3-2-1 Ribs: Fall Off the Bone Smoked Baby Back Ribs

Tender racks of ribs that have a sweet and caramelized bark of skin and smoked for hours on the grill–this easy smoked baby back ribs recipe will help any beginner get started on the smoker, all you need to do is remember to count backward: 3-2-1!

321 pork baby back ribs

What is the 3 2 1 smoking method?

One of the most popular ways to smoke ribs on the smoker is the 3-2-1 smoking method. Back in 2011, George “Tuffy” Stone invented the 321 method at the 22nd Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue and it’s been used by many home smokers since then. 

ribs with smoke wafting out

But what does the 3-2-1 method actually mean?

  • 3 hours direct smoking on the grill
  • 2 hours wrapped in foil (with some seasonings like brown sugar, butter, and optional other liquids) to tenderize
  • 1 hour to sear on the grill (usually with barbecue sauce slathered on top)

Many like to contend that this is the best way to smoke ribs because it often gives you fall off the bone tender meat. However, many smoker professionals like to counteract that you don’t necessarily want the meat to fall off the bone especially for competition ribs. 

What are competition ribs?

hand holding a pork rib

Competition ribs are different from the 3-2-1 method because, for one, fall-off-the-bone tender meat is not necessarily a good thing. What’s desired in competition ribs is a nice caramelized bark on top of the ribs from the sugar cooking down, so when you bite into the rib it has a slight chew but is still tender. The meat isn’t falling off the bones from picking it up, but when you bite into the rib, the meat should come off cleanly from the bone while keeping its form. 

The timing is also different from the 3-2-1 method because it’s based on the temperature of the meat at the beginning. Sometimes instead of 3 hours of smoking, it’s around 2 hours depending on the type of meat. There are also other differences in the presentation of the ribs too. 

Buying the right type of ribs

two raw racks of pork baby back ribs

The best ribs to smoke definitely depend on your personal preference. If you want something fatter and more tender, choose the St. Louis style ribs at the butcher. These ribs are near the belly of the pig and have much less meat than baby back ribs, but have more fat marbling which contributes to a more tender texture of meat. If you want more meat (or are throwing a bbq with a lot of people attending), then baby back ribs are your mainstay. They’re typically shorter and curved, have meat in between their bones, and come from the top of the ribcage. 

How to make your own rib rub

dry rub ingredients

For this recipe, I tested different versions of my own rub recipe and realized it’s super easy to make, meaning it’s hard to have a bad combo. It really depends on what types of flavors you want in your rub and ultimately how you want your meat to taste since it’s basically a marinade. 

I used a combination of dark brown sugar, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and mustard powder. I also added salt and pepper to my rub too. All you have to do is combine all the ingredients into a bowl thoroughly (I like to use clean hands to mix) and then add it to your meat. 

What’s great about using your own rub recipe is that you can adjust flavors and ingredients to your preference. Or change it up each time for variety, and know it will still turn out tasty. I also like that I know there are no preservatives in the recipe. 

Type of wood or pellets for smoking

It’s important you use the right type of wood (aka fuel) for your smoker. This can range from different types of wood like logs, chunks, chips, and pellets. Since I use a Traeger smoker, I use pellets for smoking. Pellets are compressed pieces of sawdust shaped into small pieces that look like chicken feed–they also smoke fairly quickly due to their form. 

My favorite variety of pellets (or wood) to use for smoking pork ribs is hickory because it helps infuse the pork with a strong flavor that pairs well with the sweet, savory, and fatty flavor profile of baby back ribs. 

What is the 3 2 1 rule for ribs?

The 3-2-1 rule describes the number of hours that the ribs will be (3 hours) directly on the smoker to cook and infuse smoky flavor, (2 hours) wrapped in foil with liquid to tenderize, and (1 hour) back on the grill directly basted with barbecue sauce to caramelize a bark on top.  

How long to smoke pork baby back ribs

brushing bbq sauce on ribs

For my pellet smoker, I smoke pork baby back ribs at about 2-3 hours to directly smoke on the Traeger. This allows the smoke to penetrate and cook the meat so that it reaches about 180 °F before wrapping it in foil and grilling it for another 1-1.5 hours to tenderize the meat. Afterward, I slather on some barbecue sauce and place it directly on the grill to caramelize the top. 

What temperature should 321 ribs be?

Most recipes, including this recipe, will call for you to smoke ribs at 225 °F. Many electronic pellet smokers like Traegers will have a handy dandy thermometer to tell you what temperature level so make sure to keep track of this during smoking. Traegers are also known to run a little hotter than other smokers, however, my Traeger seems to hover right at 225 °F during smoking. 

Do you need to spritz 3 2 1 ribs?

Some people like to use a half and half recipe of their liquid of choice (apple juice, grape juice, etc.) and water to use as a spritz when they see their ribs looking a bit dry during the smoking process. It’s completely optional, but helpful if you need it. 

Do 321 ribs need to rest?

After pulling the ribs from the grill, you want to have them rest for about 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving to allow the juices and heat to redistribute. When they’re ready to go I love serving them with my backyard bbq favorites grilled corn on the cob, veggie kabobs, deviled eggs, and crab cakes.

plate of baby back ribs and sides
321 pork ribs

3-2-1 Pork Baby Back Ribs

5 from 1 vote
These smoked baby back ribs are super ultra tender, juicy, and have a hickory smoke infused flavor. Learn how to use the 3-2-1 method and how to make your own rub to impress all your friends and family at your next bbq!
BY: Huy Vu
Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 6 hrs
Total: 6 hrs 15 mins
SERVINGS: 6

Ingredients

Rub

  • 150 g ( c) dark brown sugar packed
  • 20 g (2 ⅔ tbsp) smoked paprika
  • 25 g (2 ⅔ tbsp) garlic powder
  • 10 g (1 ⅓ tbsp) onion powder
  • 4 g (2 tsp) mustard powder
  • 4 g (2 tsp) ground black pepper
  • 4 g (1 ⅓ tsp) kosher salt
  • 2.3 g (1 ⅓ tsp) cayenne powder

Ribs

  • 2 racks pork ribs baby back ribs or St. Louis style
  • mayonnaise
  • 212 g (¾ c) dark brown sugar
  • 112 g (½ c) unsalted butter
  • honey
  • 6 fl oz (¾ c) pineapple juice or apple juice
  • BBQ sauce your preferred choice

Equipment Used

  • Sheet pans
  • Smoker & wood chips/pellets/logs, etc
  • Thermometer
  • mixing bowl
  • tongs

Instructions 

  • In a mixing bowl, combine all the rub ingredients and mix until thoroughloy incorporated.
    mixed dry rub ingredients
  • Add mayonnaise all over the ribs and Spread the mixture thinly on both sides of the ribs and season with Rub.
    mayo rubbed on pork ribs
  • When ready to cook, set Traeger temperature to 180℉ and preheat, lid closed for 15 minutes. Smoke the ribs, meat-side up for 3 hours.
    ribs with smoke wafting out
  • After the ribs have smoked for 3 hours, remove from the smoker and transfer them to a rimmed baking sheet. Increase the grill temperature to 225 ℉.
    ribs with smoke wafting out
  • Tear off four long sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Top with a rack of ribs and pull up the sides to keep the liquid enclosed. Sprinkle half the brown sugar on the rack, then top with half the honey and half the remaining apple juice. Use a bit more pineapple juice if you want more tender ribs.
    adding butter, sugar, honey on foil wrapped ribs
  • Fold the existing foil or lay another piece of foil on top of each rib if needed to completely cover and tightly crimp the edges so there is no air or steam leakage. Repeat with other rack of ribs.
    ribs wrapped in foil
  • Return the foiled ribs to the grill and cook for an additional 2 hours.
    foil wrapped ribs on smoker
  • Carefully remove the foil from the ribs and brush the ribs on both sides with Traeger 'Que Sauce. Discard the foil.
    brushing bbq sauce on ribs
  • Arrange the ribs directly on the grill grate and continue to grill until the sauce tightens, 30 to 60 minutes more.
    pork baby back ribs directly on grill
  • Let the ribs rest for a few 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Enjoy!
    3-2-1 baby back ribs and sides

Nutrition Facts

Calories: 1254.16kcal | Carbohydrates: 69.98g | Protein: 48.89g | Fat: 86.96g | Saturated Fat: 32.55g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 12.94g | Monounsaturated Fat: 30.07g | Trans Fat: 1.28g | Cholesterol: 282.8mg | Sodium: 529.94mg | Potassium: 1020.91mg | Fiber: 2.21g | Sugar: 62.15g | Vitamin A: 2273.12IU | Vitamin C: 3.77mg | Calcium: 126.68mg | Iron: 4.45mg
Course: Dinner, Lunch, Main Course
Cuisine: American
Keyword: amazing ribs, bbq, smoker
Did you cook this recipe?Tag @HungryHuy or #hungryhuy–I’d love to see it!

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