Cooking ribs can be easy, but expert pitmasters are even faster

The summer is upon us, and grills and smokers all over the DMV are heating up as well. For the series “Fired Up with Jake and John,” WTOP’s Mike Jakaitis and John Domen talk with some of the region’s best pitmasters about their methods, with the goal of helping you level up your barbecue game.

The amateur backyard chef might subscribe to the 3-2-1 method of barbecuing pork ribs. It’s simple and it works. But run that method past Myron Mixon, who wins world barbecue championships like Tom Brady wins Super Bowls, and he’ll remind you he’s no amateur.

He also doesn’t wait six hours for his ribs to cook, either.

The 3-2-1 method is as simple as it sounds: Pop your ribs in the smoker for three hours, pull them out and wrap them either in foil or butcher paper for two more hours, then slather some sauce on them and cook them for one more hour still.

Who really wants to wait that long to eat?

“It’s a good way to do it, but we do ours in about two and a half hours,” Mixon said from the kitchen of his self-named restaurant in Old Town Alexandria.

He’ll smoke them for two hours at 275 degrees, spritzing them with a mix of cider, salt and sugar in the second hour every 15 minutes. (Let the rub set in the hour, he said, or else you’ll just wash it off.)

“When the second hour is up,” Mixon said, “I wrap them and then it takes about 30 to 45 minutes to hit 207.”

That’s the magic temperature — he plugs meat thermometer into the middle of the rack (making sure it’s not touching any bones) and looks for the internal temperature of the meat to hit 207 degrees.

Fired Up with Jake and John

The timing depends a lot on what kind of ribs you’re smoking: baby back, St. Louis and spare ribs are all easily available at the grocery store, but they’re not the same.

Spare ribs “come from the chest area,” said Rob Sonderman, the pitmaster with the Federalist Pig, while holding up a rack of them inside his “Fed Mobile” in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Baby back ribs come from the back side, while St. Louis style ribs, which come from around the pig’s belly, are flatter.

Regardless of which style of rib you’re cooking, Sonderman said, you want to season the meat at least an hour in advance — three or four hours if you can. Down the street, at 2Fifty BBQ in Riverdale, Fernando Gonzalez has his crew sometimes seasoning ribs the day before.

Sonderman warns of using too much salt in your spice rub: “With the amount of salt that we add, we can definitely over-season them.” What you really want is just enough to “help draw out a little bit of moisture, which will then help the smoke stick to [the ribs] a little bit better.”

And most importantly, don’t overcook them. If you hear a restaurant say the meat of their ribs is “falling off the bone,” you’d better hope that’s just a good-sounding marketing line, not because they really are.

“If you’re cooking at 275 and you’re wrapping the ribs and you give them a long rest and then you slice and serve, chances are you’re overcooking the ribs,” said Gonzalez. “Falling-off-the-bone ribs, that’s technically overcooked. You want some pull, you want some tough out of it, you want a clean bone, but you still want to feel that texture.”

As with every other meat you smoke, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But chances are these guys will help you smoke yours better next time.

Listen and subscribe to the “Fired Up with Jake and John” podcast on Podcast One

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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