Brisket, pork butt, ribs. These are the holy trinity of BBQ, and with good reason. These collagen-rich cuts thrive in the low, smoky heat of the BBQ cooker, slowly melting into gelatin-infused, bark-encrusted savory treats. And in no other BBQ cut do you get the bark-to-meat ratio that you do with ribs: slabs of ribs, dry rubbed and spicy; whole racks of ribs, glazed with tangy sweet sauce; riblets for gnawing while you pick at the last of your coleslaw. They are wonderful.
While ribs are decidedly a part of the barbecue pantheon, there is a division to be made there. Spare ribs—anything but spares to those who know!—are the athletic, good-looking, more muscular big brother in the rib family. Yet, you shouldn’t overlook the tender, shorter, amiable little brother! Baby back ribs are often relegated to the realm of ‘pop’ food, thanks in large part to a certain jingle that I’m not going to mention. Since baby back ribs’ introduction into fast-casual dining in 1997, some BBQ meisters have turned their noses up at this cut of meat; but I’m here to tell you that there is still a place at the BBQ table for baby back ribs!
At home, I love baby back ribs”—Meathead Goldwyn
While most BBQ organizations encourage the use of spare ribs for competition, baby back ribs are excellent for the home. In this article, we’ll look at the thermal experience of baby back ribs on their way to competition-style results. We’ll be using Smoking-Meat.com‘s guidelines for the meat and the dual-channel Type-K thermocouple ThermaQ® Blue to track the temperature through the cook.
Baby Back Ribs Background
Spare ribs vs. baby back ribs
The popularity that baby back ribs’ do have has been helped greatly by their name, which sounds tender and succulent. The name suggests tenderness far better than the term “loin ribs” does—loin is not a ‘pretty’ word—and yet, that is precisely what they are. The loin lies along the convex side of the ribs. In fact, if you eat bone-in pork chops, you are getting baby back ribs for the bone. Spare ribs, by comparison, are found further down the sides of the hog and are coated on the convex side with belly meat. They are part and parcel of the same structure but are from different sections of the whole.
As you can see, the ‘back’ in ‘baby back’ refers to their location, high up on the pig’s back. ‘Baby’ simply comes from their smaller size—it has nothing to do with the age of the pig!
Cooking baby back ribs
So what does their location on the hog mean for cooking baby backs? For one thing, they’re still ribs, and that means connective tissue. You can’t just slap these babies on the grill and cook them to a food-safe 145°F (63°C) or they’ll be tough as nails. Slow cooking will dissolve that collagen.
But what happens when you cook things past 155°F (68°C)? That’s right all the water in the muscle fibers is wrung out by the denaturing proteins. And when that newly-released water finds its way to the surface of the meat it starts to evaporate and you get the infamous stall.
To overcome the stall, take a page from brisket cookery and wrap the ribs, this time with aluminum foil. Every pitmaster has their own technique, but most follow something along the lines of what Steven Raichlen calls the 3-2-1 method. This guideline for reaching the proper temperature means cooking for about three hours without a wrap, then for two hours wrapped tightly in foil, then for another hour unwrapped again. But note that this time structure is only a guideline for achieving thermal processes. You need to get the ribs into a collagen-melting temperature zone—above 170°F (77°C)—and keep them there long enough to tenderize.
You could just cook the ribs bare until they reach a temperature that indicates enough collagen has broken down, but that takes a while. Wrapping them prevents evaporative cooling (the stall), allowing your ribs to get to temperatures where collagen melts even faster. By the time your ribs reach 200°F (93°C), they should be tender enough to eat. All the wrapping and unwrapping serves mostly to achieve a proper bark and to speed the journey to the proper temperature.
For baby backs, Jeff Phillips of Smoking-Meat.com calls for a shorter 5-hour version of this method, but the concept is the same: cooking them wrapped the whole time would make the bark soggy and sad, but wrapping for only part of the cook yields tender, barky ribs that have spent enough time in the melting-temp zone.
So much for the rib meat: what about that thick layer of meat on top of the baby backs? That is loin meat. Loin meat is, in essence, a pork ribeye and is susceptible to drying out. It is low on collagen and also rather lean, so cooking it to any temperature above 150°F (66°C) will overdo it. This is where baby backs have a failing. It is tempting to get super-meaty baby back ribs with a thick layer of loin, but that meat is liable to overcook. Rather than looking for extra-meaty ribs, look for those that have a relatively thin layer of loin meat. The transition layer from rib to loin has the connective tissue needed to rehydrate the meat during a longer cook.
Baby back rib temperature
The ribs, as we’ve discussed, are full of collagen, and collagen dissolution is a function of both time and temperature. This means that the way we approach a finishing temperature matters almost as much as the temperature itself. Jeff Phillips recommends a rib temp of 195°F (91°C), right in line with ThermoWorks approved rib temp of 190°-205°F (88°-96°C), but he proposes two methods of arriving there, one of which will give you fall-off-the-bone tender ribs, the other of which will get you a competition-style rib that can pass the bite test: This means the rib must be bitten into to get the meat off the bone, while a perfect bite mark must remain behind without any extra meat tearing away from the rib along with your bite. The meat must pull away easily from the bone.
I’ll show you how to get them as tender as what you find in the restaurant if that’s what you’re after.”—Jeff Phillips
For competition style, use a timing formula of 3-1-1, three hours bare, one hour wrapped, then one hour bare again. (Note, for fall-off-the-bone ribs—for those that prefer them that way—use 2-2-1. The longer time in the moist environment of the foil allows the collagen to break down more quickly—there is more time without evaporative cooling!)
Towards the end of the bare-ribs phase, you will notice that the temperature increase starts to slow. That’s the stall starting to happen. Wrap those ribs with foil to speed things back up.
As soon as the ribs are wrapped, their internal temperature will start to climb again, up to and beyond the recommended minimum of 195°F (91°C). Once they are unwrapped again, the meat temperature will actually drop as the water that has accumulated on the surface starts to evaporate. This means that the ribs will stay in the collagen-melt zone without more heat going into them.
Thermally speaking, it’s a lot like the trick of using a cooler with wrapped ribs that are mostly cooked to allow them to finish “melting.” The cooler-method is a great way to improve the texture of your meat, but it wreaks havoc on your bark. By allowing evaporative cooling to occur in the smoker, we can achieve melty ribs that aren’t overcooked and that have a craveable bark. Thermodynamics!
Below is a graph from the cook that we did, using the ThermaQ Blue to monitor the temperatures. You can see the stall starting around 160°F (71°C). Then you can see the temp drop when we removed the probe for wrapping, after which the temperature starts to climb much faster. When we unwrap the ribs, the evaporative cooling takes over and the temperature dips, but starts to recover before we take them off the heat for good.
Smoked Baby Back Ribs Recipe
From Jeff Phillips at Smoking-Meat.com
- 1 rack, baby back ribs
- 3-4 Tbsp mustard
- Your favorite BBQ rub, as needed
- Your favorite BBQ sauce, optional
Special equipment: two large sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
- Preheat your smoker to 220°-240°F (104°-116°C).
- Peel the membrane from the back of the rack of ribs. This facilitates bark production on the underside of the ribs, but is ultimately optional. (Or, you can ask your butcher to remove it for you.)
- Slather the ribs in mustard.
- Apply rub generously to the ribs, pressing to help it adhere to the mustard.
- Place ribs in the smoker. Insert a mini needle-probe into the ribs. Do this between the bones if the ribs have less meat or in the thickest part of the meat if they are very meaty. The needle probe is thin enough to fit into the rib meat without touching bone.
- Set up your ThermaQ Blue to monitor the temperature.
- Smoke the ribs for 3 hours for a competition style finish, 2 hours for fall-off-the-bone ribs.
- When the time has expired, wrap the ribs well in aluminum foil.
- Return the baby back ribs to the smoker. Re-insert the probe.
- Smoke for 1 hour (competition) or 2 hours (fall-off).
- During this time, see that the ribs reach the target temp of 190°-205°F (88°-96°C).
- Remove the ribs-package from heat and unwrap.
- If you want glazed, sticky ribs, now is the time to brush them with BBQ sauce.
- Put the ribs back in the smoker. Replace the probe.
- Allow the ribs to cook for 1 final hour. You will see the temp drop during this time, then rise again somewhat.
- Remove the ribs from heat. Let cool enough to handle.
- Cut the ribs up and enjoy!
Baby back ribs deserve their place in barbecue royalty. They are delicious, fun, and pretty easy to make! Use a good thermometer like the ThermaQ Blue or a Thermapen Mk4 and remember the wrapping method: 2-2-1 for soft, 3-1-1 for competition style. May is National Barbecue Month, and we hope that you’ll give them a try!