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Note: The original post is extremely long, this is the short version. Go here to read the whole post.

What is 3-2-1?
This method is a way to smoke ribs from start to finish. 3-2-1 represents the amount of hours the rack of ribs cook at each stage. In other words, the ribs smoke for 3 hours, wrap for 2 hours and cooks without smoke for the last hour. Total, the ribs will spend 6 hours on the cooker. Details of this are broken down even further as you continue to read.

2 St. Louis style ribs, meat down

The Plan
Basically, the 3-2-1 method calls for a simple list of ingredients that are applied at different steps in the process. This list of essentials includes:
  • Ribs
  • BBQ Rub
  • Liquids (for foil wrap)
  • BBQ Sauce
  • Olive oil
Sure, this list is short, but the ingredients themselves are complex and broad. You will find out exactly what products I use and I hope to explain my reasons for the flavor profile I choose.

Step 1
If the ribs are frozen, thaw them out for approximately 3-4 days in the refrigerator. On the day of the cook, let the unfrozen ribs come to room temperature, it’s OK to set them out for 45 minutes or so. While the ribs are sitting out, coat them with canola oil, then apply a sweet, sugar based rub on the ribs. Just because the spices are called a rub, you don’t actually rub it into the meat. That just tears up the surface of the meat. Instead, gently pat the rub into the meat. Let it sit until the rub turns into a syrup glaze.

Ribs with a homemade rub

Ribs coated with competition rub

During this time, prepare the cooker for smoking. You should have a smoker or a charcoal grill to cook ribs. If you have a charcoal grill, use the 2-zone method. Set the temperature of the grill to approximately 225 degrees.

Step 2
Wait about 20-30 minutes for the temperature to stabilize at 225 degrees. Add the glazed rack of ribs to the cooker, flesh side up. Remember, the lid is always on or closed with the vents wide open.

Ribs on the smoker, meat side up

Add 2 or 3 chunks of dry seasoned hardwood/fruitwood such as: cherry, oak, apple, hickory, pecan, peach or a combination of wood. These are some of my favorites. However, stay away from mesquite, the smoke will overpower the pork. Moreover, do not use wood chips or soak the wood in water.

Let the ribs smoke for 3 hours. Check the temperature often without opening the cooking chamber and keep it around 225 degrees. Also, check the charcoal and water/liquids as necessary.

Step 3
At 3 hours, the ribs could be considered ready to eat. But, the connective tissue has not broken down at this point. Eating the ribs now would be tough and chewy. This next step will accelerate the break down of connective tissue which will result in a tender product.

Smoked ribs after 3 hours

When the 3 hours are almost up, create a flat preparation area. Tear a sheet of aluminum foil, enough to completely wrap 1 rack of ribs. Remove the ribs from the grill and wrap the ribs in aluminum foil. Before you seal it up, add ¼ cup of apple juice. Doing this will expedite the cooking process of breaking down the meat and render off the fat. Seal it up tight so no liquids leak.

Hot pepper jelly and bacon fat spread on the foil wrap

Do the same for the other side of ribs too

Place the ribs flesh side down on the grill grate and continue to cook at 225 degrees for 2 hours. At this point, wood chunks are no longer needed, but continue to add water and charcoal.

Foil wrapped ribs, meat side down

Step 4
At 2 hours, 5 hours total, remove the foiled ribs and unwrap them. They should look moist and the rub looks mealy. Another thing to notice is how much the meat has pulled back from the bone. If there is about a ¼ inch of bone pulled back, you’re in good shape. If not, don’t sweat it because it is not a litmus test for doneness. Discard the foil wrap and liquid.

Unwrapping the ribs after 2 hours

The meat is starting to pull back from the bone

Place on the grill flesh side up and apply more rub one last time. Pop on the lid and cook for the last hour to firm it up.

If you use barbecue sauce, now is the time to 1) Take it out of the refrigerator and sit out at room temperature 2) Warm it up on the grill/stove. The popular application for barbecue sauce is to put it on the 10 minutes before you take the ribs off the grill.

Place back on grill, meat side up

For myself, I don’t sauce my ribs. When I have guests, sauce is served on the side. In addition, I prefer to kick up my own BBQ sauce. Just buy any inexpensive store bought sauce and kick it up with other ingredients. I pretty much use the same ingredients that I use in the foil wrap. Be sure to cook the kicked up sauce in a sauce pan on the stove or grill, this thoroughly mixes everything together.

Step 5
Using the 3-2-1 method takes the guessing out of knowing when ribs are done. Nonetheless, there are several ways to check to make sure they are tender. Here are a few ways to tell:
  1. When the meat pulls back about a ¼” from the bone.
  2. Take a toothpick, poke between the bones at the thickest part of the ribs. If it easily slides in and out of the rack…it’s done.
  3. With a pair of tongs, grab one end of the ribs. If they bend easy they are done, if not, keep them in the cooker.

Meat is pulled back, it's done

Step 6
Once the ribs are done, let them rest for a few minutes to let all the juices settle. When cutting the ribs, use a sharp, un-serrated knife. I cut mine into single or 2 bones so everybody can dig into those tender treats.

Resting without sauce

With BBQ sauce

Get in my belly!!!

Congratulations, you successfully applied the 3-2-1 method to make authentic BBQ ribs.

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Comment by Shane Lee Clay on May 14, 2013 at 10:33am

Do yall trim your baby backs before yall cook them.

Comment by Rueben Olivas on March 3, 2012 at 1:12pm

Great pictures with your tutorial. (:{

Comment by sigmond pieklik on March 1, 2012 at 5:47pm

That looks like an awesome technique. This summer I'm putting my efforts into ribs instead of pork butts. Thanks, Sig

Comment by Dave Hommes on February 9, 2012 at 10:37pm

Thanks for the detailed description. Pics look great. Cant wait to try this.

Comment by Randy C. Fenn on January 16, 2012 at 8:19am

Looks Great!

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