The Texas Crutch: Wrap In Foil To Tenderize, Moisturize, And Speed Cooking
Count out the 3-2-1 method for ribs
As I have said elsewhere, I don't think it is worth wrapping ribs in foil for home dining. In competition, many cooks do, but it is an expensive pain for very little gain. If you must wrap, many websites tout the 3-2-1 method. It says you should cook a slab of St. Louis cut pork ribs for 3 hours, then wrap it in foil for 2 hours, then take it out of the foil for 1 hour.
I think 2 hours in foil is waaaay too long for pork ribs, especially if there is liquid in the foil. Pork shoulder or beef brisket need 2 hours or more, but not ribs. I think anything more than 1 hour softens the meat too much and makes it mushy. Start with 1/2 hour and go no longer than 1 hour as you experiment. 1 - 2 - 1/2 - 1 - 1/4 is not as easy to memorize as 3-2-1, but it's better tasting.
Experiment until you and your cooker get it the way you like it best. Your mileage might vary. These are guidelines not rules.
1 hour with nothing but rub and smoke at about 225°F.
2 hours without smoke (just don't add any wood).
1/2 hour in foil with apple juice to tenderize and speed cooking.
1 hour outside the foil in indirect heat to firm the surface until it cracks on bending.
1/4 hour apply and sizzle sauce direct high heat.
For baby back ribs
1 hour with nothing but rub and smoke.
1/2 hour without smoke (just don't add any wood).
1/2 hour in foil with apple juice to tenderize.
1 hour outside the foil in indirect heat to firm the surface until ready.
1/4 hour apply and sizzle sauce over direct high heat.
Called the "Texas Crutch" because some folks think it was developed in Texas, practically all the top competitive barbecue teams use this technique for ribs, pork shoulder (butt), and brisket.
First they smoke the meat in a smoky atmosphere for a few hours, then they wrap it in foil for a while. Sometimes they unwrap it again, sometimes they don't.
The concept is a descendant of the tropical technique of wrapping meat in banana leaves. It helps make meat more tender and juicy. It also has the added benefit of speeding the cooking process. It is a routine step in competition where every little incremental improvement is needed and if you are chasing that big prize money, you have to go for it. It is like a swimmer shaving his body.
I never crutch pork shoulder or ribs at home. The improvement is so small I just don't bother. It is more trouble than it is worth. But I always crutch brisket. It makes a significant difference.
Here's the science of the crustch
We will seal the meat in a foil vessel with water, juice, wine, or beer. Apple juice is popular. The liquid mixes with the juices that drip from the meat and gently braise the meat. Braising is the same process used by a slow cooker where the meat sits partially submerged in a water based liquid. The liquid moistens and tenderizes the meat, and some may soak in a fraction of an inch and add flavor. In addition, the crutch reduces surface evaporation from the meat. Before and after wrapping, evaporation cools the meat, and that is what is responsible for the infamous "stall" a period of several hours where the meat's internal temp plateaus and you start to panic. With the crutch, the meat finishes cooking faster. Crutch for too long, and you will extract flavor from the meat, remove all the rub, and cause the proteins to get their undies in a bunch, forming tight knots that will make the meat tough and wring out moisture, and then eventually make the meat too soft and mushy.
When to crutch. First you cook for a few hours so the meat will absorb smoke. When it hits about 150°F, it is time to crutch.
How to crutch. There are two ways to crutch, wrap in foil, or put it in a pan.
Wrap in foil. Pull off a strip of wide heavy-duty aluminum foil about six feet long. Fold it in half until it is three feet long and make a canoe out of it big enough to hold the meat and so it will hold liquid without leaking. Pour 1/2 cup apple juice into the foil but not on the meat so you don't wash the rub off. Crimp it tightly over the top. It is important that the packet not leak liquid from the bottom, and that steam not be able to escape from the top. For ribs, place the slab on the foil meat side up being very careful that the bones don't poke holes in the foil. You can put the meat side down, but if you do, you may want to shorten the time in foil because the meat will be in the liquid.
With a pan. Called "boating", instead of using foil, you can use a pan. Place the meat on the bottom of a sheet pan, baking pan, or disposable aluminum pan. Pour in enough liquid to cover the bottom about 1/8" deep. Tightly crimp the foil to the pan so it does not leak steam.
For ribs. If you are going to crutch ribs, I recommend boating because rib bones tend to puncture foil. Put the sealed meat back on the cooker at 225°F. On the rare occasion that I crutch ribs, I crutch for only 30 minutes. Push ribs much beyond 30 minutes and you risk overcooking the meat and turning it mushy. You can put more than one slab in a package, but the effect will not be the same. You are essentially making a single thicker piece of meat and that will take longer to reach temp. I don't recommend stacking.
Then open the package being extremely careful to avoid the hot steamy air that will escape. Remove the meat and cook at 225°F or for about 30 minutes or so to firm up the crust and dry the surface. You really can't tell when ribs are done with a thermometer. Click here to learn how to tell when ribs are ready. When the meat is ready you can paint on sauce, place it on a hot grill to caramelize the sugars, and serve. Click here to learn more about saucing strategies. If you wish, make Vermont Pig Candy with the liquid in the foil.
Brisket and pork shoulder. Crutch brisket and pork shoulder when it hits about 150°F or 160°F and a dark ruddy color, and leave it in foil until it hits 203°F. Just stick the thermometer through the foil. Some cooks just leave their shoulder or brisket in the foil until it hits a desired temperature and then they remove it, still in foil, and put it in a faux cambro. This optimizes tenderness but the crust will not be as crunchy. Others will remove it from the crutch, rest it about 30 minutes at room temp, and then put it in the faux cambro. Then, just before serving, they put put it back in the cooker in order to firm up the surface. Some will even put it on a hot grill to dry out the bark. Your choice. Read my articles on pork shoulder (a.k.a. pork butt) for pulled pork, and brisket to learn more.
Beware of the second stall! As soon as you remove meat from the crutch, moisture on the surface begins evaporating and it cools the meat rapidly. The temp will drop fast. It could go from 203°F to 170°F in 20 minutes even though the cooker is 225°F. So the best strategy is to take the meat to your target temp, usually 203°F for brisket or pork butt, inside the foil and then you're done cooking. Either serve soon after, or put it into a faux cambro to keep it warm (this is vital for brisket).
This page was revised 12/27/2012
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