Dizzy Pig’s competition pitmaster Chris Capell has cooked over 1,000 slabs of ribs in competitions alone – with plenty of awards to show for it. In that time he’s learned a lot about cooking one of America’s favorite BBQ treats. There are a lot of roads to a moist, plump, and tender rib, and it can be confusing trying to choose a method from the plethora of recipes floating around. Chris has been honing his skills for tender ribs for over 17 years, and he is excited to share his favorite competition method with you!
Chris personally cooks his ribs on the Big Green Egg, but this recipe is adaptable to any grill or smoker that can be set up to cook with indirect heat.
- Preheat your grill or smoker for indirect cooking at 250°F with dry apple wood chips or chunks for smoke
- Trim flap from bone side of ribs
- Trim membranes and any fat from meat side of ribs
- Remove membrane (a paper towel helps to get a grip on it)
- If desired, trim cartilage to the end of the rib bone (these rib tips are generally removed when you purchase St. Louis cut, but often they are not cut all the way to the bone)
- Lightly salt both sides of ribs (optional)
- Season bone side of ribs with Raging River (or desired seasoning)
- After 10-15 minutes, flip ribs and liberally season meat side
- When smoke has turned blue and thin, place ribs on your grill/smoker meat side up
- Cook ribs for 3.5 to 4 hours until rub has turned into a nice dark brown crust. Flip if bone side gets too dark
- Drizzle a few tablespooons of honey on a sheet of heavy duty foil
- Shake a little fresh seasoning on top of the honey
- Lay ribs, meat side down, in honey
- Drizzle honey on bone side, and shake on a little more fresh seasoning
- Wrap tightly in foil
- Return to cooker, still indirect at 250°F
- After 1 hour, open foil and turn ribs over to be bone side down
- While doing this step, check for tenderness. If tender, let rest. If still not tender, return to cooker. Check for tenderness every 15 minutes
- When tender, rest for a few minutes, then cut between bones and serve
- Optionally, glaze lightly with your favorite sauce after cutting
For our competition ribs, we use St Louis cut spare ribs. These are spare ribs that have the rib tips removed and are more uniform in shape. Rib tips (also called brisket) are full of cartilage, and on a competition rib, we only want to use the bone, so we purchase St Louis cut.
We like large ribs, so try and select slabs that are at least 3 pounds. Look for ribs that have good fat marbling, but not too much fat. Stay away from slabs that have “shiners”, where the meat cutter cut too close to the bone so that the bone shows through the meat.
Baby back ribs can also be used with this recipe; and generally they take just a little less time.
Often there is still some rib tip material left when you purchase St. Louis cut ribs, and cutting off this material to the bone is optional, but for competitions, we remove it. The key is finding the end of the bone, and cutting right where the bone meets the cartilage.
On the meat side, trim all visible membranes and excessive pockets of fat. On the thicker end of the slab, the end rib often has a blob of fat and sometimes a piece of meat that is not actually a rib. I trim that as well.
Ribs cook for a long time, and when the spices are cooking on the meat for that long, they get mellow and nutty and even more delicious. So don’t be shy with laying it on! The way I like to think about it is to cover the meat so you can’t really see it. Don’t season it like you would on a big pork butt where you try to pack as much on as you can by pressing into the meat, but shake on a good solid layer – more on the meat side than the bone side. Since Dizzy Pig Seasonings are not heavy on the salt, consider shaking on a little salt before you season.
Planning Your Cook
A perfect rib is bursting with flavor – plump, moist, and tender. Achieving that magical rib is not really magic, it is a combination of proper cooking technique and cooking them to the perfect doneness. There is no right or wrong technique really, as long as you get great results. So I won’t try to tell you that this is the only way – it’s just the way that works best for me. And, for me, the goal is to get great smoke flavor, a nice brown caramelized flavor crust on the meat, and then cook them until they are perfectly tender.
I do this in two stages. During the first stage, I want to build up that flavor and color on my ribs, and for the second stage, I want to cook them until they are tender without allowing them to lose any moisture.
Stage 1 – The Flavor Stage
During this first stage, we like to cook the ribs with a good clean smoke until they are well browned and caramelized. This is the stage where you can choose what timing not only works best for your schedule, but gives you your preferred results. For me, on my personal cooker, the Big Green Egg, I cook them indirect at 250°F for about 3.5-4 hours. But great results can be had with widely varying times. You can actually build up enough color and flavor in less than 2 hours at a higher temperature, though the cooking becomes a little trickier the hotter you go. You’ll need to keep a close eye on the color, and even turn your ribs occasionally to avoid burning them. On the other hand, if you want to go the low/slow route, you can take 5 or more hours for the first stage.
Approximate Temperature Time Ranges for 1st stage (YMMV)220°F – 6 hours
230°F – 5 hours
240°F – 4 hours
250°F – 3.5 hours
265°F – 2.5 hours
280°F – 2 hours
300°F – 1.5 hours
I’ve settled on my favorite and have presented that technique. This is mainly to show you that there are a lot of possibilities. Experiment and find your favorite!
Stage 2 – The Tenderize Stage
Once you have the color and flavor that you want, we want to continue cooking the ribs until they are tender, but our goal is to stop water from evaporating from the meat. This will allow them to cook to the tender stage quickly without losing moisture. Heavy duty aluminum foil is our tool of choice for this step. We wrap the slabs individually, each with 2 pieces of foil. They won’t all be done exactly at the same time, so this allows us to remove them from the cooker as they are done. The meat temperature is generally 165-175°F when we wrap them, but we are also looking for good color and flavor.
Whether you add anything else when you wrap the ribs is up to you. We’ve seen many different ingredients used in the wrap, including brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, hot sauce, butter, margarine, fruit preserves, etc. But all we use is some honey and a little bit of fresh seasoning… Dizzy Dust being our favorite.
Back on the Cooker
When all your ribs are wrapped, return them to your cooker. For this stage, we prefer to cook it 240-250°F at the highest, and generally it takes less than 2 hours until they are tender. It is easy to overcook the ribs if left too long in the foil, so after about an hour we recommend opening the foil and flipping the ribs over so that the bone side is down. The nice thing about this step is that not only does it help even out the cooking, but it gives you a great opportunity to judge the doneness of the ribs. If they want to break in half when you flip them, or are very flexible, they may be done and you will want to get them off the heat and let them rest. More likely, they will still need more cooking and you will be able to tell by how stiff the slab is.
Probably the most important part to making great barbecue is to stop the cooking process once the meat has reached the tender stage. Once all the collagen and connective tissue has dissolved into gelatin, the meat will be tender and any additional cooking will make the meat mushy.
A few ways to check tenderness are:
- Pick up the slab in the center (with heat resistant gloves, of course) and begin to lift. If it continues bending until it wants to break, they are likely done.
- Pick up the slab with one hand on each end and feel how easily they bend. If they flex easily on the thicker end, they are likely done.
- Take a toothpick and insert between the bones in the thickest part of the slab. The toothpick should go in easily, and not resist when you try and pull it out. If it tugs back on you a little, they need a little more cooking.
- Take the meat temperature. This is not the most reliable method as there are many factors affecting what the temperature of the meat is at the time they are tender. However, knowing the temperature can give you a good idea of when to begin checking for tenderness. In my experience, 190°F is a great time to begin checking for tenderness, but I have seen ribs that weren’t tender until they reached 205°F or higher.
- Seeing the meat pull back from the bones. Again, like with meat temperature, seeing the meat pull back so the ends of the bones are exposed is a sign that things are moving along. But remember, every slab acts differently, and there are different degrees of pulling back from the bone. This is just one thing to observe, and not a “tell-all”.
Once They are Tender…
They are done! They can rest for up to an hour if covered in a blanket, but we always try and rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing. You may have seen a process called 3-2-1 where the ribs are returned to the cooker unfoiled for an hour at the end, but we’ve found this step to be unnecessary. In fact, we don’t even sauce the ribs until after they are cut. We don’t see any benefit to cooking the sauce on, and they are much easier to slice with the meat side down so you can cut perfectly between the bones.
Once sliced, we sauce the meat side lightly, though this is an optional step. Many prefer a dry rib, and there is nothing wrong with that!
So there you have it. A little prep, two cooking steps, and you could be serving the best ribs your family or guests have ever eaten! You may even please a few professional judges. Hope you enjoy, and happy cookin’.