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How To Smoke Ribs: Not The Overcooked 3-2-1 Method

by Lianne Jones February 22, 2022

How To Smoke Ribs: Not The Overcooked 3-2-1 Method

What would you say if I told you that smoking ribs were easier than cooking them? Well, it’s true. Smoking ribs is much faster and requires less effort than grilling or baking them. And since they don’t require much attention, you can enjoy them without having to worry about overcooking them.

Smoking ribs is a great way to pack in as much flavor as possible while keeping your ribs tender, juicy, and delicious. The best part of smoking meat is that you can do it at home with very little equipment.

Whether you're a culinary genius or an amateur chef, this article will bring you all the information you need to wow your nearest and dearest with your culinary skills. 

Read on to find out how to smoke ribs like a true professional, methods to avoid, and which smoker is guaranteed to bring you the results you want.  Let's start with taking a look at the history behind the much-loved ribs. 

What Is The 3-2-1 Method?

The 3-2-1 method consists of three easy steps for smoking ribs: smoking, wrapping, and smoking again. Here’s how it works:

  •  Smoke For 3 Hours

Your smoker should be preheated to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the prepared ribs bone side down on the smoker for 3 hours. 

  • Wrap For 2 Hours

Transfer the ribs from the smoker to tin foil. Pour your chosen sauce and juice mixture into the foil. Wrap the ribs in the foil and place them back on the smoker for an additional 2 hours.

  • Sauce & Smoke

After 2 hours, remove the ribs from the smoker and brush with extra sauce. To finish, place the ribs bone side down back on the smoker for 1 hour. 

How To Smoke Ribs: Not The Overcooked 3-2-1 Method

Issues With The 3-2-1 Method

This popular method is still used by many today, however, many rib lovers tend to avoid it as it overcooks the ribs. It may seem like a simple process to follow, but the amount of time spent cooking the ribs, both in and out of the foil, is considered far too long. 

Many people think that when the meat falls off the bone after following the 3-2-1 method, it's a sign that their ribs are cooked to perfection. However, this is actually a sign that the meat is very much overcooked.

If your ribs are cooked perfectly, you should be able to take a bite out of the meat and pull away from the bone without the rest of the meat also coming off. That's how you can tell a good cook from a bad one!

History Of Smoking Ribs

If you're hosting a barbeque, pork ribs will no doubt be a staple on the menu. No matter where you're from, these little finger-sized portions of heaven are a firm favorite with meat lovers up and down the country.

Throughout the US, each state has its unique version of how to create the most delicious ribs you've ever come across. 

Whether it is the dry-rubbed version from Memphis, the rib tip treats from Chicago, or one-third of the meat 'holy trinity' from Texas, it's fair to say the pork ribs are a much-loved tradition, whether they're cooked at home or ordered in a restaurant.

However, the history behind this cut of meat shows that it hasn't always been this way.

As far as cuts of meat go, ribs are newcomers to the scene. You may be fooled into thinking that ribs originated in the pre-civil war South, however, this was actually an early 20th-century innovation.

The rise of industrial meatpacking, along with mechanical refrigeration and commercial barbecue stands, paved the way for barbequed meat to be placed firmly on the menu.

As restaurants requested an increasing amount of meat, local packers were left with plenty of spare ribs. As ribs weren't sought after, packers were happy to unload these for next to nothing. Just a few years later, spare ribs could be found on menus up and down the country, and quickly became a favorite with diners.

Today, smoked ribs are more popular than ever, with each state boasting that their recipe and method of smoking the meat is the best version you can find. 

Different Types Of Ribs

When buying ribs, make sure you get ones that have been cut from the loin area of the pig, as this is where most of the flavor lies. You also want to look for ribs that are marbled throughout. Marbling means fat cells are running through the muscle fibers. These fat cells add moisture and flavor when smoked.  

You will more than likely come across three main types of ribs: Baby backs, St. Louis style, and spare ribs. All of these are very similar, however, baby backs are slightly leaner while St. Louis style ribs are fattier.

Baby Back Ribs

Baby backs are ideal for quick and easy recipes as they are small and thin which makes them ideal for quick cooking methods. Baby back ribs come from the loin area where the loin is cut away from the spine. They are typically shorter bones that are curved and the rack gets narrower on one end.

Baby backs typically have less meat than St. Louis spare ribs and therefore cook more quickly. Baby back ribs are arguably the most popular ribs sold in grocery stores.

St. Louis Ribs

St. Louis style ribs are thicker and wider making them perfect for slow cooking methods. They are often braised or stewed before serving.

St. Louis style ribs are made from the spare rib when the top, cartilage ridden piece of the full spare rib is cut away. So spare ribs and St. Louis ribs are from the same portion of ribs, just trimmed 2 different ways.

Spare Ribs

Spare ribs are another type of rib that is becoming increasingly popular. Spare ribs are a combination of baby backs and St. Louis styles. They are typically sold as whole racks and must be trimmed before cooking.

This means that the bones need to be removed and the fat and sinew need to be trimmed away from the ribs, which are then sliced into single ribs with the bone removed.

Spare ribs come from the belly of the pig after the actual belly meat is cut away. That means they are typically flatter, well-marbled with high-fat content, and also still quite meaty.

St. Louis style ribs are made from the spare rib when the top, cartilage ridden piece of the full spare rib is cut away. So spare ribs and St. Louis ribs are from the same portion of ribs, just trimmed 2 different ways.

Beef Back Ribs

Beef back ribs are from the upper part of the carcass and this type of rib is what can be found in bone-in ribeye steaks. With this in mind, you may be mistaken for thinking that these ribs are generally quite meaty and flavorful.

However, they are actually mostly bone, fat, and cartilage with a tiny bit of meat. This is why you can usually find them drenched in BBQ sauce. 

Beef Short Ribs

Beef short ribs come from the lower part of the ribcage and unlike beef back ribs, these are actually quite meaty. However, they are typically tough and are heavy with connective tissue.

The reason for their name is because they are cut much shorter than pork spare ribs. They are typically cut around 3-4 inches long which makes them manageable and just the right size to pop in a slow cooker. 

Ribs also come in different sizes. The larger the rib, the longer it takes to cook and the tougher it becomes, whereas smaller ribs are easier to handle and cook quicker than their bigger counterparts. 

Top 5 Mistakes When Smoking Ribs

Top 5 Mistakes When Smoking Ribs

Smoking ribs is meant to be a fun process and it should leave you wanting to cook them again and again. But, some easy mistakes can be made that are enough to put anyone off being in charge of a smoker. Let's take a look at the 5 most common mistakes that can be made, so you can avoid them in the future. 

Using The Wrong Cut Of Meat

The best thing you can do is become best friends with your butcher. Their knowledge of meat cuts is unrivaled and they can easily tell you the best ribs to smoke and also the best way to do it. Before you know if you'll be an expert on the different cuts as well. 

Not Understanding Your Smoker

As the smoker owner, you should be able to work, control, and manage your smoker and deal with any issues that arise. Do your research and find out how to get the most from it. What wood chips give the best results? How to control the moisture inside. There'll definitely be forums with tips and tricks for you to try next time you use it. 

Too Much Smoke

You want to enjoy a delicious smoky flavor, but not so much that it's completely overpowering. Using too much wood is a mistake many people make, as well as closing the vents to keep the smoke inside. It's incredibly easy for the smoke to overpower your meat, so experiment a little to get that taste just right.

The Wrong Type Of Wood

Focusing on a wood’s 'flavor profile' isn't necessary when it comes to smoking. You can use it as a guide to get to know the different woods and what they can offer, but get to know what works for you and your smoker and trust your taste buds.

Rushing The Process

Smoking meat to perfection takes time and if the process is rushed, it will show in the results. Allow your smoker to take care of your meat and trust the process. If the meat needs to rest after laying on the grill for 3 hours, allow it to do so. By cutting into it too early, you may undo all of your hard work at the last hurdle. 

How To Choose The Right Smoker

When it comes to cooking the perfect smoked ribs, you're going to need to know which kind of smoker is right for you. However, with so many to choose from, it can be tricky to know which one to go for.

Let's take a look at some of the most popular smokers out there.  

Propane/Gas Smoker

You may have guessed it, but gas smokers use either natural gas or propane to produce heat. 

If you have a direct hookup at home, you can use this to fuel your smoker, otherwise, you can use a refillable gas bottle which is relatively easy to purchase. 

How Does It Work?

These types of smokers adopt a 'cabinet-style' where the burner and vents are at the bottom of the smoker and the chimney and dampers are positioned at the top. As the gas flows out of the burner valves, the smoker becomes ignited. 

To create the smoky flavor, wood chips are used with this type of smoker as it doesn't naturally produce smoke. On the plus side, you don't have the messy clean-up with this smoker that you would with a charcoal one, but the smoke tends to be quite light in flavor. 

Pros

The pros of using a gas smoker are that it's fairly easy to use and control, unlike other smokers where a change in temperature relies on the amount of wood chip you use. Propane gas is also widely available so you can always fuel your smoker.

This type of smoker is also incredibly quick to heat. It can reach high temperatures within around 15 minutes, whereas other types of smokers take far longer. So, if you're eager to eat those ribs, this smoker may be for you. 

Cons

The only issue with this type of smoker is that you need to make sure you have enough gas to last. Ideally, you should check your supply every 30 minutes or so, as the last thing you want is to find out that your fuel has died halfway through your barbeque. 

Charcoal Smoker

A charcoal smoker provides you with a deeper flavor than others. However, it does require more setup and effort than other types of smokers.

How Does It Work?

The heat source in these smokers is charcoal which produces carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide when burned. All of these elements add to the flavor of the food, as well as the additional smoke that is created through wood chips. These are placed above the charcoal and smolder when heated. 

When more air enters the firebox, the charcoal will become hotter. By setting the food above the coals, the chimney and air damper will draw the smoke across the food and add flavor to it.

The important thing with this type of smoker is being able to control the flow of air and smoke. If you have too much air, you may find that your food is dry and tough, although, too little air and your food may taste bitter.  

Many people actually create their own charcoal smokers from oil drums, so no matter how simple or how complicated you want yours to be, there is something out there for everyone's needs. 

Pros

The main pro of a charcoal smoker is the intense smoky flavor that it produces. It's unmatched and once you've tried smoked meat from a charcoal smoker you'll wonder why you didn't go for this style in the first place. 

They're also available in a wide range of styles and sizes so you will have no trouble finding one to suit your needs and space. 

Cons

The downside to having a charcoal smoker is that it needs a lot more tending to than others. You'll also need to brush up on your smoking skills as well as babysit this smoker until your meat is cooked.

Before adding your charcoal to the smoker, you'll have to light it and let it ash over, so the preparation for this smoker can take up a lot more of your time than other styles. 

There's also a lot more cleaning up that needs to be done with this smoker as the charcoal and ash can be quite messy. But if you want the tasty results, the mess may just be worth it. 

Offset Smokers

Offset smokers have a barrel-like shape to them which stems from being initially created from unused oil drums. As you can imagine, these smokers are big and bulky with an incredible amount of room inside to smoke food. 

Even though an offset smoker is slightly difficult to use, it is perfect for someone wanting to cook deliciously tasty food in large quantities.

How Does It Work?

This type of smoker is called an 'offset' due to the firebox being offset to the side and underneath the cooking chamber. When you burn wood or charcoal in the firebox, the chimney draws the smoke and heat across the food and out. 

Typically, this type of smoker uses a 'reverse flow' system which forces the smoke and heat to flow both underneath and over the food, allowing it to totally envelope each piece of food. 

The ‘offset’ part of the offset smoker comes from the fact that the firebox is offset to the side and below the main cooking chamber. When wood or charcoal is burnt in the firebox, the smoke and heat are drawn across the food in the cooking chamber and out of a chimney. 

Pros

The main pro of an offset smoker is the sheer volume of it. It can easily cook massive amounts of food at any one time, so if you're catering for large gatherings, this style of smoker is your best choice. 

It also comes with several accessories, such as a grill plate that sits above the firebox which allows you to grill as well as smoke your food. 

The design of this smoker also allows you to add more fuel to the fire without losing any heat and smoke, which is great if you have a long day of cooking ahead of you. 

Cons

You can come across some badly constructed offset smokers which come with a whole load of issues, such as bad heat retention and leaks which can lead to overcooked/undercooked food. 

Getting your offset smoker set up correctly can also be a long process. It can take up to one hour for you to achieve your desired temperature, so be prepared to put the work in for this one. 

Pellet Smokers

Pellet Smokers

This style of smoker is a combination of an oven and a smoker. It provides that deep smoky flavor of a charcoal smoker with the ease of an electric smoker.

It's extremely versatile and provides you with the options of cooking, smoking, and grilling, without the need to be constantly watched like a charcoal smoker. 

How Does It Work?

This type of smoker uses sawdust that is compressed into tiny pellets. On the side of the smoker is a hopper where these pellets sit, and they are fed into a firebox which causes the pellets to combust and create both smoke and heat for the cooking chamber above it.

The good thing about these smokers is the built-in thermometers which allow the temperature to remain stable throughout the smoking process. They can also change the number of pellets that are fed into the firebox by the auger drill, which helps create consistent heat. Very smart!

Pros

These smokers manage to combine both the rich flavor of wood smoke with a cooking system so smart that you can leave alone to do the work for you. There's also very little clean-up with this smoker as the pellets burn down to nearly nothing.

The only mess you have to dispose of is emptying the firebox, which on most pellet smokers, is usually removable. 

This smoker also provides versatility, as it allows you to choose between grilling, smoking, or oven cooking your food.

Cons

The downside is that the wood pellets can be quite hard to come by, but once you've discovered a supplier, you can always stock up. 

It's also worth noting that the heating rod that is used to ignite the pellets, fans, and the drill, runs on electricity. So if you're investing in a pellet smoker, you'll need to make sure there's a socket nearby to keep it working.

Electric Smoker

This style of smoker is perfect if you don't want to be tied to your smoker all day as it's considered a 'fire and forget' kind of smoker. You don't have to worry about burning wood pellets or charcoal, or supplying gas for your smoker, and it's a perfect choice if you don't want to deal with much of a clean-up after your cooking. 

How Does It Work?

Electric smokers replace the use of combustible fuel with a heating element that heats the wood chips and creates smoke. They are typically built vertically, allowing for the heating element to sit at the bottom of the smoker with the wood chips sitting above it and racks for the food sitting above the wood chips. 

Within this smoker, there's also a water pan that sits above the heating element. This pan creates a vapor that enhances the smoky flavor, as well as protects the meat from some of the direct heat from the element. It also helps to regulate the temperature of the smoker and provides a 'low and slow' style of smoking.

Pros

This style of smoker is incredibly easy to use, so if you're new to the world of smoking, this would be a good choice to start your culinary journey with. Everything you need comes with the smoker as no extra fuel is needed.

The only maintenance this smoker needs when it's in action is its water pan topped up. Other than that, you can set this smoker up, add your meat, and walk away from it knowing that it can retain a consistent temperature. Easy.

Cons

Unfortunately, with this smoker, you won't achieve the same deep smoky flavors you would with others. The lack of actual combustion and 'low and slow' style of smoking provides a more light smoking of the food.

Also, because of the water pan that this smoker uses, the atmosphere inside is very moist. While this is excellent for smoking food such as fish, cheese, and vegetables, it's not so great for creating crisp skin on your meats.

Kamado Grill

A kamado grill is distinctive in shape and has been in use for around 3000 years. Oval in shape, like an egg, these grills can take a bit of getting used to. However, once you've mastered how to use one, this versatile system will have you cooking everything from smoking meat to baking loaves. 

How Does It Work?

A kamado grill has a thick ceramic wall, much like a clay oven, which helps to retain heat and moisture and allows food to be cooked inside. The cooking chamber of this grill is at the bottom and the amount of heat it produces is down to the vents at both the top and bottom.

Food is placed on a grill-gate above the cooking chamber and to smoke food you would place both wood chips and a water dish above the cooking chamber. 

Thanks to the clever shape of this grill, the smoke and heat are able to rise over the food and are directed back down onto it. 

Pros

This grill is perfect for those living in colder climates as the thick ceramic walls help with heat retention and provide a consistent temperature. With a decreased airflow, any meat cooked on a kamado grill tends to stay moist and juicy when compared with other smokers. 

This style of smoker is also incredibly versatile, and can even double as a pizza oven. 

Cons

Even though these grills are great at retaining heat, they still only have two vents. If you overheat it, you may find yourself waiting quite a while for the temperature to drop. To add more fuel to a kamado grill can also be quite tricky as the fire sits below the food so can be quite difficult to reach.  

With so many different smokers to choose from, each with its positives and negatives, it really depends on what level of smoking you're trying to achieve as well as what your space will allow.

Each of the smokers mentioned above will provide you with delicious tasting ribs, but for a more intense flavor, you may have to put the extra effort in, both in setting up and cleaning up your smoker. 

The Best Dry Rub Recipes For Ribs

The Best Dry Rub Recipes For Ribs

Adding flavor to your ribs doesn't just come from your smoker. It also comes from the rub that you put on them beforehand. There are so many different options available in grocery stores, or you can even make your own at home and include all of your favorite flavors. 

These are our top 3 dry rub mixes that are perfect for packing flavor into your ribs.

  1. Barbecue Mix - This dry rub recipe is perfect for all types of barbecued ribs. It contains cayenne pepper, chili powder, paprika, garlic salt, onion powder, black pepper, sugar, and brown sugar. Simply mix the spices together and rub into the meat and leave them overnight for a truly delicious flavor.
  2. Beef Brine - A simple brine made with salt, sugar, and ice cubes is essential for tenderizing beef ribs. When making this brine, make sure to include enough salt so the meat stays submerged in the liquid. You should also consider adding a few drops of liquid smoke or hickory liquid smoke to give the brine a little extra smoky flavor.
  3. Pork Spice - This spice blend is ideal for adding an incredible flavor to pork ribs. It includes cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, coriander, and black pepper and adds real depth to each bite. 

Smoked Ribs Recipe

What Equipment Do I Need For This Recipe?

So you’ve chosen your smoker, you’ve invited your guests, but now you need a foolproof recipe to dazzle them with. We have just the thing for you! To make these moreish ribs, you will need the following equipment:

  • 1 smoker
  • 1 bag of charcoal or tank of propane (depending on your smoker type)
  • Long-handled grill tongs
  • One sauce brush
  • A good digital oven thermometer
  • Cutting board
  • Heavy-duty tin foil
  • Sharp knife

Ingredients

  • 2 Racks of Baby Back Ribs
  • 6 TBSP Melted Honey
  • 4 TBSP Melted Butter
  • Dry Rib Rub - your own or shop-bought
  • BBQ Sauce - your own or shop-bought

Time

  • Prep Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
  • Smoking/Cooking Time: 4/5 hours 
  • Resting Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 6 hours 30 minutes

Instructions

To make these mouth-watering ribs, follow our steps below and we guarantee that you'll be tucking into delicious strips of meat every time you use this method.

Step 1:Rinse the rack of ribs in cold water and pat dry with kitchen towels.

Step 2:Using a sharp knife, trim any excess fat and connective tissue, leaving only what you want to eat. 

Step 3:Turn the ribs over to the 'bone' side and use your knife to remove the membrane. To make this step easier, use a piece of paper towel to grip the membrane and pull it until it is completely removed. 

Step 4:Apply a generous helping of your favorite meat rub to the ribs, making sure that the entire rack is coated, including the sides and edges. 

Step 5:Cover the ribs and leave them in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight if possible, to marinade. Once you are ready to cook them, remove them from the fridge and allow them to come to room temperature.

Step 6:Fire up your smoker and heat it to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, before placing the ribs meat side up, onto the grill. 

Step 7:Cook the ribs for 3 hours in the smoker, or alternatively, if you have made your own apple cider vinegar juice to coat the ribs, you can spray them every 30-45 minute intervals. 

Step 8:After 3 hours of cooking, remove the ribs and place them meat side up, onto a large piece of foil. 

Step 9:Using your sauce brush, coat the ribs with melted butter and melted honey, and if you've decided to use your apple cider vinegar spray, you can give them an extra little spritz with it at this step. 

Step 10:Turn the ribs over so the bones are facing up and brush with the butter and honey. 

Step 11:Leaving the ribs bone side up, wrap them tightly in the foil and place back on the smoker, bone side up. Cook them for another 45-60 minutes at the same temperature (225).

Step 12:After 45-60 minutes, remove the foil and place them back on the grill, brush them with your chosen barbeque sauce and cook for another 30-45 minutes. 

Step 13: After 30-45 minutes it's time to check if your ribs are cooked to perfection. Use your grill tongs, pick up the ribs and slightly squeeze the rib. If the meat starts to split from the bone, your ribs are cooked. 

Step 14: Remove the ribs from the smoker and cover them in foil. Let them rest for around 10 minutes. 

Step 15:Using your knife, cut each rib individually and enjoy!  

Now that you have the main meal sorted, you may be struggling to decide on what to pair your ribs with. But fear not. We've got some of the most delicious side dishes you can make, bake, or buy that are the perfect accompaniment for your ribs. 

Baked Beans

The tomato flavor really compliments the smoky tones of the ribs. 

Mac & Cheese

The classic mac & cheese is rich in flavor and not only looks good with ribs but tastes delicious as well. 

Coleslaw

Making your coleslaw from green cabbage, corn kernels, and sweet cherry tomatoes can act as a refreshing alternative to all that meat. 

Cornbread

Cornbread is perfect for mopping up all of that juicy rib sauce that is bound to be left on your plate. 

Corn Fritters

Corn fritters are tasty little accompaniments to ribs. Soft and tender on the inside and crisp and brown on the outside. Perfect. 

Herbed Potato Salad

A potato salad with a tangy herbed dressing is perfect for cutting through the richness of smoked ribs and offering a whole new taste for your palate.

Final Thoughts

Smoking ribs is something that definitely takes a bit of practice to get right. It's very easy to over-smoke your ribs and dry them out, leaving you with meat that goes straight in the bin. The key is to keep an eye on them throughout the smoking process and make sure they're still moist when done.

It's also worth investing a bit of time into researching which smoker is best for you and what you want to achieve.

But as you've now been equipped with the knowledge of the different types of ribs, the mistakes to avoid, the types of smokers available, the different dry rubs you can use, and how to smoke ribs without using the 3-2-1 method, we're pretty sure you'll be able to grill the most perfectly tender, tasty ribs that are good enough to rival any others out there.

Lianne Jones
Lianne Jones


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