What you need to know about Competition Style Pork Ribs, and an explanation of the “3-2-1 Method” of smoking ribs.
Find a full video tutorial for these ribs below.
Sean and I came from two different worlds of Smoked Ribs. I used to like them finger-licking juicy, fall-off-the-bone tender and drowning in sauce. He liked them dry (no sauce). He’s since helped me evolve to the dark side and abandon my former preference, which I’ve learned is really a result of overcooked meat, with sauce that just masks the smoke flavor (or, in many cases growing up, bad meat).
We’ve come to a place of harmony in our rib journey. How romantic.
“Dry ribs” (aka salt and pepper, no sauce)
One thing we didn’t anticipate though, was that in competition, our style is not what the judges’ want — At least competitions here in the Pacific Northwest, where we live and compete and also run a BBQ catering company.
See, barbecue competition judges are trained to look for specific things when they judge ribs. Among things like appearance (they should look uniform and aligned), texture (the meat should pull off the bone with little effort, leaving behind bare bone, BUT it shouldn’t fall off the off the bone), moisture, and one of the most important factors — flavor. They generally don’t like them spicy, or salty, and tend to prefer them sweet (read sauced). Dry ribs (photo above) are not advised.
When we did our first competition we were stubborn, and submitted ribs our way (with just a little glaze at the end), and, well, we were marked down because our ribs “weren’t sweet enough.” They were savory, and darn good, but in competition, that doesn’t matter. You are cooking for the judges, not for yourself.
We’ve since learned to balance our preference for savory, with the judges desire for some sweet, and have a few things to share about the magical world that is pork ribs.
We cooked both styles for the pictures, so you can see the difference. I wish you could taste them too! Just think if I could transport a couple ribs to you while you read this post? How cool would that be?!
Competition Style Ribs
In a competition you are packing as much look, flavor, and texture into one bite for a judge.
In the end, it really comes down to flavor and texture. What is it you like? And how do you make it taste that way. The easiest way to get to that flavor and texture is to understand what is often called the 3-2-1 method of rib cooking.
3 – The number of hours you smoke at a low heat, unwrapped
2 – The number of hours you cook at a low heat, wrapped
1 – The number of hours you cook, unwrapped, and typically add some kind of sauce or glaze for finishing flavor
When you are about to spend six hours cooking ribs, it’s also important to really consider your pre-cooking options.
Spare ribs or baby back? I find the 3-2-1 method to work really well on spare ribs. A St. Louis cut spare rib will tend to be flatter than baby backs as they come from the belly area of the pig versus just off the spine. For competition it’s very common to see the spares. They are flat and more uniform in cut (this is also important for appearance, so that the submitted ribs all look uniform).
When cooking ribs, the key when using the 3-2-1 method is to lock down that flavor during those first 3 hours. A rub that has sugar in it will really help in creating that color and bark that is the first taste factor when you bite into the ribs, but that also tends to be sweet. Some folks will add mustard as well as an adhesive for the rub. I like the acidity for pork and find it really renders out with some great flavor.
I love a slow and low style of cooking. I cook between 250 – 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
(I like using a leave-in thermometer to monitor the temps of both the meat and the temperature of the smoker, such as the Smoke Unit by Thermoworks. It has a remote unit so you can monitor the temps from afar without having to open and close the lid.)
I always cook with a water pan. The added moisture to the cooking chamber really helps with color on the ribs in my opinion and keeping the texture moist. Now on to the cooking method.
3-2-1 Method of Smoking Ribs
3 – The time we take to get that smoke influence into the ribs (The first 3 Hours)
Again, when we look at competition ribs, we want to pack flavor. Start with the wood — I like fruit woods for ribs and especially cherry because the smoke flavor is mild and the color is a rich red (we use a lot of apple wood too). Meat should be laid bone side down. During the three timeframe I also like to keep adding moisture to the pork with a spritz. A spritz is simply a spray bottle with liquid. In our case, it’s equal parts apple cider vinegar and water (you can also add equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple juice for a little more sweetness). Start spritzing after the first 90 minutes. After those first 90 minutes, I’ll spritz every 20-30 minutes for the next 90 minutes. Moisture helps that smoke influence stick to the meat. And with the sugar, helps with the caramelization.
2 – Now we focus on wrapping
By now the bones from the ribs should start to show. The wrapping will allow the meat to baste with a modest liquid to create tenderness. Lay out aluminum foil (or use a foil pan) first. Squeeze out some agave nectar or honey and butter. Feel free to add some of the spritz liquid too. Then enclose the ribs in a foil pouch and place meat side down your cooker. Over the two hours it will steam and baste in the liquid creating that soft texture.
At two hours remove the foil: you’ll see that the bone in the rib is showing more. This is where that butter and agave you used basted the ribs and added a ton of flavor.
1 – The last hour is unwrapped
Here the focus is on that last flavor element — The sauce or glaze.
Rub your favorite sauce onto the ribs for maximum flavor (but don’t add too much!) just when you unwrap. You are still trying to taste the meat and smokiness. For competition the glaze you add is huge and usually contains a lot of sugar influence.
You know it’s done when you can wiggle the bones and they are slightly able to come out with a tug. Technically if the bones just fall out, that is bad for competition even if flavor wins the day (it indicates that the meat is overcooked). Yes, some of you may like fall off the bone and that’s ok too. But this style is best for home cooking. 🙂
You can modify the times on this method, but try to keep to the six-hour limit. Want more smoke? Go from a 3-2-1 method to a 4-1-1. The key is not that the 3-2-1 method is the only one, it’s really about your style, and if you are competing you may likely leverage the method due to consistency.
After you pull the ribs off the smoker at home – serve and enjoy! Want a simple rib without the sauce? Just rub with salt and pepper and for the last hour skip the sauce step.
- 2 racks of spare ribs, St. Louis cut
- 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 4 tablespoons Dry Rub (see notes for dry rub recipe)
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup water (or apple juice)
- Combine in a spray bottle -- one that is only used for food
- 4 tablespoons butter (2 per rack)
- 4 tablespoons honey (or agave nectar), 2 tablespoons per rack
- 2 tablespoons spritz (a few squirts per rack)
- 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce (try our Pinot Noir wine based BBQ sauce, see notes) * You may not use all of the bbq sauce. You're just glazing it on both sides of each rack.
Preheat smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (we like cherry and apple).
Trim excess fat off the ribs and remove the membrane off the bone side of the ribs using a paper towel (it is slippery).
Rinse ribs under cold water, pat dry, and then coat both sides of ribs with the Dijon mustard.
Apply the dry rub to both racks, on both sides.
Place ribs meat side pointing up on the smoker. Plan to smoke for about three hours.
After the first 90 minutes, start spritzing every 20-30 minutes. Minimize how long you keep your lid open.
After your third hour, take 2 long strips of aluminum foil. Place ribs on them bone side down.
On top of the ribs, add the butter and agave nectar evenly over the meat side of the ribs (1 tablespoon of butter and nectar per rib, per side) and then wrap the ribs tightly. Place back onto the smoker meat side down for two more hours.
After the second hour, remove ribs from foil gently. The meat should be tender and bones showing. Place back on the smoker, meat side up, and glaze with your barbecue sauce. Cook one more hour, uncovered, (the last hour helps set the meat and give more flavor). When you remove after this last hour, glaze one last time before serving.
For this style of ribs I’m looking for a wine that can stand up to the sweet and spicy flavors from the BBQ sauce and dry rub, yet not overpower the gorgeous smoke flavors from the tender meat. For something with great flavor, but not too overpowering, I like bolder red wines that aren’t too high in tannin, like Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, or Zinfandel. I tend to lean towards reds from Washington State when we do ribs.
What about you?
What is your rib style preference? Do you like your ribs dry, with just some salt and pepper for seasoning? Or are you a sauce person? We’ll love you either way!
*A previous version of this post was published in 2016 and edited in August of 2018 with more details, updated photos, and reader questions answered.
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