How to Make Smoked Pork Ribs Using the 3-2-1 Method 

Fall-off-the-bone low and slow smoked pork ribs glazed with tangy homemade BBQ sauce.
pork spare 321 ribs

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If you want an absolutely foolproof way to guarantee fall off the bone pork ribs every time, you need to try the 3-2-1 method.

This method takes away all the guesswork out of smoking ribs so you don’t need to worry about how long your ribs will take to cook or how to tell when they’re done. It’s a great method for newbies or if you are cooking for a crowd or even if you just don’t want any stress.

I recommend using large cut spare ribs for this rib recipe, but I’ll give you some easy tweaks if you are cooking baby back ribs.

3-2-1 Smoked pork ribs step by step

Enough teasing, what does the 3-2-1 method actually involve?

It is a three-part process for low and slow smoking fall off the bone ribs. It removes any decision making while cooking your ribs, making it a foolproof cooking option.

Your seasoned ribs are smoked uncovered, smoked in a package, and then slathered with BBQ sauce and smoked uncovered again, to render fall-off the bone deliciousness.

1. Smoke ribs for 3 hours

Trim and season your ribs with your rub of choice. Place them into your smoker bone side down and smoke for three hours. This first part of the cook allows the meat to absorb the smoke flavor while the application of the rub helps create that traditional mahogany color and bark we get when smoking meat. 

seasoned pork ribs on a smoker
During the first part of the cook, we smoke seasoned ribs for 3 hours

2. Wrap ribs for 2 hours

After three hours of being smoked, remove the ribs from the smoker and place bone side up on 2 layers of foil that has a mixture of brown sugar, honey, butter, and apple cider vinegar on it (I have listed other suggestions you could also include below ). Add brown sugar, honey and butter to top of the ribs and wrap tightly.

pork ribs covered with brown sugar and butter on a foil
After the first smoke, we add brown sugar, honey and butter and wrap the ribs in foil

Place foil package back in the smoker for a further two hours. This is what gives 3-2-1 ribs their tenderness.

You can play around with what you wrap your ribs with. Some ideas of what to include:

  • Hot sauce
  • Pepsi or coke
  • Brown sugar
  • Honey
  • Butter
  • Juice
  • More of your rib rub
pork ribs covered in foil in a smoker
The second part of the cook involves smoking ribs wrapped in aluminum foil for another 2 hours

3. Sauce ribs and smoke uncovered for 1 hour

After the two hours in aluminum foil, you will remove the ribs from the heat and open up the foil. Using the foil as a tray, place the ribs meat side up and apply a sauce of your liking to the top of the ribs and then place this back into the smoker for an hour.

pouring bbq sauce on smoked pork ribs
During the last part, you want to open the foil, apply BBQ sauce and smoke ribs for one more hour

After that hour is up, you will have what most people regard as perfect fall off the bone ribs. 

smoked and sliced 321 ribs
Once the time is up the ribs are ready to be sliced and served

Items that will help you cook these are:

You can cook 3-2-1 ribs on any smoker or even gas grill with a hood.

What type of ribs to use for the 3-2-1 method?

When using the 3-2-1 method you should use large racks of ribs as a small rack cooked for six hours will come out overcooked. Spare ribs or St. Louis Cut are both perfect.

You can still use the same technique with baby back ribs but you’ll need to adjust the times to 2-2-1 or even 2-1-1.

raw pork spare ribs on a plastic board
Look for a large slab of ribs for this method, as a smaller cut can end up overcooked

In Australia, we actually process our pork at a younger age and therefore this results in smaller cuts than you would get in the USA. This is something to consider if you live outside the USA, as you may be following the exact timing of someone cooking much larger ribs than you have.

I talked to my local butcher and explained I wanted to cook ribs using the 3-2-1 method and that I was going to need some larger ribs. He really looked after me and it is one of the reasons you’ll always hear me telling you to go speak to your local butcher as they are only too happy to look after you.

So I ended up with a rack of spare ribs weighing in at 9.5 lbs.

I also opted for spare ribs, they have a lot more meat on them and this again is just trying to get the best possible outcome with the 3-2-1 method.

You can also source excellent ribs from Snake River Farms or Porter Road.

Prepping the ribs

The work you’ll have to do to prep your ribs depends on how they come from your butcher.

Since I had a big rack of ribs, I had two options. I could trim them up and remove the cartilage and gristle that is at the very bottom of the spare rib and neaten the whole rack up to make them into what is known as St. Louis style ribs. This is what you typically do for competition-style ribs. Doing that involves removing a lot of meat and since I paid for it and wasn’t cooking for a competition I decided to stick with a spare rib prep for this rib recipe.

For the spare rib prep you need to remove the membrane on the side where the bones are located. It is usually easiest if you use a butter knife to get under a corner of the membrane and because it tends to be slippery, by using a piece of paper towel, you can generally get a good grip and remove the membrane in one go.

a man removing membrane from pork ribs
Using a paper towel will help grip the membrane

Trim off any excess fat on the meat side and if there are any little dags of meat that will only dry out during the cook, it is best to remove them now.

Then all you need to do is apply your favorite pork rub, I used my ultimate dry rub for ribs and adjusted it for pork by doubling the sugar quantities.

Any sweeter style bbq rub will work really well with pork. Just make sure, that when you are applying any rub, you do it from a height of around 12 inches, this allows the rub particles to separate completely before hitting the meat. This allows for an even coating and will ensure every mouthful tastes the same.

You can coat your ribs with a thin layer of mustard first to help the rub bind to the meat. It’s an optional step and I find my rib rub sticks just fine without it.

raw pork spare ribs seasoned with rub on a metal tray
We suggest holding the rub shaker about 12 inches above the ribs to ensure even coating

Now just put these aside for at least 30 minutes. This will give the pork time to sweat and the dry rub will look more like a glaze as it goes into the smoker and this wetness will help the smoke to adhere to the meat.

Making your bbq sauce

For the final step of your 3-2-1 ribs, you’ll need to brush your ribs with a sauce or glaze. You can use just about any store-bought sauce but I like to make my own when I have time.

I have an all-purpose homemade BBQ sauce recipe that I love using. It has a great tang to it, it isn’t overpowering and perfectly compliments barbecue.

smoked ribs glaze ingredients
A BBQ sauce with a mild tangy flavor will nicely compliment these ribs

The ingredients are easy enough to get and you will most likely have most if not all in your pantry and fridge:

  • 1 cup of ketchup
  • 1 ½ cups apple juice
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 3 teaspoons of onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, or salt flakes will do
  • ½ teaspoon of black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon of hot cayenne pepper for a little kick

It is as easy as putting all of the ingredients into a heavy-based saucepan over low to medium heat, stirring for 15 minutes until the sauce thickens slightly.

smoked ribs glaze pouring into a sauce bottle
Using a sauce bottle makes applying the glaze just a bit more convenient

You can then take it off the heat and allow it to cool.

You can do this before you start, or during the first 5 hours of the cook.

Smoker setup for 3-2-1 ribs

You can use any smoker to achieve these results. I like to use my Weber Smokey Mountain for smoking ribs. To set up for low and slow I fill the charcoal ring with unlit briquettes and then half-fill a chimney starter with briquettes.

charcoal briquettes in weber smokey mountain
We are using charcoal briquettes and some applewood for this smoker set up

Once ashed over, I pour this into a well in the unlit charcoal and then add some smoking wood chunks. I used Apple wood for this cook as it pairs really well with pork so you get that nice sweet smokey flavor.

Any fruitwood will work well, and pork is very forgiving so you should be fine with any smoke wood.

I used my ThermoWorks Smoke X to monitor the cooking temperature of the smoker so I knew when to adjust the bowl vents as the temp climbed closer to the target temperature.

Once you have stabilized the temps at 225°F, you can then place the ribs into the smoker bone side down on the top cooking rack. 

pork spare ribs on a weber smokey mountain
Once you stabilize your smoker at 225°, it’s time to place the ribs on the cooking rack

Any vent adjustments from this point should be minimal and only made if the weather changes. Bullet-style smokers tend to run all day once you have your cooking temperature dialed in. They can fluctuate a little due to moisture, wind and rises in the outside temperature for example on a partially cloudy day when the smoker may be subjected to full sun and then shade at times. Do not worry too much about these fluctuations as they will not affect the outcome of the end product.

Is the 3-2-1 method the best for smoking ribs?

If you want fall-off-the-bone tender ribs every time with no guesswork then 3-2-1 is a great method for smoking ribs. I highly recommend it if you are new to barbecue or are cooking for a large group and don’t want to stress.

Do I personally feel 3-2-1 produces the absolute best tasting ribs? No, but let me explain why.

sliced smoked ribs on a wooden board
The 3-2-1 method is great for cooking multiple racks at the same time

It really is a matter of personal preference. The main issue people have is that wrapping ribs effectively braises them. This can make the bark soft and the meat mushy rather than tender, and the taste a little washed out

In my experience most people outside of the barbecue community love the fall off the bone ribs texture you get with 3-2-1 so maybe it’s the BBQ snob in me.

a piece of smoked pork ribs on a wooden board
3-2-1 ribs can be TOO tender for some people

I believe a perfectly cooked rack of ribs should still have some firmness to the bite. When you take your first mouthful it shouldn’t drag the rest of the meat off the bone as well. We are not trying to get pulled meat here.

How I prefer to cook ribs

By all means, give the 3-2-1 method a try and let me know what you think in the comments below.

I’ve found I can get better texture with just a little more effort using the following method.

I like to smoke a little hotter (275°F to 300°F) until I like the color and the rub doesn’t come off when I touch it. This can be anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. Then I’ll wrap in aluminum foil until the ribs are probing tender in between the bones. This will usually take another hour and you can adjust depending on your desired tenderness.

Then if I want to have a glaze, I’ll apply some sauce to the ribs and give them no more than 10 minutes for the glaze to set in the smoker.

This is effectively half the cooking time and I end up with super juicy, tender ribs every single time.

What to serve with bbq ribs

Ribs are a barbecue staple so you can’t go wrong pairing them with any classic side like cornbread, coleslaw, mac and cheese or baked beans.

Or you can go nuts and serve them on a barbecue platter with brisket and hot links.

pork spare 321 ribs

Smoked Pork Ribs Using the 3-2-1 Method 

Fall-off-the-bone low and slow smoked pork ribs glazed with tangy homemade BBQ sauce.
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 6 hours
Total Time: 6 hours 10 minutes
Author: Dean “Schuey” Schumann

Ingredients

Rib ingredients:

  • 9.5 lbs rack of spare ribs
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 3.5 oz unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Spritz ingredients:

  • 50% water
  • 50% apple cider vinegar

Rib Rub ingredients:

  • 8 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 6 tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp coarse black pepper
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp mustard powder
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • ¼ tsp hot cayenne pepper

Sauce ingredients:

  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 ½ cups apple juice
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 3 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ¼ tsp hot cayenne pepper

Instructions

  • Trim excess fat off ribs and remove any lose bits of meat.
  • Remove the membrane from the back of the ribs.
  • Mix all dry ingredients for the rub and apply all over the ribs, remembering to get the sides.
  • Set up smoker to a temp of 225°F and once stable, place ribs in the smoker.
  • After 2 hours, check ribs for any dryness and if needed, spritz with a 50 / 50 mixture of water and apple cider vinegar.
  • After 3 hours, take ribs out of the smoker and place the meat side down on 2 layers of foil that have honey, sugar, butter and apple cider vinegar on them. Add sugar, honey and butter to the back of the ribs and wrap up tightly.
  • Put ribs back in the smoker for another 2 hours.
  • Place all BBQ sauce ingredients into a thick bottomed saucepan and stir over a low to medium heat for 15 minutes, then allow to cool and transfer to a sauce bottle.
  • After 2 hours, take ribs out and unwrap. Turn the ribs over to expose the meat and glaze with the BBQ sauce.
  • Place back into the smoker for another hour.
  • An hour later, remove the ribs from the smoker slice in between the bones and enjoy.

To serve:

  • With potato salad.
  • With cornbread.
  • On a platter with brisket, wings and hotlinks.

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