn’t turn out too dry. That’s why the 2-2-1 method is ideal for this particular cut.
What Does 2-2-1 Mean?
While 2-2-1 serves as a convenient shorthand for those in the know, it looks like gibberish if you’ve never heard of it before. Basically, the numbers refer to the different cooking times for each stage of the operation.
When you use this method, you place the uncovered ribs on the grill or smoker and let them cook for two hours. At this point, you’ll wrap them in foil to speed the process along. After the ribs have been allowed to cook for another two hours, you can remove the foil and let them cook for one hour longer.
Bear in mind that if the ribs are on the larger side, the total cooking time might be a bit longer than five hours. Likewise, if the heat of the smoker dips too far below the recommended temperature level, it can extend the cooking time.
You can use a similar method to make spare ribs or St. Louis-style ribs. In this case, the unwrapped ribs should have a chance to cook for three hours instead of two. This is known as the 3-2-1 method and it will give the fat and connective tissue a chance to break down before you add the foil.
Note that spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs are made from the same cut of meat. The only difference is that St. Louis-style ribs have been trimmed so that no excess cartilage is hanging off the ends. This streamlined presentation makes them a big hit in BBQ competitions.
How to Smoke Ribs: The Basics
Choosing The Wood
It’s a good idea to use a mild-flavored wood when making smoked ribs, particularly if you’re not that familiar with the process. Because baby back ribs are fairly lean, they’ll benefit from a lighter touch, flavor-wise. Stronger woods like hickory and mesquite will overpower the meat and might even taste bitter and unpleasant.
Cherry, apple, and pecan are all good bets for baby back ribs. If you like a sweeter flavor, try experimenting with maple wood chips or pellets.
The “Fall-off-the-Bone” Myth
The phrase “falling off the bone” is often used to describe ribs that have been perfectly cooked—or at least, that’s the message we’re supposed to get. In truth, you don’t want the meat to be literally falling off the bone. If it is, the ribs are probably overcooked, which means the meat will be dry.
Instead, cook the ribs until the meat slides easily off the bone when you tug on it. At this point, it should have a tender, juicy texture to complement the smoky flavor.
The Mustard Trick
You might notice that many rib recipes call for prepared yellow mustard. This can be off-putting, especially if you find the flavor of mustard to be acrid and overwhelming.
The mustard is applied before you add the meat to the smoker, and it helps the seasoning rub to adhere to the ribs. If you skip this step, the spices might end up sticking to the cooking grates instead of the meat. Don’t worry—throughout the long cooking process, the taste of the mustard mellows out to the point where it’s not even noticeable.
As an aside, we should point out that there’s no need to get fancy with the mustard. Store-brand yellow mustard will do the trick. If you don’t have any on hand but you happen to have some Dijon, go ahead and use that instead.
Save the Sauce For Last
If you decide to add barbecue sauce to your baby back ribs, don’t be tempted to apply it too early in the cooking process. Commercially prepared barbecue sauces contain a great deal of sugar, which will burn when it’s exposed to heat. This will give the meat a bitter flavor.
Choose a high-quality barbecue sauce and apply it during the last half hour or so. You can also wait and serve the sauce at the table. We prefer this method because it allows the smoky flavor to be the star of the show.
Running the Numbers
As always, your planned serving sizes should rely on a number of outside factors. If your party is held earlier in the day, or if there will be a lot of side dishes available, it’s fine to cut down on the number of ribs you prepare. Ditto if there will be a lot of younger children at the gathering.
How to Smoke Baby Back Ribs Using the 2-2-1 Method
If you haven’t already removed the membrane from the rib rack, do so now. While you’re at it, trim off any excess fat. Rinse the pork under cold running water and pat it dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re using a pellet smoker, use a milder wood like cherry or apple to smoke the ribs.
To smoke the ribs on a charcoal grill, build a medium-low fire, leaving one side of the chamber free of coals. When it’s time to add the ribs, place them over the indirect heat section of the grill.
In a small bowl, mix together brown sugar, cumin, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder.
Lightly slather the ribs with a thin layer of prepared yellow mustard. This will help the seasonings adhere. Coat the rib rack all over with the seasoning rub.
Place the ribs on the smoker, bone side down, and close the lid. Allow the ribs to smoke for two hours without interference.
When the first two hours are nearly up, lay out a large sheet of aluminum foil. If the foil is on the thin side, you might want to make a double layer.
Add a couple of teaspoons of honey and sweet chili sauce to the center of the foil. Top with a tablespoon or so of melted butter.
Remove the ribs from the smoker and place them on the foil, again with the bone side facing down.
Fold the foil layer around the ribs, being careful to form a tight seal. Return the ribs to the smoker.
Let the ribs cook for another two hours, or until the meat is tender enough to slide off the bone easily.
To test for doneness, try sliding a toothpick in between the ribs. If you meet with any resistance, the meat probably needs to stay in the foil for a bit longer.
Unwrap the ribs carefully, taking care to avoid the escaping steam. We would recommend wearing silicone gloves or oven mitts for this step. Reserve any juices that are left behind in the foil.
Return the ribs to the smoker, this time placing them right on the cooking grates. Use the reserved cooking juices to baste the meat.
If you want your ribs to have a crispy exterior, increase the temperature to 350 degrees. For charcoal grills, add a handful of coals to the fire to help boost the temp.
Allow the ribs to cook for another half an hour, basting about every 10 minutes.
If you’d like, you can apply a layer of your favorite barbecue sauce during the last 30 minutes of cooking. You can also wait and pass the sauce around at the table.
Remove the ribs from the grill and allow them to rest for about 10-15 minutes before serving.
Some seasoned pitmasters scoff at smoking baby back ribs 2-2-1, claiming that it cuts too many corners. The results might not be as authentic as they’d like, but in all fairness, they would probably be using spare ribs or St. Louis-style ribs in their recipes anyway.
The 2-2-1 technique works perfectly for baby back ribs. It’s also a good way to practice if you’re not yet comfortable with the low-and-slow aspects of the barbecue lifestyle.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!