Your complete guide to the 3-2-1 Rib Method of Smoking Ribs. This fool proof method is perfect for those just starting out and also wanting to master ribs with just a few key techniques. The cooking process is smoking low and slow using spare ribs for a tender and delicious rack of ribs.
Vindulge Rib Recipe Highlights
- This method works on any type of smoker from an electric smoker, offsets, Big Green Egg, or even a pellet smoker.
- It’s the best way for your first time smoking ribs because you can easily adjust the ratio to your preferred flavor.
- It’s best to use spare ribs or St. Louis Cut ribs for this recipe. We also have a guide for smoked baby back ribs too.
Sean and I came from two different worlds of Smoked Ribs. I used to like finger-licking juicy, fall-off-the-bone ribs and drowning in sauce. He liked them just tender enough to bite, but not fall off the bone like barbecue competitions. When done correctly this 3-2-1 rib method will achieve the perfect ribs based on how you like them.
And if you like fall off the bone bbq ribs, that’s fine too! Either way, learn this simple technique for bbq ribs and then adjust it based on how you like the tenderness of your smoked ribs.
- Vindulge Rib Recipe Highlights
- What is the 3-2-1 Method for Smoking Ribs
- Sourcing – Spare vs Baby Back Ribs
- Cooking Temperature For Smoked Ribs
- Adding Moisture while Smoking Ribs
- How to Smoke Ribs with the 3-2-1 Method
- Wine Pairing for 3 2 1 Ribs
- Want More Smoked Ribs Recipes?
- Easy 3-2-1 Ribs Recipe
What is the 3-2-1 Method for Smoking Ribs
This method comes down to three phases of smoking ribs. It totals 6 hours of smoking at a low temperature.
- 3 – The first stage you smoke at a low heat, unwrapped for 3 hours.
- 2 – The second stage you smoke at a low heat, wrapped in aluminum foil or butcher paper.
- 1 – The last hour you smoke, unwrapped, and typically add some kind of sauce or glaze for finishing flavor.
The 3-2-1 Ribs Method is a great starting place to find your balance of flavor and texture. Some may argue that the 6 hour ratio will overcook the ribs, but we’ve never found that to be the case.
Sourcing – Spare vs Baby Back Ribs
Spare ribs or baby back ribs? I find 3-2-1 ribs work best on spare ribs. A St. Louis cut spare rib (rib tips removed) will tend to be meatier and flatter than baby backs as they come from the belly area of the pig versus just off the spine. It is also trimmed in a way to make more even shape. The connective tissues render using low and slow cooking.
Baby back ribs have less meat and generally cook faster than spares. They also have a distinct curve to them versus the flatter spare.
Our hands-down favorite type of ribs comes from Snake River Farms. The quality, marbling, and flavor are tremendous.
Before applying a dry rub the ribs need to be trimmed. There are two sides of the ribs. The meaty side and the side with a thin membrane that should be removed.
- Remove any hanging fat from the meaty side.
- Remove the silver skin membrane on the bone side of the ribs (or back of the ribs) using a sharp knife. If you leave that membrane on, the texture is not pleasant as it cooks. Simply remove a small bit of the silver skin from one corner, then use a paper towel to pull it off the rest of the way.
- Pat down the ribs and get ready to season the spare ribs.
Chef’s Note: You can also insert a butter knife under the membrane halfway along the bone side of the rib. Then slowly lift up the membrane and pull off in one clean pull. However don’t use a sharp knife with this method as it will cut through the membrane.
When seasoning ribs, the key is to lock down that smoked flavor during those first 3 hours using a slather and then a dry rub.
- Slather – Add a liquid element, like olive oil or yellow mustard, to allow the dry rub to stick. We actually use Dijon mustard.
- Dry Rub – Add your favorite rib seasoning that will add flavor while the ribs smoke and caramelize ideally with brown sugar or cane sugar. We love our Ultimate Dry Rub for this.
A rub that has sugar in it will really help in creating that color and bark that is the first taste factor when you bite into the ribs and an important factor in achieving the right color.
Cooking Temperature For Smoked Ribs
Target 250 degrees F for 3-2-1 Ribs. If you smoke at 225 it will take longer to render.
I like using a leave-in thermometer to monitor the internal temperature of both the meat and the ambient temperature of the smoker, such as the Smoke Unit by Thermoworks. It has a remote unit so you can monitor the temps from afar without having to open and close the lid.
And unlike most meats, we don’t cook the ribs to a specific internal temperature, but when they are done, they tend to be in the 205 degree F range and are very tender. The important part is monitoring the ambient cooking temp of the grill while the bbq ribs are smoking and so you don’t have to open the smoker that often.
Adding Moisture while Smoking Ribs
I always cook with a water pan in a pellet grill or offset and a personal preference. We also use a spritz while the 3-2-1 ribs are smoking. A simple rib spritz is equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple juice or water. So for one cup of apple juice you add one cup of apple cider vinegar.
The added moisture to the cooking chamber really helps with color on the smoked ribs and keeping the texture moist.
For our kamado-style grill we do not use a water pan as we find the moisture holds really well within our Big Green Egg, but we still use a spritz.
How to Smoke Ribs with the 3-2-1 Method
3 – The time we take to get that smoke influence into the ribs (the first 3 hours)
When we look at smoking 3-2-1 ribs, we want to pack flavor. Start with the wood — I like fruit woods for ribs, and especially cherry, because the smoke flavor is mild and the color is a rich red (we use a lot of applewood too). Meat should be laid bone side down.
During the three hours I also like to keep adding moisture to the pork with a spritz. A spritz is simply a spray bottle with liquid. In our case, it’s equal parts apple cider vinegar and water (you can also add equal parts apple cider vinegar and apple juice for a little more sweetness).
Start spritzing after the first 90 minutes. After those first 90 minutes, I’ll then spritz every 30 minutes for the next 90 minutes. Moisture helps that smoke influence stick to the meat. And with the sugar, this helps with the caramelization.
2 – Wrap for two hours
By now the bones from the ribs should start to show.
The wrapping will allow the meat to baste with a modest liquid to create tenderness. Lay out aluminum foil (or use a foil pan). Squeeze out some agave nectar or honey and butter chunks on the foil. Feel free to add some of the spritz liquid too. Then enclose the ribs in a tight foil pouch and place meat side down your cooker. Over the two hours it will steam and baste in the liquid creating that soft texture.
At the end of those two hours, remove the foil: you’ll see that the bone in the rib is showing more. This is where that butter and agave you used basted the smoked ribs and added a ton of flavor.
1 – The final step is one hour unwrapped
Here the focus is on that last flavor element — The sauce or glaze. Remove the smoked ribs from the foil, or simply open the foil and cooked unwrapped, for the remaining time.
Brush your favorite BBQ sauce onto the ribs for maximum flavor (but don’t add too much!) just when you unwrap (you are still trying to taste the meat and smokiness, so don’t overdo it).
You know it’s done when you can wiggle the bones and they are slightly able to come out with a tug. Technically if the bones just fall out, that indicates that the meat is overcooked. Yes, some of you may like fall off the bone and that’s ok too. But hey, this style is all about home cooking versus a professional competition (so you cook what YOU like!) 🙂
You can modify the times on this method, but try to avoid exceeding the six-hour limit. If anything you’ll likely pull back on the time.
- Want more smoke? Use a 4-1-1. The key is not that the 3-2-1 method is the only one, it’s really about finding a style that works for you. This adds more smoke up front.
- Want more balance and tighter texture? Use a 2-2-1 method. Smoke-Wrap-Sauce. It won’t braise as much in the wrap but it will still be tender.
After you pull the ribs off the smoker – slice, serve, and enjoy! Want a simple rib without the sauce? Just rub with salt and pepper and for the last hour skip the sauce step.
Wine Pairing for 3 2 1 Ribs
For this style of ribs I’m looking for a wine that can stand up to the sweet and spicy flavors from the BBQ sauce and dry rub, yet not overpower the gorgeous smoke flavors from the tender meat. For something with great flavor, but not too overpowering, I like bolder red wines that aren’t too high in tannin, like Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, or Zinfandel. I tend to lean towards reds from Washington State when we do ribs.
Explore wines from the Vindulge Wine Marketplace perfect with BBQ ribs.
Want More Smoked Ribs Recipes?
- Smoked Pork Ribs with Asian Spice Rub
- Sugar Free Pork Ribs (Keto and Paleo Friendly)
- Sweet and Savory Honey Dijon Smoked Ribs
- Blueberry Bourbon Rosemary Smoked Ribs
- Smoked Ribs with Spicy Mango BBQ Sauce (low sugar)
- Pellet Grill Ribs – Kansas City Style
- Spicy Vinegar Spare Ribs
*A previous version of this 3 2 1 Ribs recipe was published in 2016 and edited in September of 2022 with more details, updated photos, and reader questions answered.
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My husband got a pellet smoker/grill and we used your 3-2-1 recipe. The ribs were delicious and very tender. We will definitely use your recipe again!
This recipe looks great! My family would be so happy if I made these. I recently make smoked baby back ribs, it will allow you to craft a delicious meal in only about three hours. This recipe is great for when you’re hosting a backyard party and don’t have time to plan.
Hayley Garner says
I’m a baker so I don’t cook often, but we got a new pellet smoker and I’ve been dying to make a good recipe for ribs and this is phenomenal! I tried it for the first time doing exactly what you suggested and these are perfect!
Excellent ribs here in Knoxville TN!! Used your method with baby back, equally as good.
Family favorite now for sure.
I added a little bourbon and brown sugar during the foil hours and adds a little flair.
Love your recipes, thanks so much!!
Sean Martin says
Love the addition of bourbon!! Thanks for taking time to share your feedback!
I am going to try this recipe tomorrow! I am so excited! Do you have a recommendation for a rub? Other than than salt and pepper! Thanks!!
Sean Martin says
Rebecca – sorry late to reply, but our ultimate dry rub is great with sugar and savory, or you can search for our rib rub. Both are great.
I love your style
Just made these yesterday, great instructions, fantastic results! OMG So Damn Good! Wow didn’t see that coming from the PNW, we are in Knoxville, TN!
Sean Martin says
We got you!! 😉 And next we’ll try and tackle hot chicken, NW Style!!!
If i want to make these the day before, would i save the last step (the last hour unwrapped) for the day of serving? Or would i do all three steps and just reheat?
Sean Martin says
Angela, we would recommend simply cooking the ribs the day prior completely and then reheating them in an oven. Especially if you are traveling somewhere else. Warm up the oven at 275 degrees, add a touch of sauce to each rib, add a small amount of apple cider vinegar to the sheet tray and cover in foil. Remove the ribs when they are warm enough.
Jeri Bradshaw says
I tried your recipe! I’m on the last hour of smoking now, but I can already tell you my family is going to LOVE THEM!!
Been making ribs for years, sometimes with a similar approach. Came your version from MAK Grills, and gave it a go for my first proper cook on my new MAK. Wow! The recipe, along with the grill, produced absolute perfection. I’ll post some pics to IG and tag you.
Sean Martin says
We are honored that you used our recipe for your first proper cook!!! You have a solid cooker with MAK for sure! And yes, please tag us! We would also love to share in our newsletter if you want to drop a photo to our email. – Sean
Nicole Jankowski says
I am not super big on ribs, but I buy and try to make them as something special for the hubby when they are on sale. I have been bumbling my way through smoking over the years and I’m always trying another method, trying to find a better way. I have over smoked, under smoked, overcooked, undercooked, and overcomplicated a lot of ribs. I have pork butt, turkeys, chickens, and brisket totally down-pat. I made these tonight and shortened the phase times for baby back ribs. I had planned to make these for 4 days now and woke up super sick this morning and can’t taste anything but everyone was jaws on the floor over the moon for these. They turned out beautifully. The texture was perfect, they were smoke ring pink all the way through. My husband is always looking for “fall off the bone”. I explained to him what the article said and he said he’d give them a try. I used my own rub but used the butter and honey and spray as the recipe suggested and he said he wants me to keep making them like this. I have a whole slab as leftovers so hopefully I get my sense of taste back in the next few days so I can find out for myself.
Chris Lunn says
My go to for ribs. Perfect!!
Jessica Luther says
Your food is wonderful. you probably learned in some restaurant.
Thank you for sharing that secret. I will try to make one for my family. I will send you feedback after it’s done. yeah.
Clyde Barrett says
Great tasting ribs and great cooking tips on your ribs. I read the negative comments. Some people always has negative things to say. Of course they’re overdone according to size and his grill temp is probably off. Great stuff and nicely done. Keep up the good work.
low and slow says
I find this technique over cooks the ribs in my experience,just my 2 cents.
Sean Martin says
That is a fair statement, but we wanted to start with a starting place especially for readers not as comfortable in modifying. I think it can overcook especially smaller cuts.
Clara Holtz says
Do you have a suggestion to smoke ribs ahead of time to still keep them moist and flavorful?
I’m cooking for a large group and I’m going to have to smoke the ribs in batches.
Sean Martin says
Clara, depends on how far ahead. You can approach this a couple of ways. Since we wrap the ribs, you can smoke the ribs on the smoker, wrap them and finish them in the oven. That way you can get two decent batches. You can also keep the ribs warm by using a cooler with no ice as a warming box, like catering. If you have to make the day before, I would suggest warming them back up in the oven wrapped with some apple cider vinegar in the wrapped ribs to keep the moist. Hope that helps!
Good recipe and tips. But I am drinking beer with my ribs every time. Wine is for Italian food or big steak.
Sean Martin says
We fully support your drinking style, we just happen to find wine that pairs with every style of Grill or Q 🙂
Robert Powell says
tried this recipe for family cookout on july 4 and everyone said they were the best ribs the have ever eating…thank you for this recipe
Glen Bevel says
I just tried your recipe. I have an electric smoker so I kept the temp at 250. However my ribs were falling off the bone after I cooked them for 2 hours covered. Not sure what I did wrong and why mine fell off the bone.
Sean Martin says
Glen, happy to try and trouble shoot – first I assume you used spare ribs (St. Louis Cut) versus baby backs?
Becky Gray says
Followed your method and recipes today..the best darn ribs I’ve ever made. Will definitely do this again. It was well worth the 7 hours I spent making them.
Sean Martin says
Becky that is awesome!!!! I know it is a labor of love, but so happy you enjoyed them and for taking the time to give us feedback!!
Will Maloney says
Thanks for the great tips! Yesterday I got delivery of the new Oklahoma Joe’s Highland Reverse Smoker for under $400. I put it together same day and today I am smoking two racks, it’s fabulous. Because of the storms in PNW this year, there is plenty of free fruit wood available, check Craigslist. I have a ton of cherry. It only takes abt 6-7 small chunks, and burns half down in 4-5 hours. Everybody is salivating at my house!
Sean Martin says
Christy @ Feasting Not Fasting says
This recipe is incredible!!! As an ex PNW BBQ judge I know good BBQ and these ribs are absolutely perfect. We served them at Easter along with your pork belly burnt ends recipe and our guests were raving all day over both. Thank you for the incredible recipe.
Wow! Thanks so much 🙂 I’m so happy you and your family enjoyed the recipes!!
We made these for mother’s day and they were incredible! We were so full but we couldnt stop eating them! Will definitely be making again and again. Thanks for sharing!
Sean Martin says
Awesome!!!!! Thanks for sharing!
Is there any secret to roasting meat without burning? Using marinated sugar will cause the meat to burn, is it right?
I used to use wood pellets https://www.eatfrysmith.com/best-pellet-smoker/
Sean Martin says
Great question. If you are smoking indirect, it is not an issue. Also if you cook indirect, the sugar won’t burn. If you are going direct, with any kind of sugar, you do need to be careful. Sugar plus fat dripping and causing flare ups give that burnt flavor. But if you go indirect for either smoking or grilling you should be fine.
Just made these today. First time smoking pork ribs! Did one rack dry and one wet with your bbq sauce, but used a cab I had a bit left of instead of the pinot noir. Both. Were. Amazing! Thank you so much for sharing this recipe and your knowledge! Mine was also more like 3-2-1/2 as the winds picked up and spiked my heat up to 325 for a bit on the big green egg. They really were quite delish and my hubby couldn’t stop raving about them. Looking forward to trying some of your other recipes!
Sean Martin says
Kim awesome feedback and so glad you made the call to follow the look and feel versus just straight time – every cook will be a little different.
This is by far the best Smoked Pork Rib recipe I’ve ever made. Used with a Rec-Tec Grill and fruit wood. Everyone said “best ribs Ive ever had”. This will be my go to recipe every time I make ribs.
That’s so great to hear 🙂
Wonderful article. I am going to follow your instructions for our Family’s Father’s Day Feast.
I am also wondering if you have ever smoked goat. I will be processing several small wethers (dwarf nigerians) and I’m having a difficult time finding instructions on how to smoke or bbq the meat.
I really like the 3-2-1 method. It seems to produce the perfect combo of juicy and a nice caramelized sauce on top.
Did two racks of baby backs this weekend. Both prepared identically following your instructions. One was juicy and tender – perfect. The other was delicious but rather dry. What could have caused the difference?
Do you use the mustard if you are using a rub instead of S&P. I love rub on ribs and make my own. At any given time I have 5-6 rubs in the cabinet.
Alyson yep we use mustard pretty much all the time even with salt and pepper.
Samantha Ragsdale says
When you say mustard. Do you mean dry mustard or likes Dijon mustard from a jar? Also what about the timing if your doubling or even tripling the amount of ribs? Do you adjust the smoke time? I’m doing mine in a stand up smoker with the ribs on hooks.
Samantha, definitely use Dijon mustard as the slather, you want the moisture as the base for the rub to adhere. Lots of people use typical yellow mustard too. We add dry mustard to the rub. With more meat in the smoker it will absorb that heat, so expect to monitor and add more wood or coal to keep the heat up for a full pit of ribs. We’ve never used a pit barrel if that is what you are using with hooks, show us pictures on facebook!!!
Do you adjust the smoke time for baby backs?
Jim great question, yes, we typically will cook baby backs for roughly four hours. Two hours on smoke then wrap and let them finish. Depends on how big they are, but it’s a different cut and so the timing is different. We also cook at roughly 250.
Kirk Bowman says
As I leave a comment, I am currently smoking 2 racks of St Louis ribs following your suggested instructions. Never used a spritzer but always smoked with plenty of BBQ sauce already lathered on the ribs. 2nd hour in and it’s already looking good. Appreciate your attention to details however with the spritzer you wrote 1 cup of apple juice and 1 cup of apple vinegar but the picture with the spray bottle indicates 1 cup of apple cider vinegar and 1 cup of water. Either way, can’t wait to try them! Cheers!
Hey good eye!!! We do them both ways, and both combinations work just fine (apple juice and apple cider vinegar or just apple juice and water). The vinegar will add some sharpness or acidity.
Rick Quigley says
you mention adding ‘sugar’ to the rub….
what kind, how much, ….?
Rick, great question. We are typically using dark brown sugar as our sugar style. Some will use turbinado, cane or even light brown. But we like the caramelized flavor the dark brown adds, especially with the other dry rub ingredients. As for portions, what I will do is have one cup of brown sugar, and put it in a bowl, then I take my other dry ingredients (salt, pepper, chili powder, etc) and fill up the cup and then add that to bowl and taste. Then you can use that rub portion for the ribs.
Marie Grandinetti says
Hi Mary, I just have to tell you how much I love your site and everything about it. I have made the smoked sausage and polenta, smoked tomato bisque. This weekend I am trying the ribs with spicy mango sauce and the smoked chicken buffalo dip. Everything so far has been absolutely amazing!! Thanks so much!
Marie, that is so awesome and thanks so much for sharing!! We love feedback and also love to hear how people may also try their own flavor profiles!!
Lake house BBQ . It is very hard to figure out what the PNWBA is looking for. When I was a member I complained about the “new cook /new judge” process they do. Having first time cooks cook for first time judges confuses those that have no real back round. Good for you guys for sticking it out. Y’all need to try out Memphis in May if you really want to play the game.
I tried competition once. Once. I was fortunate enough to get to taste the winners entry. You could absolutely taste NOTHING but rub, mopping sauce, and “finishing sauce”. I made a comment that was not well received. I said “outside the fact these appear to be pork spare ribs there is no flavor evidence of what kind of meat they are. We could be eating Yak for all I know. Why don’t you just have a contest on tasting rubs, sauces, mopping sauces and smoke?” I have had various people tell me that my ribs are the best they have ever had. The reasons; You actually CHEW my ribs. You taste pork or beef if that is the case. I can make great ribs with wild hog if I have to and the result is the same because I learned to cook with wild game as a kid. My ribs are cooked till done (meat shrinking back to expose bones), dry with my own rub called “Monkey Dust”. Apple cider vinegar infused with Tarragon is soaked into the meat before and during the two hours of smoking. I use Orange wood to smoke with. There is no sugar used. Sugar will kill you. Fifteen minutes before they are pulled I will offer my guests a choice of sauces for their portion only. Most don’t “cootie up” my ribs with sauce. Their term, not mine. I do want to thank you for your very excellent presentation, best I’ve ever seen. I’m glad you explained what the competition is about, judges not Bar B Q. I’m sorry I have been so verbose but I just had to comment. Ya’ll really know your stuff.
Thanks for the comment! It’s definitely an interesting experience to compare comp-style bbq to other styles and personal preferences. Good to know, though, for the next time we do compete. We now know what they are looking for.
Katy M. says
Awwww, I got mentioned (slash-teased 😉 !! Sean, for you, I will thoroughly enjoy your not-quite-fall-off-the-bone ribs. And they will be perfect. As always 🙂 Great article and when are we doing ribs again?? I’m not waiting for the next Superbowl!
Ha! I’m still a lover of the fall of the bones ribs. But damn, Sean can make some mean dry ribs!
And you know us, we’ll do ribs any day of the week! What are you doing tonight? 😉
Clare Speer says
Wow – wow! I just love ribs and these look so so good! I pinned this recipe – My husband is the “cook” and “griller” in our family! Must try!
Thank you 🙂
Ruthie Ridley says
This just gets me so excited for summer!! BBQ is my favorite!!
SUMMER!!!!! I can’t wait!
My dad is a crazy ribs aficionado, but I’m pretty sure he’s never tried this technique.
It’s our favorite way to get tender meat and tons of flavor 🙂
holy cow, my mouth was watering as I was reading your post! I LOVE ribs! Thanks for sharing this recipe!
Ha!Thanks so much!!
Emily @ Recipes to Nourish says
Wow these sound great! My husband would be so happy if I made these.
Who wouldn’t be happy if you made them?? 😉
Love BBQ rib and competition wow. Show hubby this.
Brettni Brumfield says
Boy, do I wish we had a smoker…
Brad cooks ours low and slow on the grill, it take about 2.5 hours or so. But we don’t have the ability to infuse wood for added flavor because our grill is gas.
But hey, I’ll take a rib any way I can get it!
Don McDoniell says
They make a chip boxyou can buy it at Lowes it is a stainless steel box that will hold a big handful of chips and put it right over the fire as I assume your husband cooks ribs using indirect heat method which works for gas grills
You can make or buy a wood chip holder that you can smolder the chips to get the smoke flavor. A quick google surch and you should be able to find one. But do keep in mind that cooking with gas adds moisture to the heat so you will need to play with the moisture level in the chips.
As noted above, you can make a simple smoker by placing moist wood chips wrapped in aluminum foil and placing it onto your grills. Another alternative that I’ve read about, and it seems quite popular, is the “A-Maze-N wood pellet grill tube smoker.” For this unit, you purchase wood pellets and fill the tube and light the pellets at the end of the tube and simply set it on your grill and they come in two sizes. You can view a demo on youtube.com if this might be of interest to you.
I have a gas grill and use a smoke tube with great results
Erin @ Platings and Pairings says
Ooohhh – I love these insider tips on how to make ribs! Such interesting tips and tricks – Like butter, and spritzing, and 3 hours, and fruit wood! I’m not sure if I’ll ever make time to master them myself, but I sure do want some of yours!
Seriously! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we need to have a PDX blogger potluck!!! We’ll provide some bbq deliciousness 🙂
Jesse Rojas says
You don’t have to master to enjoy a good smoke
Ed Matthews says
Spats of butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, and drizzle some honey on top of the meat…….then wrap, meat side up.. Continue to cook…..