Your guide to the 3 2 1 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.
Sean and I came from two different worlds of Smoked Ribs. I used to like them finger-licking juicy, fall-off-the-bone tender and drowning in sauce. He liked them just tender enough to bite, but not fall off the bone. He’s since helped me evolve to the dark side and abandon my former preference, which I’ve learned is really a result of cooking ribs too long, with sauce that masks the smoke flavor.
And if you like your ribs fall of the bone, that’s fine too! Either way, learn this simple technique and then adjust it based on how you like your smoked ribs.
What is the 3 2 1 Method
This method comes down to three phases of smoking ribs in the order of cooking phases.
- 3 – The number of hours you smoke at a low heat, unwrapped
- 2 – The number of hours you smoke at a low heat, wrapped
- 1 – The number of hours you smoke, unwrapped, and typically add some kind of sauce or glaze for finishing flavor
The Best Cut for 3 2 1 Ribs – Spare vs Baby Back
Spare ribs or baby back? I find 3 2 1 ribs to work really well on spare ribs. A St. Louis cut spare rib 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. Baby backs have less meat and generally cook faster than spares.
Our hands down favorite type of ribs come from Snake River Farms. The quality, marbling, and flavor are tremendous.
Chef’s Tip – When trimming ribs, be sure to remove any hanging fat. Also remove the silver skin membrane on the bone side of the ribs. If you leave that membrane on, the texture is not pleasant. 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.
Seasoning 3 2 1 Ribs
When seasoning ribs, the key is to lock down that smoked flavor during those first 3 hours using a slather and then a rub.
- Slather – Add a liquid element like olive oil or mustard to allow the rub to stick.
- Dry Rub – Add your favorite Dry Rub that will add flavor while the ribs smoke and caramelize.
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.
Temperature For Smoked Ribs
Low and slow is important. The range for 3 2 1 is 225 – 250 degrees Fahrenheit (F).
I like using a leave-in thermometer to monitor the temps of both the meat and the 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 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 temperature of the grill while the 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. We also use a spritz while the meat is smoking. More on that below.
The added moisture to the cooking chamber really helps with color on the 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.
3-2-1 Ribs in Detail
3 – The time we take to get that smoke influence into the ribs (the first 3 hours)
When we look at smoking 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 apple wood 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 spritz every 30 minutes for the next 90 minutes. Moisture helps that smoke influence stick to the meat. And with the sugar, helps with the caramelization.
2 – Now we focus on wrapping (the next 2 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 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 ribs and added a ton of flavor.
1 – The last hour is unwrapped
Here the focus is on that last flavor element — The sauce or glaze. Remove ribs from foil or simply open the foil and cooked unwrapped.
Brush your favorite 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.
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 competion. 🙂
You can modify the times on this method, but try to keep to the six-hour limit.
Want more smoke? Go from a 3-2-1 method to a 4-1-1. The key is not that the 3-2-1 method is the only one, it’s really about your style, and if you are competing you may leverage the method due to consistency.
After you pull the ribs off the smoker at home – 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.
Video for Competition Style Smoked Ribs
Recipe for Smoked Ribs
Competition Style Smoked Pork Ribs
For the Ribs:
- 2 racks of spare ribs, St. Louis cut
- 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 4 tablespoons Dry Rub (see notes for dry rub recipe)
For the Spritz:
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup water (or apple juice)
- Combine in a spray bottle — one that is only used for food
For the Wrap (at the 3 hour mark):
- 4 tablespoons butter (2 per rack)
- 4 tablespoons honey (or agave nectar), 2 tablespoons per rack
- 2 tablespoons spritz (a few squirts per rack)
For the Glaze:
- 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce (try our Pinot Noir wine based BBQ sauce, see notes) * You may not use all of the bbq sauce. You’re just glazing it on both sides of each rack.
- Preheat smoker to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (we like cherry and apple).
- Trim excess fat off the ribs and remove the membrane off the bone side of the ribs using a paper towel (it is slippery).
- Rinse ribs under cold water, pat dry, and then coat both sides of ribs with the Dijon mustard.
- Apply the dry rub to both racks, on both sides.
- Place ribs meat side pointing up on the smoker. Plan to smoke for about three hours.
- After the first 90 minutes, start spritzing every 20-30 minutes. Minimize how long you keep your lid open.
- After your third hour, take 2 long strips of aluminum foil. Place ribs on them bone side down.
- On top of the ribs, add the butter and agave nectar evenly over the meat side of the ribs (1 tablespoon of butter and nectar per rib, per side) and then wrap the ribs tightly. Place back onto the smoker meat side down for two more hours.
- After the second hour, remove ribs from foil gently. The meat should be tender and bones showing. Place back on the smoker, meat side up, and glaze with your barbecue sauce. Cook one more hour, uncovered, (the last hour helps set the meat and give more flavor). When you remove after this last hour, glaze one last time before serving.
Wine Pairing for 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.
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)
*A previous version of this post was published in 2016 and edited in December of 2019 with more details, updated photos, and reader questions answered.
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