By Christie Vanover | Published April 19, 2022 | Last Updated February 16, 2023
Disclosure: I’m sharing this as a proud Cowboy Charcoal ambassador. The post is sponsored. Opinions are my own.
WHAT IS THE 3-2-1 RIBS METHOD?
3-2-1 is a catchy little reminder for how long to smoke St. Louis-style pork ribs during three different phases.
This is the first stage in smoking 3-2-1 ribs. During this phase, the ribs are going to smoke for three hours.
This is the point where the ribs are seasoned with your favorite rub and laid straight on the smoker. At this point, the meat is absorbing the smoke and forming a bark.
During phase 2, the ribs smoke for two hours. However, this time, they are wrapped in foil to be braised.
After the initial three hours, they have already absorbed all the smoke they can, but the meat still needs to cook down. Wrapping the racks of ribs, allows the meat to braise and finish cooking.
During this final phase, the ribs will smoke for about 1 hour. I’ll explain the “about” part later down in this post.
This is the phase where you bring the barbecue-style back. You take the ribs out of the foil and brush them with sauce. Then, they go back on the grate, so the sauce can absorb more of the natural wood smoke.
HOW TO PREPARE RIBS FOR THE GRILL
As with any rib recipe, you should start by removing the silver skin – that pesky membrane on the back. It’s not the end of the world, if you leave it, but it doesn’t render down. Therefore, if left, your ribs will have a chewier bite on the back side.
To remove it, place the ribs meat side down. Use a butter knife or spoon to try to lift the membrane. Then, grab it with a paper towel and pull it off. If you’re lucky, you’ll get it in one quick pull. But more often, I find I have to pull it off in strips.
I also like to shave off extra pockets of fat if I see them on the top side, as well as the meat flap that lays on top of the bones on the back side. (Watch the video for a demo).
To season the ribs, start by rubbing on a binder. I like yellow mustard, but you can also use olive oil or soy sauce. Then, sprinkle on your favorite BBQ rub.
PRO TIP: When looking for a good barbecue rub for your ribs, look for a balance of salt, pepper, garlic, sweetness, heat and color. Blending an SPG with my Pork Rub is a perfect combo.
WHICH WOOD IS BEST FOR 3-2-1 RIBS?
There are two things to consider when building the smoke flavor for your 3-2-1 ribs: the fuel source and the smoke source.
Let’s start with the smoke. That flavor is going to come from natural wood, like chips, chunks or pellets.
Honestly, just about any flavor of wood works great with ribs. Personally, I like using Cowboy Charcoal hickory, pecan and cherry. Hickory provides that authentic barbecue flavor. The pecan is mild. And the cherry adds a touch of sweetness and color.
The second source of flavor comes from your fuel, which could be lump charcoal, briquets or pellets. If you’re using a gas grill, you won’t get that added barbecue flavor from your fuel, which is why you’ll want to use wood chips.
When cooking ribs on a pellet grill, I highly recommend trying Cowboy Charcoal and Hickory Barbecue Pellets. These are unlike most pellets, because they not only include all-natural hickory wood, they are also made with all-natural charcoal. So you get that char-grilled flavor that you normally get when cooking with charcoal.
Personally, my favorite way to cook ribs is over Cowboy lump charcoal with one hickory, one pecan and one cherry wood chunk. But play around with the fuels and woods to see what combo you like best.
WHY 3-2-1 IS JUST A GUIDE
While 3-2-1 is a great overall method. It’s also just an estimate.
As a growing pitmaster, you’re going to learn that variables, like weather, can make your cook a little different every time.
For instance, the 3-2-1 method works best, if you have your smoker honed in at 225F degrees. However, that temp might fluctuate. If it’s windy out, wind gusts might fuel your fire to burn a little hotter. If it’s cold out and you have a thinner grill, it may be a little harder to keep your temp up.
That’s why the pros will always advise you to cook to color and feel. It takes practice, but you can do it.
Remember, during that first phase, you’re looking for color. You want the meat to transition from looking raw (like above) to looking more like barbecue (like below).
During the wrap phase, that’s when the meat will start to tenderize, and the ribs will become pliable and bend when lifted.
When you take your ribs out of the wrap for that final hour, this is where your pitmaster skills need to kick in.
If your ribs are so tender that they almost break when you pick them up, you probably only need to smoke them for 15-30 more minutes. If on the other hand, they’re still pretty firm, let them ride for the full hour.
WHAT SHOULD I PUT IN MY RIB WRAP?
As I mentioned above, I wrap my ribs to tenderize the meat. What you put in your wrap also adds flavor, because the ingredients will liquify and create steam.
Personally, I like my ribs sweet, so I use butter, brown sugar, honey and more rub. Since I also like heat, I use hot honey.
You can also add apple or grape juice or even beer. However, the more liquid you add, the quicker your ribs will cook.
When I’m competing, I usually use butter, brown sugar, maple syrup and Blue’s Hog Tennessee Red.
And don’t be afraid of the butter. I use a whole stick with every rack. Just cut the stick into 4 pieces lengthwise, this butter slicing tool is one of my favorite BBQ gadgets.
HOW TO LAYER THE INGREDIENTS IN THE FOIL
Start by laying two sheets of heavy-duty foil on the counter. Next, add two pieces of butter. Follow that with the brown sugar, honey and a sprinkle of some more rub.
Next, this is important. Place the ribs meat side down. This will allow the meat to cook properly.
Add the same ingredients to the backside of the ribs, and wrap them tightly in the foil.
I like using 18-inch wide foil, but if you only have foil that is 12 inches wide, you may have to get a little creative in your wrapping or try using 3 sheets. Watch the video for a better understanding.
HOW DO I KNOW IF THE RIBS ARE DONE?
This is honestly subjective and depends on who your audience is.
If you are cooking ribs for a BBQ competition, the judges don’t want the meat to fall off the bone. Instead, they want a clean, tender bite that still has texture to it. So for competitions, I tend to cook my ribs to the point that they bend and start to crack, but they don’t quite break. The internal temp of the meat is usually around 209F degrees. (but that will vary by altitude).
If you’re cooking 3-2-1 ribs for friends and family, I recommend going with the fall-off-the-bone finish. So you can let them ride to an internal temperature above 210F and closer to 215F degrees.
Once they’re done, let them rest on the counter for 15 minutes or so. Then, turn them so the bones are facing up and slice them from the back side with a long serrated knife.
More Ribs Recipes
Smoked 3-2-1 Ribs
- 2 slabs St. Louis Style Ribs
- 1/4 cup yellow mustard
- 2 tbsp salt, pepper, garlic rub
- 2 tbsp Christie Vanover's Pork Rub
- 2 sticks butter cut into 8 vertical pieces
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup honey or hot honey
- 1 cup your favorite BBQ sauce
- Prep the Ribs: Flip the ribs, so that the bones are facing up. Using a paper towel, pull off the membrane and discard. Trim off any extra fat pockets on top, as well as the meat flap on the back side.
- Season: Rub the backside with mustard, SPG and Pork Rub (or your favorite rubs). Let rest in the fridge for 15 minutes. Flip and rub the topside with mustard and rib rub. Let rest in the fridge while you heat your grill to 225F degrees. (See charcoal and wood suggestions above.)
- Smoke: Place the ribs on the grill meat side up. Smoke with the lid closed for 3 hours.
- Wrap: Place two sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil on the counter. Top with 2 long slices of butter, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, a liberal drizzle of honey. Place the ribs on the butter, meat side down. To the bone side of the ribs, add 2 long slices of butter, 2 more tablespoons brown sugar and another drizzle of honey. Wrap tightly.
- Braise: Place back on the smoker for 2 hours.
- Sauce: Remove from the smoker, and unwrap from the foil. Flip the ribs over. Brush with sauce. Return to the smoker for about one more hour. (Read the post above to learn more about how timing may fluctuate).
- Slice: Remove from the smoker. Let rest a few minutes. Turn the ribs meat side down and slice.
This estimate was created using an online nutrition calculator
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