3-2-1 Ribs in La Caja China
~Chef Perry Perkins~
Now don't get me wrong...I love my brisket and pulled pork, but a perfectly cooked slab of pork ribs, tender and juicy on the inside, with a sticky, crusty glaze, or a sweet dry rub...well, if God made anything better than that, He kept it for Himself.
I've cooked ribs many, many, many ways over the last 40 years, and for my money, the most consistent and crowd-pleasing results come from the "3-2-1 Method."
In short, this method breaks down to a six-hour cook time:
But, like all things in life, however "simple", there are tips and techniques that mean the difference between "good" ribs, and a dinner that is spoken of in hushed an reverent tones to future generations.
Little tricks that lead to reviews that start with, "It was the best *** I've ever had..."
Here are my top tips for taking 3-2-1 La Caja China Pork Ribs to that level...
BEFORE adding seasonings or rub, use a spoon and a paper-towel to remove the membrane from the back of the ribs. This membrane is like nature's plastic wrap, blocking your rub from permeating the ribs from both sides.
Apply your seasonings or rub to both sides of the ribs, generously, the night before.
Basically you're dry-brining, drawing the internal moisture out of the meat, before reversing engines and pulling all that moisture back in, along with the flavor and tenderizing properties of the salt & sugar combo.
If you don't believe this, apply the rub and wait a few minutes as the puddles of liquid form in the hollows of the ribs ( have your plastic-wrap already underneath so it doesn't escape!) wrap the racks tightly in a double layer, and place in the fridge, meat side down (this helps with the reabsorption process).
The next day, when you un-wrap your ribs, take note that there is little or none of that moisture left visible outside of the ribs.
Seasoning ribs just shortly before cooking will pull out moisture, without allowing time for it to be reabsorbed.
That's a bad thing.
Like any other meat, you want your ribs to be an even temperature, from the surface to the bone, before
cooking. Thawed ribs, set on the kitchen counter, will take around 45 minutes to reach cooking temp.
COOKING 3-2-1 LA CAJA CHINA RIBS:
Put some disposable pans in the bottom of the box, and add a few inches of hot water (cold liquid is a heatsuck.) Some folks swear by the tenderizing properties of using beer instead of water, but I really haven't noticed much of difference. Everyone's taste buds are different though, so try it yourself!
By the way, you want this additional moisture in the box because it helps seal in the moisture that's already in
the ribs, instead of drawing it out.
Top the pans with the oversized grill rack. Place your prepped ribs on the rack, and then add your pre-lit AMaze-N Smoker. Carefully add the Caja lid and coal grate, covered with pre-lit and spread coals*
Smoke your ribs for three hours, adding coals very hour. I like to use a temperature probe, through a halved
lemon, to track the internal temperature of the box. Keep it between 225-240F.
*The reason I pre-light and spread the coals is that lighting them in piles creates hot-spots on the meat. THIS IS
WHAT I DO, AND IT MAY NOT BE THE SAFEEST METHOD (there, now hopefully I won't get a phone call
from my lawyer.)
Alternatively, you can use a couple of charcoal chimneys to prep you coals, and then spread them as soon as
you add them to the top. That's probably what the smart people do.
After the first three hours the ribs are, of course, completely cooked...but they would be pretty tough and chewy
if you served them right now.
This is where the 3-2-1 method incorporates a pro-bbq method commonly called "The Texas Crutch." Remove the ribs from the box and wrap each rack separately ( and tightly) in heavy foil, adding a good amount of mop, or (what I like) a 50/50 combo of heated apple juice and apple-cider vinegar, then closing them up and rolling the ends of the foil to get a good seal.
This method is controversial among professional pit-masters, but I like really tender (but not quite fall-off-thebone) ribs, and this is how I get them. So, there's that.
Return your ribs to the box, re-cover, and cook another two hours.
Now, unwrap your ribs, and move them to the top grills, flesh side down, for another 45 minutes. DO NOT add more charcoal prior to this step. I don't even shake the ashes off first.
How do you know your ribs are done?
There are two fool-proof methods. First, on a well-cooked rack of ribs, the meat at the end of the bones will have pulled back at least 1/4 inch, exposing the bones. Once you see this, grab a toothpick, and poke it between two of the center ribs.
There should be just a little bit of resistance when the ribs are done.
Now we come to decision time...you can finish them as "dry ribs" ( which is a terrible term to use with ribs) but means searing the meat on both sides, and adding additional dry rub just before serving. Alternatively, you can sauce and glaze your racks with your favorite sauce, flipping often to "set" the glaze, without burning it.
If the temps of your coals has dropped a lot by this time, shake off the ashes and/or add just one more chimney of coals.
A touch of char is good, but a sweet sauce can make for a nasty charcoal crust on those beautiful ribs you just worked so hard on, so put down your phone and pay attention. Add your sauce in several thin layers, allowing each to set before reapplying.
Dry or wet, when the surface of the ribs is set, remove from the heat and allow to rest, tented loosely in foil for at least 15 minutes before cutting a serving.
Like anything else in life, from writing to building houses, perfection lay in two elements: Practice, and Passion. There's an old saying (that I certainly can't take credit for) that says, "Cooking great BBQ comes from experience, and experience...that comes from cooking bad BBQ." BBQ and grill as often as you can, don't be afraid to experiment (it's just one dinner, after all), and hyper focus on the details...
If that sounds a little OCD…it is.
Obsessive people win gold medals.