The biggest complaint most people have with ribs is that they turn out dry and tough. The 3-2-1 method (so named for the three sets of cooking times) for smoking ribs nearly guarantees tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs without a lot of extra effort. All you need to follow this method is a big sheet of aluminum foil and lots of time. Everything else follows the normal process of smoking ribs.
How 3-2-1 Works
If you know how to smoke pork ribs, then all you need to know about the 3-2-1 method is that you smoke as normal for the first three hours, followed by two hours of cooking the ribs wrapped in foil, and finally, one more hour unwrapped.
This gives the meat time to soak in smoke during the first three hours when most smoke is absorbed. During the wrapped period the ribs are steamed, making them more tender and loosening the meat from the bone. During the last hour, the ribs are exposed to the dry, smoky heat again to form a surface crust.
The 3-2-1 Process
You don't really need any extra supplies or equipment for this rib cooking method—just the ribs, the seasoning rub, aluminum foil, a barbecue sauce if desired, and your smoker or charcoal grill. Plan for six hours of cooking time.
- Prep the ribs by removing the membranes and applying your rib rub.
- Place ribs bone-side down in smoker at 225 F (110 C) and cook for three hours.
- Remove ribs from smoker and wrap tightly in aluminum foil to form an airtight seal. Return to the smoker bone-side up and smoke for two hours.
- Unwrap the ribs and return to the smoker bone-side down for one more hour.
- Apply sauce to ribs (if you want) during the last 20 to 30 minutes of the cooking time. Make sure that the cooking temperature is below 265 F (130 C) to prevent burning, and apply the sauce in several thin layers.
Variations of 3-2-1
The 3-2-1 method is specifically designed for pork spareribs, and the timing works best for that cut of rib.
If you prefer baby back ribs, then you need to use a 2-2-1 method for the ribs or they will get overcooked and dry out. If long-term smoking isn't something you are interested in, you can place wrapped ribs in the oven and then finish them off (at a low temperature) on a grill or in the oven. Since most of the smoke flavor is delivered in the first three hours, this method won't affect the overall outcome too much.
The Downside of 3-2-1
The 3-2-1 method can give you tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs, which most people think of as the pinnacle of smoked ribs. However, it probably won't win you any barbecue competitions. For many people, a good rib has meat that holds the bone but doesn't stick to it. In other words, the meat should pull away cleanly from the bone when you bite, but certainly not fall off. But if you don't plan on entering any barbecue cook-offs, follow this technique, as it is sure to please.