How to Smoke Ribs Perfectly: 3-2-1 Method & Easy Recipe

By Autumn Ellenson

Do you want to cook the best ribs of your life? Then cooking them low and slow on a smoker is the way to go.

Smoking ribs is the best way to infuse them with great flavor. Slow cooking them at low heat will lead to fall-off-the-bone tender meat that you will not want to stop eating.

I’ve got you covered if it is your first time smoking ribs. The following guide will quickly introduce you to the different types of ribs you can make. Then I’ll walk you through two ways you can smoke your ribs that will be a crowd-pleaser at your next cookout!

Types of Ribs

cow pig sheep

Naming the different types of ribs can become a contentious debate among avid meat smokers. But generally speaking, there are seven different types of pork, beef, and lamb ribs.

1. Baby Back Ribs

Contrary to popular belief, baby back ribs are pork ribs that come from full-grown pigs, not baby pigs! As they are sometimes called, traditional baby backs refer only to the part of the pig that they come from- the back.

The “baby” part of the name compares to their counterpart, spareribs. That is because spareribs are quite a bit larger. Baby back ribs are typically 3-6″ in length.

Baby back ribs contain loin meat and have less fat content than other ribs. The result is a moist and tender rack of ribs that, when smoked properly, falls off the bone.

2. Short Ribs

Short ribs are beef ribs and are considered one of the eight primal cuts of beef.

When cooked the right way, this cut of meat can turn into amazing ribs. They are known for their ability to be prepared in numerous ways. Some like to cut them into smaller sections to braise or slow cook in a crockpot.

3. Spare Ribs

Spare ribs are the lower portion of ribs removed from the underbelly of the swine.

They are typically thicker than other ribs and usually come with 11 or more ribs per rack.

Spare ribs also contain more fat marbling, rendering down during the smoking process and turning into very flavorful meat.

4. St. Louis Style Ribs

The name of these ribs refers to how the meat is cut, originating from meatpacking plants in the city of St. Louis, Missouri.

They are similar to spareribs but are a pared-down version. St. Louis ribs are trimmed more than other ribs and removed the brisket bone.

They also appear flatter than other types of ribs and contain large bones. These ribs also have “3 1/2 and down” associated with them because they weigh less than 3 1/2 pounds.

5. Country-Style Ribs

Country-style ribs are also sometimes called pork loin country-style ribs. But they are not even really ribs at all.

They are boneless strips of meat sliced from the end of the loin and can have a unique appearance.

These “ribs” are similar to pork chops and do better when grilled, not smoked.

6. Flanked Style Ribs

If you want a thin-cut rib, then flanked style may be the way to go. They are cut down to a 1/2″ thickness wrapped around the rib bone.

These bone ribs are beefy and high in fat, which means they are not as tender as pork rib choices.

While the bone can add a lot of flavors, you’ll want to use high heat for cooking these ribs. That is because slow, low heat smoke might make them challenging. When looking for great smoking ribs, these will not be your best bet!

7. Lamb Riblets

Lamb riblets are cut from the spareribs of lambs. They contain a small layer of fat and are known for being “meaty.”

They can be cooked using a variety of cooking methods.

They may need an extra layer of moisture to keep them juicy. Many people marinate them to increase their flavor profile and moisten throughout the cook.

The Two Best Ways to Smoke Ribs

smoke vs 3-2-1 countdown

Slow cooking your meat with indirect heat, like on a smoker, leads to the most tender rib meat you can cook. That is because low heat over a long period can melt the collagen inside the ribs, making them more juicy and tender.

Smoking ribs also infuses that incredible smoke flavor that most people love!

There are many different techniques to smoke your meat. The following outlines two of the most popular ways that any novice can master! The first is the long and slow straight smoke and the second is the 3-2-1 method.

But before we jump into either method, we need to outline the prep…

Prep Work for Ribs

It doesn’t matter which method you use to smoke your ribs. You will prep the meat in the same way. So, here are step-by-step instructions on how to do just that.

Step 1: Remove the Silver Skin

knife next to ribs

There is a thin membrane on the backside of the ribs. While you can leave this on if you want, removing it will give you the best results and more tender meat.

To remove the silver skin, do the following:

1. Lay the ribs on a cutting surface, silver skin side up. Using a sharp knife, slide it under one edge of the silver skin. If it is too tight in one spot, try another.

2. Once the silver skin lifts in an area large enough to grab it, use a paper towel to grip it tightly. Then gently pull it up off the meat. The entire skin should peel away as a large sheet. If it breaks, repeat the process with whatever skin is leftover.

Next, trim off any excess fat. Don’t trim it all off, though, as the fat adds flavor during the cook. Leave a 1/4″ of fat here and there.

Then slather the surface of the meat, including the meat side and the sides of the ribs, with your favorite wet and dry rub.

Step 2: Rub the Ribs

dry rub ingredients next to ribs

Don’t rely on BBQ sauce to add all the flavor at the end. It’s best to apply a wet and dry rub to your ribs. The wet rub helps tenderize the meat and gives the dry rub something to stick to.

Just in case you need it, here are easy-to-make wet and dry rub recipes.

Wet Rub for Ribs Recipe

Consider using the following wet recipe to get moist ribs and provide a layer for your dry rub to adhere to.

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup yellow mustard
  • 1/3 cup apple juice
  • 1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
Directions

Mix the ingredients in a bowl and slather onto the meat after removing the silver skin.

Dry Rub for Ribs Recipe

Do you need a tasty, tried-and-true dry rub recipe for your ribs? This simple recipe is easy to make, using ingredients you likely already have in the pantry!

Ingredients
  • 4 tbsp paprika
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Directions

1. In a small bowl, mix all ingredients. When ready, rub on the meat!

Pro tip: You can make this dry rub mixture ahead of time to be ready to go when you go to smoke your meat. That gives you one less thing to prep for barbecue day!

You can store the mix in an airtight container for up to a month.

Get Your Meat Thermometer Ready

meat thermometer in meat

Any avid meat smoker will tell you that owning a meat thermometer is a must. Most recipes will tell you what ideal internal temperature to cook the meat to in its directions.

Inserting an instant-read thermometer in the meat at the start of your cook will accurately tell you at what stage your meat is at during each step of the cooking process. This will help you cook the most succulent meat possible.

Best Temperature to Smoke Ribs

How to Smoke Ribs Perfectly: 3-2-1 Method & Easy Recipe

The best temperature to smoke ribs is 225 or 250 degrees F. Either temp will produce tender, mouthwatering results. The main difference is how long it will take to reach the ideal internal temperature…

Keep in mind, ribs are safe to eat at 145 degrees but that’s not the ideal internal temp! The Best Internal Temp for Ribs is 190-200 degrees. Or, better yet, 203 degrees F, which many pitmasters consider the “magic number” for tenderness.

Cooking Method #1: Long and Slow Straight Smoke

smoke surrounding "straight smoke method"

This way is a very simple, straightforward cook for your ribs. While the meat will be well-infused with the smoky flavor, it may become a little drier when cooked this way. That is because they are not wrapped in foil which can help them retain moisture during the low and slow cooking process.

1. Preheat your smoker to a temperature of 250 degrees F

2. Placed your prepped ribs inside the smoker. Insert your meat probe into the thickest part of the rib, being careful not to touch the bone if there is one.

3. Cook your ribs for approximately 4.5 – 5.5 hours until the internal temperature of the ribs reaches 190-203 degrees F.

4. Pull the ribs from the smoker and let them cool. Top them with your favorite sauce and enjoy!

Cooking Method #2: 3-2-1 Method

3-2-1 method with countdown on either side

The second way I will outline is a very popular process called the 3-2-1 method and for a good reason! It breaks the entire six-hour cooking process into three steps:

  • 3 hours: For the first three hours, let the meat smoke without foil, infusing it with that delicious smoky flavor.
  • 2 hours: Steam the meat by wrapping it in foil, allowing its moisture to tenderize the meat.
  • 1 hour: Baste and glaze the meat with your favorite BBQ sauce.

Here are the detailed instructions for 2 racks of ribs:

1. Lay out four large sheets of aluminum foil and preheat your smoker to 225 degrees F.

2. If you have not already done so, prep the ribs.

3. Place the ribs on the preheated smoker, and cook for 3 hours.

4. Pull off the ribs, but leave the smoker heated. Place each rack of ribs on two of the foil sheets you laid out.

Optional: Sprinkle the ribs with a brown sugar mixture.

5. Place the other two foil sheets on top of the ribs, then crimp the edges to seal in the ribs.

6. Return the ribs to the smoker for an additional 2 hours.

7. Carefully take out the ribs and remove them from the foil. Brush them with your favorite BBQ sauce.

8. Place the ribs, without foil, back onto the smoker for the last 1 hour of cooking. Place the meat probe into the thickest rib, careful not to touch it to the bone.

Cook for an additional hour or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches at least 190 degrees F.

Pro tip: Many smoking experts will “overcook” their ribs to a temperature of 195-203 degrees F to maximize the fall-of-the-bone tenderness. It’s considered “overcooking” because, technically, according to the USDA, ribs are safe to eat at 145 degrees F. But they taste so much better at 203!

Hope you have a finger-licking good time!

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