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Unlock the mystery of perfect 3-2-1 ribs. Our technique is fail-proof. The result? Tender, smoky ribs that will tantalize your taste buds. Prepare to be left wanting more!
What are 3-2-1 ribs?
3-2-1 is a catchy little reminder for how long to smoke St. Louis-style pork ribs during three different phases. Here’s how it breaks down.
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. Now, 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.
PRO TIP: The 3-2-1 method is a slow cooking method best for St. Louis-Style pork ribs or spare ribs. If you’re cooking baby back pork ribs, the cook time will be shorter, because the racks are smaller.
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’ll 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.
- St. Louis Style ribs
- Yellow mustard
- Salt, pepper and garlic: Look for a pre-mixed rub called SPG or combine equal parts kosher salt, coarse-ground black pepper and granulated garlic.
- Christie Vanover’s Pork Dry Rub
- Butter: Use sticks of butter, not spreadable butter. My favorite butter for ribs is Kerrygold salted butter.
- Brown sugar: Either light or dark brown sugar is fine.
- Honey or hot honey
- Your favorite barbecue sauce
Substitutions: 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.
See the full rib recipe card below for servings and a full list of ingredients.
How to cook 3-2-1 ribs
The 3-2-1 method works best when you set your smoker to 225F degrees with an indirect heat zone. If you set the temperature higher, your cooking times will be shorter. You can make Hot and Fast Ribs in under three hours.
- STEP ONE: Flip the rack of ribs, so that the bones are facing up. 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. Trim off any extra fat pockets on top, as well as the meat flap on the back side. (Watch the video for a demo.)
PRO TIP: The silver skin is a thin membrane on the back of the ribs. 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.
- STEP TWO: Rub the backside with mustard, SPG and Pork Rub (or your favorite rubs). Let rest for 15 minutes. Flip and rub the topside with mustard and rib rub. Let rest while you heat your grill to 225F degrees.
- STEP THREE: Place the ribs on the grill meat side up. Smoke with the lid closed for 3 hours.
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).
- STEP FOUR: 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. Repeat on the bone side of the ribs. Add 2 long slices of butter, 2 more tablespoons brown sugar and another drizzle of honey. Wrap tightly.
PRO TIP: I use 18-inch wide foil. If you only have 12-inch wide foil, you may have to get creative in your wrapping or try using 3 sheets. Watch the video for a better understanding.
- STEP FIVE: Place back on the smoker for 2 hours wrapped in foil. During the wrap phase, the meat will start to tenderize and the ribs will become pliable and bend when lifted.
- STEP SIX: 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.
Pro Tip: 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.
- STEP SEVEN: Remove from the smoker. Let rest a few minutes. Turn the smoked ribs meat side down and slice.
How to know when 3-2-1 ribs are done
This is honestly subjective and depends on who your audience is.
If you are cooking ribs for barbecue competitions, 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. For competitions, I cook my ribs until they bend and almost crack. However, they do not break.
The internal temp of the meat is usually around 209F degrees. (but final BBQ temps vary by altitude).
If you are cooking the 3-2-1 ribs method for friends and family, I recommend going with the fall-off-the-bone tender 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.
Leftover smoked 3-2-1 ribs should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. They will last in the fridge for 3-5 days and in the freezer for several months. They can be reheated in the microwave or wrapped in foil on the grill over indirect heat. Serve leftovers with heated BBQ sauce.
GCG Pro Pitmaster Tips
- The 321 method works best when you set your smoker to 225F
- While 321 is a great overall method, this cooking process is just an estimate
- During the first phase, cook the ribs until they have a mahogany bark
- During the second phase, they should become pliable when lifted
- In the last hour, cook them until the really bend, but don’t break
Which wood is best for the 3-2-1 rib method?
Consider two things when building smoke flavor for 321 ribs: The fuel source and the smoke source.
Honestly, just about any type of wood works great with seasoned 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. Gas grills do not add barbecue flavor to food. To get this flavor, you need to use wood chips in a foil pouch.
When cooking ribs on a pellet grill, I highly recommend trying Cowboy Charcoal and Hickory Barbecue Pellets. These are unlike most pellets because they include all-natural hickory wood and all-natural charcoal. So you get that char-grilled flavor that you normally get when cooking with charcoal.
Pro Tip: Personally, my favorite way to cook St. Louis style 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 the best way for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
The 3-2-1 method works best at 225F degrees, but you can also smoke bbq ribs at 250F or even 300F degrees. The hotter your grill, the less time it will take for the ribs to cook. With any temperature, wrapping them will help them become nice and tender.
I like my ribs sweet, so I use butter, brown sugar, honey and more rub. Since I also like heat, I use hot honey. This is personal preference and you can decide which combination you like best.
You can also add a cup of apple juice, grape juice or even beer. However, the more liquid you add, the quicker your ribs will cook.
When I compete, I use butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, and Blue’s Hog Tennessee Red to make the best ribs. This combination creates the best flavor.
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.
Yes. You can cook ribs using the 3-2-1 method in the oven, but you won’t get the smoky flavor you get from a grill. If using an oven, place the ribs on a rack over a rimmed sheet pan. Cook at 225F degrees for 3 hours. Then, wrap for two hours. Finish them on the rack with sauce for about 1 more hour.
What to serve with smoked BBQ ribs
More delicious rib recipes
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Smoked 3-2-1 Ribs
- 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 for 15 minutes. Flip and rub the topside with mustard and rib rub. Let rest while you heat your grill to 225F degrees. (See charcoal and wood suggestions above.)
- Smoke: Place the ribs on the grill meat side up over indirect heat. 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.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.