If you’re a beginner to barbecue, then ribs are likely the first cut you’ll consider smoking.
There are a lot of guides online that tend to steer beginners in the wrong direction. One of the most popular is a method referred to as “3-2-1.” Let’s discuss this concept in more detail and see why it might not be for you.
3-2-1 Ribs Method
The premise of this method is to smoke the ribs in specific hour long increments (typically at 225 degrees Fahrenheit).
Starting with 3 hours unwrapped (meat side up), 2 hours liquid wrapped (meat side down), and 1 hour unwrapped (meat side up); hence the name: 3-2-1.
The Issues With This Method
When I was first starting out, the appeal of this method was in the name. It sounds super easy to do and it’s essentially foolproof.
While this may be true, once you’ve had proper ribs and know and understand how temperature, smoke level, and “time” can affect the ribs, you’ll opt to change your technique.
Rib Type Matters
The type of rib you use matters. The most popular are St. Louis Spares (spare ribs) and Loin Backs (baby back ribs).
The 3-2-1 method is designed specifically for spares. This is because spares have more meat and as well fat that needs to render out. This means more time spent on the smoker.
If you opt to use a cut like baby back ribs and you use the 3-2-1 method, you’ll end up with dried out, overcooked ribs.
Most backyard cooks don’t cook Spares. I’d wager to say that when most people hear that “BBQ ribs” are being served, they assume they’re getting baby back ribs. This is highly location dependent though.
Loin backs tend to be smaller and don’t have a lot of meat on them. However, that meat is really tender.
Temperature is something that will vary based on who you talk to or where you get your information from.
The coined phrase “low and slow” will get thrown around a lot though. You can expect to see a recommended range of 225 – 275.
I’ve personally done both and I prefer the higher end of the spectrum: 250 – 275. Cooking low and slow doesn’t seem to break down the collagen and fibers throughout the meat.
It also always seems that the folks who use the “3-2-1 method” recommend 225. Likely because every single explanation of 3-2-1 regurgitates the same information. This results in a blanket statement of “225” and “low and slow.”
Then you have the people that do this for a living that recommend cooking at 250-275. They are also the ones winning Barbecue competitions. I’ll go with the latter.
This is my biggest gripe with this method of cooking. You are told to smoke for 3 hours unwrapped, 2 hours wrapped, and then another hour unwrapped.
You shouldn’t be cooking according to time. You should cook ribs according to color, tenderness(some people like a little tug), and internal temperature (205-210).
Barbecue is a centered experience. I can’t say what you’ll like because I’m not you. You should always cook what YOU like or what your guests, friends, and family like.
However, it’s like I noted above, you should always cook according to color, tenderness, and internal temperature. These are factors that are fairly universal, regardless of rib preference, wood type, dry rub, or liquid mixture being used.
What You’ll Need
To start you’ll need a few things:
St. Louis Cut Spare Ribs or Loin Back/Baby Back ribs are the most popular.
When picking ribs you want even thickness and fat marbled throughout the rack. Avoid racks that feature large fat deposits.
Since I’m not a barbecue competitor, I’m not really concerned with uniform bone distribution or the curvature of the rack. It all tastes the same going down, but fat content and even thickness affects the way they cook, so those are important.
There are a lot of options when it comes to dry rub. Picking your spices will boil down to your personal preference as well as where you’re from.
There’s also no shame in using a pre-made option. I’ve used rubs made by Heath Riles, Malcom Reed, and Rod Gray to name a few. I also like Meathead Goldwyn’s “Memphis Dust.”
Smoke flavor is something you would have to experiment with. Hickory is more traditional and popular throughout the country. If you’ve never smoked meat before, then hickory should be the first wood you experiment with. I personally love cherry smoke so I mix cherry and hickory.
Something to be cognizant of is the amount of smoke you impart on the meat. If you’re a beginner you’ll likely mess this up the first time by thinking you need to constantly add more wood throughout the cooking process. This will result in an undesirable soot taste.
For ribs I use my Masterbuilt electric smoker. Electric smokers are known for being able to maintain temperatures and my Masterbuilt has no problem maintaining 250 – 275.
I’ve also cooked ribs in my Camp Chef pellet grill. The main reason I opt for the Masterbuilt is because my Camp Chef is a bit dated. Newer pellet grills have hopper cleanouts/shoots that allow you change pellets easily.
Note: The outlined process will vary based on your setup and how you decide to smoke your ribs. The following process is my exact method and the products I use.
Products You’ll Need:
- Baby Back Ribs/St. Louis Spares
- French’s Yellow Mustard
- Dry Rub. Either your own or pre-made.
- Cherry and Hickory Wood Chips
- Apple Juice
- Heath Riles Butter Bath
- Large Tongs
- Aluminum foil
1. Start by pre-heating your smoker to 275. During this process I also load the wood chip tray with hickory and cherry wood. Usually by the time your prep is done your smoker will be up to temp. I’ve never noticed a difference when allowing the ribs extra time to dry brine. The pre-heat time is usually more than enough.
2. Prep your ribs by first removing the sinew membrane from the back of the rack.
3. Trim any large fat deposits from both sides of the meat.
4. Once done, start on the bone side. Use a light layer of French’s mustard and spread over the rack.
5. Sprinkle your dry rub over the back and press the rub down into the ribs.
6. Flip the rack over to the meat side. Repeat the process of a light mustard layer and apply your dry rub and pat it down into the ribs.
7. Check your smoker and ensure you’re at the 260-275 range. When ready, place your ribs on the rack.
8. Right after your meat is on the rack you can add your wood chips. I use a mix of cherry and hickory. I then add wood chips in another 30 minutes as well as one last time in an hour. After that I’m done with wood chips and allow the meat to smoke for another hour.
9. After the 2 hour smoke you can do a smear test by grazing your finger across the rub. If a bit sticks to your finger then you likely need to wait another 10-30 minutes. The goal is for the rubs you applied to caramelize and create a bark on the outside. When the bark is caramelized, take it off the smoker and bring the ribs inside to be wrapped.
10. During the liquid wrap process, people will use a combination of things. Typically it’s a mixture of Parkay squeeze margarine, brown sugar, honey, apple juice, a vinegar sauce, etc. I’ll be using a product made by Heath Riles for the butter bath. It’s essentially the items listed above in a crystallized form that you mix with apple juice. The mixture is roughly 1-2 tbsp of butter bath product and 1-2 cups of apple juice. If I didn’t have the butter bath product I’d layer with the dry rub, dark brown sugar, Parkay, and honey.
11. To wrap, lay out two sheets of aluminum foil. In the aluminum foil, sprinkle some rub down and then lay the ribs meat side down over the rub. Sprinkle some more dry rub over the back. Then pour the butter bath/apple juice mixture over the back of the rack.
12. Close the aluminum foil and place back in the smoker, meat side down for another 1 – 1 1/2 hours. This will allow the meat to tenderize.
13. At an hour into the smoke, check the ribs. When you start seeing larger bones exposed on the back like the meat is jumping off the bone it’s usually a tell tale sign that they’re tender. My Masterbuilt has a built-in probe that I use, but a meat thermometer or thermapen also works. The range of 205-210 degrees is ideal. Remember, check the temperature of the meat, not the bones. So position your thermometer as such.
14. Once you start to see bones and the internal temp is in that range, you can pull them off to glaze. Most folks will glaze with a barbecue sauce mixed with a vinegar sauce. Typically a ratio of 1 part vinegar to 2-3 parts barbecue sauce. Warm the sauce slightly in the microwave and then lightly apply the sauce to the meat side of the ribs.
15. Place back in the smoker for 15 minutes to set the glaze. After the glaze is set, take them off the smoker and separate the ribs with a sharp knife. Enjoy!
As you can see, the biggest difference here is that you’re being more of an active participant in the smoking process.
You’re first smearing the rib to test the rub at 2 hours in. You’re then determining if you need to go longer based on that smear test. After which you go inside, wrap your ribs, bring them back out and smoke for another hour. You’re then visually looking at the backs and then checking internal temperatures. When the meat is jumping off the bone and the temperature reaches 205-210, you pull them off. You’re then glazing the meat and then allowing it to set for 15 minutes in the smoker.
The result is a superior rib. Try it for yourself and let me know how it goes!