Last updated July 6, 2019
You can use the 3-2-1 method, smoke hot and fast, or hang your ribs in a vertical cooker. As a competitive barbecuer, I wanted to find out which method yielded the best results. I was looking for good bark and tender meat. Here’s what I discovered.
How to Smoke Ribs Using the 3-2-1 Method
3-2-1 is a catchy way to remember how much time each step of the process takes.
With this method, you smoke the ribs at a low temperature around 225-250F degrees for 3 hours unwrapped, 2 hours wrapped and 1 hour unwrapped.
During the first 3 hours, the ribs cook low and slow and develop their mahogany color. This is the stage when the smoke starts to penetrate the meat, often creating a smoke ring.
After 3 hours, it’s time to wrap the ribs tightly in foil. This stage allows you to lock in moisture, and even add more in the form of juice, water or beer. This is where the tenderness is going to develop.
For a backyard BBQ, I recommend using 1/2 cup or so of liquid per slab, because most people like their meat to fall off the bone. If you’re entering ribs in a competition; however, you’ll want to limit the liquid to about 1/4 cup. Judges like a little tug when they take a bite.
After two hours of tenderizing, you’ll need to get some pretty color back. When the ribs are in the pouch, the steam tends to dissolve some of the bark that you developed in the first 3 hours. To get it back, sauce your ribs and lay them back on the grate unwrapped for another hour.
You’ll know they’re ready when they are flexible when you go to pick them up. They should have a gentle bend or arch.
How to Smoke Ribs Using the Hot and Fast Method
You may have heard the expression “hot and fast.” Some pitmasters swear by it and others consider it sacrilegious because they think barbecue should be slow and low. In my opinion, barbecue is not about the rules; it’s about the results.
I like to cook ribs hot and fast. Instead of taking 6 hours, like the 3-2-1 method, these ribs are ready in about 3 hours.
The method is actually the same, in that you cook unwrapped, wrapped and unwrapped again, but because you increase the grill temp to 300F, instead of smoking at 225F, the process is a lot quicker.
During the first phase, you’ll smoke the ribs for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Then, you’ll wrap them like you did before, using more liquid for more tenderness and less for a competition bite.
After about an hour, you’ll finish them with sauce to get that beautiful color back. It’ll only take 10-15 minutes for the sauce to set.
How to Smoke Ribs Using the Vertical Cooker Method
With the first two results, you can use just about any type of grill or smoker. With the vertical cooker method, you will obviously need a vertical cooker.
What makes this method different is that you hang the ribs; instead of lying them flat on the grill grate. They cook vertically over the charcoal, and the air circulates like a vortex around the ribs – kind of like rotisserie.
There is no wrapping or unwrapping with this method. You just insert the hooks and let them hang. Two racks of ribs will take about 2 1/2 hours. For every rack of ribs you add, increase the cook time by about 30 minutes.
You’ll know they’re almost done when the meat pulls back to show about 1/2 inch of the bones. At this point, brush them with sauce and hang them again for about 30 minutes.
One thing to watch for when using this method is the placement of the hooks. In competitions, appearance is important. The area where the hook is pierced will leave a small spot on the meat.
Usually, when preparing competition ribs, cooks trim off the ribs on both ends to square up the slab. When I hang my ribs, I leave these small bones because it allows the hook to be placed further from the center ribs – the best ones for turn in.
With all of these methods, you will need to adjust your time if you’re cooking more than 2-3 slabs of ribs on your cooker. The first few times I tried the 3-2-1 and hot and fast methods in competition, I didn’t do too well.
I think that’s because I went strictly by time instead of feel. I had my smokers loaded up with ribs, brisket and pork butt, and didn’t adjust accordingly. Winning pitmasters recommend a separate grill for each meat – if you can afford it.
If you can’t, just plan to increase your cook time and look for that tender bend.
I have had my best competition results with the vertical cooker method. I placed 4th in ribs against 30 other teams. It’s now my go-to competition method.