3-2-1 Rib Method – A Comprehensive Guide

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Your complete guide to the 3-2-1 Rib Method of Smoking Ribs. This foolproof 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.

3 2 1 Smoked Spare Ribs with BBQ Sauce

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. The goal is tender ribs.
  • 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.

I used to like finger-licking juicy, fall off the bone tender ribs and drowning in sauce. My husband liked them just tender enough to bite, but not fall off the bone. When done correctly this 3-2-1 rib method will achieve the perfect ribs based on how you like them.

However your preference, learn this simple technique for ribs and then adjust it based on how you like the tenderness of your smoked ribs.

What is the 3-2-1 Method for Smoking Ribs

This method refers to the 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, for 2 hours, wrapping the ribs 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. 


  • Ribs – This method is best when using spare ribs or St. Louis cut ribs. You can use this method on larger baby back ribs.
  • Mustard – Dijon mustard is a binder that allows the rib seasoning to stick more easily.
  • Seasoning – A savory and sweet blend is best. We love our pork seasoning or our rib rub with a blend of sugar, salt, and savory spices.
  • Spritz – We spray a spritz while the ribs are first smoking to help the smoke stick to the ribs and to allow for moisture and humidity to build up in the pit.
  • Braising Sauce – When wrapping we add unsalted butter, honey, and BBQ sauce to help braise the ribs as they are wrapped. We also apply the BBQ sauce at the end for one last added flavor.

Preparation – Trimming Ribs

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.

  1. Remove any hanging fat from the meaty side.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 the membrane and pull it 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 prefer to use Dijon mustard.
  • Dry Rub Add your rib seasoning that will add flavor while the ribs smoke and caramelize, ideally one containing brown sugar or cane sugar.

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.

How to Prepare bbq Ribs using rib seasoning.

How to Smoke Ribs with the 3-2-1 Method

3 – Smoke Ribs for 3 Hours.

This is the time it takes to get smoke influence into the ribs (these first 3 hours).

Wood: 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 oak too).

Smoke: Place the ribs on the smoker, bone side down. Smoke for 3 hours

Spritz: During the first three hours I also like to keep adding moisture to the pork with a spritz. A spritz is simply a spray bottle with liquid. We use 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.

How to make a spritz (or mop) for ribs

2 – Wrap for two hours

By now the bones from the ribs should start to show.

 3 2 1 Smoked Ribs with no sauce (just salt and pepper)

Wrap Ribs: Lay out aluminum foil. 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 then place, meat-side down, back on your cooker. Over the two hours of wrapping it will steam and baste in the liquid creating that soft texture and tenderness.

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.

Wrapping Ribs for the 3-2-1 Method

1 – Smoked One Hour, Unwrapped

The focus is on that last flavor element — The sauce or glaze to get tender ribs.

Remove Foil: Remove the smoked ribs from the foil, or simply open the foil and continue to cook, unwrapped, for the remaining hour.

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 the smoked ribs are 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 tender ribs, and that’s ok too. But hey, this style is all about home cooking versus a professional competition (so you cook what YOU like!).

3-2-1 Smoked Pork Ribs

What Temperature Should 3-2-1 Ribs Be Cooked?

Target 250 degrees F for 3-2-1 Ribs. If you smoke at 225 it will take longer to render.

Smoke thermometer by Thermoworks

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 like to cook with a water pan in a pellet grill or offset, which is a personal preference. We also use a spritz while the 3-2-1 ribs are smoking.

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.

Sourcing – Spare vs Baby Back Ribs for 3 2 1 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 vs. 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 a more even shape. The connective tissues are rendered using low and slow cooking.

how to trim spare ribs
Spare ribs trimmed to St. Louis cut.

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.


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.
  • Sauce or No Sauce? Want a simple rib without the sauce? Just rub with salt and pepper, and for the last hour skip the sauce step.
3 2 1 Ribs with sauce, sliced

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Do I need to add sauce in the last hour

You do not have to add sauce in the last hour. The braising liquid is enough flavor, and is more for personal preference. We like adding sauce because it does thicken up and add just that little extra flavor.

Are spare ribs pork or beef

Spare ribs are pork ribs, specifically the ribs that sit under the baby back ribs. St. Louis cut ribs are ribs that are trimmed from the spare rib rack.

Can I make this recipe on an electric smoker?

Yes, if you have an electric smoker like a Masterbuilt, you can follow the same directions using the same temperature guide.

What type of wood should I use for this recipe

We recommend fruit woods or oak for smoking ribs in the 3-2-1 method. The flavor is slightly sweeter. You can use any hardwood that is local to you. Mesquite and Hickory will have a much more pronounced smoke flavor if you prefer that flavor.

Do i rest my ribs using the 3-2-1 method?

You do not technically need to rest ribs using this method. We will remove the ribs from the smoker and place on a cutting board. Then we slice while warm and serve immediately.

Expert Tip

If your ribs are done early it’s ok to remove them from the smoker and store them in a cooler with no ice for up to 4 hours before slicing and serving. They will stay warm. Be sure to slice just prior to eating.

Storage and Reheating Instructions

If you have leftover ribs, store them for up to five days in an airtight container in your refrigerator.

If you want to reheat, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil. Place in a preheated oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 15 minutes or until they are warmed through. When you open the foil, coat them with more BBQ sauce. Serve warm.

What To Serve With This Recipe

Anytime we make ribs it’s for a crowd. So we add some of our favorite sides and wine to the mix. Sides are also a great item to delegate to people coming over so you can focus on the ribs.


  • BBQ Baked Beans – There is nothing more classic than baked beans. Ours is a twist that we smoke along side the ribs giving them more flavor!
  • No-Mayo Coleslaw – If you want a summer side dish that can handle the heat, then a no-mayo slaw is perfect.


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? 

*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.

If you like this recipe we’d truly appreciate it if you would give this recipe a star review! And if you share any of your pics on Instagram use the hashtag #vindulge. We LOVE to see it when you cook our recipes. 

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About Vindulge

Mary (a certified sommelier and recipe developer) and Sean (backyard pitmaster) are co-authors of the critically acclaimed cookbook, Fire + Wine, and have been creating content for the IACP nominated website Vindulge since 2009. They live in Oregon on a farm just outside Portland.

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4.43 from 80 votes

Easy 3-2-1 Ribs Recipe

Recipe for competition style smoked pork ribs, and an explanation of the “3-2-1 Method” of smoking ribs.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 6 hours
Total: 6 hours 15 minutes
Servings: 6 servings


For the Ribs:

  • 2 Racks of spare ribs, (St. Louis cut makes for the best option)
  • ¼ cup Dijon mustard
  • ¼ cup Dry Rub

For the Spritz:

  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water (or apple juice)

For the Wrap (at the 3 hour mark):

  • 4 tablespoons butter , (2 per rack)
  • ¼ cup honey, (2 tablespoons per rack. Agave nectar is a great alternative as well.)
  • 2 tablespoons spritz, from above, (To lightly spray prior to wrapping)

For the Glaze:

  • 1 cup Barbecue Sauce, (You may not use all of the bbq sauce. You're just glazing it on both sides of each rack.)


For Prep:

  • 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).
  • Pat ribs dry with a paper towel, and then coat both sides of ribs with the Dijon mustard. Apply the dry rub to both sides.

To Smoke The Ribs:

  • Smoke 3 Hours: Place ribs, meat side pointing up, on the smoker. Smoke for about three hours. Start spritzing 90 minutes into the smoke and then spritz every 30 minutes.
  • Wrap Ribs for 2 Hours: After the 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.
  • Unwrap for 1 Hour: After the end of this second hour, remove ribs from the foil gently. The meat should be tender and bones showing. Place the ribs back on the smoker, meat side up, and glaze with your barbecue sauce. Cook one more hour, uncovered. Remove. Glaze one last time before serving, then slice and serve.



For the Spritz: Combine the liquids into a food-safe spray bottle. 
Modifications: The 3-2-1 method is a great starting place to find your balance of flavor and texture. You can adjust this ratio any way you like from 4 – 2, or even less time. Some will argue that the ratio will overcook the ribs. Technically that’s a preference for you. Play around with ratios that work for your palate.


Calories: 338kcal | Carbohydrates: 38g | Protein: 7g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 8g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 50mg | Sodium: 705mg | Potassium: 314mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 32g | Vitamin A: 418IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 63mg | Iron: 2mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Additional Info

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 6 hours
Total Time: 6 hours 15 minutes
Course: Entree
Cuisine: BBQ, Barbecue, competition barbecue
Servings: 6 servings
Calories: 338
Keyword: 3 2 1 ribs, bbq ribs recipe, competition smoked ribs, how to smoke pork ribs, smoked pork rib recipe
Like this recipe? Leave a comment below!

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About Mary

I'm Mary, a wine/food/travel writer, Certified Sommelier, mom of twins, former vegetarian turned BBQ fanatic, runner, founder of Vindulge, and author of Fire + Wine cookbook. Thanks for stopping by!

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  1. 5 stars
    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!

  2. 5 stars
    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.

  3. 5 stars
    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!

  4. 5 stars
    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!!