Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible

The 3-2-1 Method for Ribs

The 3-2-1 Method for Ribs

In a field as disorderly as barbecue, numbers bring a certain comfort. Perhaps that explains the popularity of the 3-2-1 method for cooking ribs.

Not familiar with it? I first encountered the technique researching my book Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs. (Competition barbecuers sometimes call it the “Texas Crutch.”) In a nutshell, you break cooking ribs into 3 time blocks:

• 3 hours of smoking unwrapped at 225 degrees, followed by
• 2 hours of cooking wrapped in foil (with a little liquid, such as apple cider), followed by
• 1 hour of cooking unwrapped at a higher temperature, with a generous basting of barbecue sauce

ribs with barbecue sauceI tried the method again a few nights ago and understand its appeal. The process gives you meat so tender it virtually slides off the bone, with the multiple layers of flavor most of us associate with great barbecue. And within a predictable 6-hour time frame, too.

It’s relatively fail-proof, meaning that if you follow the directions, you are almost guaranteed you’ll avoid the dual pitfalls of ribs that are tough or dry.

And if you serve ribs cooked by the 3-2-1 method, 95 percent of the people who taste them react with delight and will declare you a barbecue genius. My guests sure did, and I did not deflect their praise.

And yet … and yet … I felt a certain unease accepting their compliments. These were good ribs—very good ribs. These were easy ribs. Safe ribs. These were ribs almost anyone could love on account of their moistness and tenderness.

But they weren’t hall of fame ribs—ribs with character, with soul—ribs that test a smoke master’s mettle and declare victory in the heroic battle to balance smoke, spice, heat, and time to transform tough connective tissue into meat equally remarkable for its tenderness and complex flavor.

They suffered from a transgression I have consistently condemned in all my books: boiling.

Ribs cooked in foilFor when you wrap and cook ribs in foil, you are, in effect, boiling them in their own juices. (The heat in your smoker can exceed the 212 degrees required to boil water at sea level.) Hence the almost supernatural tenderness coupled with what you could call a faintly washed-out flavor.

With ribs, there’s a fine line between tender and mushy. True rib connoisseurs (and Kansas City Barbecue Society-trained judges) prefer their rib meat with a bit of chew, a perceptible bit of resistance. We are unimpressed whenever ribs practically debone themselves at the first tug of the teeth. And the moist environment in the foil softens the bark—the smoky, crusty exterior of the ribs highly prized by pit masters.

Of course, the 3 hours of smoking spice crusted ribs puts plenty of flavor in, and the last hour spent cooking the ribs at a higher temperature—unwrapped and sauced—is designed to apply a sweet-savory glaze to the surface. (In some versions of the method you finish the ribs by direct grilling over a hot fire.)

Bottom line? Most people will love ribs cooked by the 3-2-1 method. Purists like myself remain skeptical. Form your own conclusions by doing a side-by-side comparison. Please post your results and photos on the Barbecue Board and on our Facebook pages (Barbecue Bible and Steven Raichlen).

Click here for recipes and techniques for ribs in a hurry.

First-Timer’s Ribs
Memphis-Style Ribs
Apple Spice Baby Backs with Cider-Rum Barbecue Sauce

Ultimate Rib Rack
Cast Iron Sauce Pot and Basting Brush Set
Best Ribs Ever

Join the Discussion

  • Daniel Jordan

    No bark, no bite, no way!

    If you can take a bite down to the bone without the rest of the rib coming off the bone then you have yourself a fine rib!

  • Phillip McKnight

    I’m glad I clicked over and read “why”, and you’re right, ribs shouldn’t be wrapped. May as well boil them on the stove if you’re going that route. It’s not hard to get a good rack of ribs without taking shortcuts, in the end you end up spending more time fumbling around for an inferior product than you would if you did it right from the get go.

  • Max Gottfried

    Ha, judging from my diners, they are never dissatisfied with the results of the 3-2-1 method. They all enjoy the various rubs and different sauces I’ve applied to different ribs. When I prepared some ribs with a little ‘tug’ they enjoyed those, too, but fall off the bone is what my ‘customers’ prefer.

  • John

    Although there are competition people out there that value the absolute top of the line multiple flavor soft, slightly chewy ribs, I think for the mass of BBQ people ribs that are like the ones in your recipe will do just fine. We always strive for the best ribs that approach greatness like yours will suffice..

  • Jake Asgood

    So what is the suggested temp for the last hour of the cook?

    • Jake, the average temp for the entire cook should be 230 to 240. Some will keep it steady for the last hour of the 3-2-1 method and some will do 30 to 45 minutes then remove the upper grates and water pan, if you are using one such as with a WSM and cook the final few minutes at high temp directly over hot coals. But be careful not to burn the sauce. remember, it is consists of a lot of sugar!

  • Both from a competition and judging stand point, my team does not foil and during judging, I can tell who has foiled and who has not. Now, with that said, As Steven pointed out, lots of people like the taste and fell of “fall off the bone” ribs. I have had quite a lot of people ask during “open to the public” days at comps, They do not want the rib to be that “done” but they like the easy method. I always tell them they need to at the very minimum, to reduce the foil time to 30 minutes or less. I also recommend they experiment with the 3-2-1 to 3-30-1 to 3-20-30 and so on. make the adjustments where needed to suit your taste and texture. It is also important to note that the first couple of hours is when the pores of the meat are open and will absorb the smoke. Once the pores close, any additional smoke will only make the meat taste bitter. The meat is close to being finished during this time as well, if you want the “snap” in your bite. Therefore, the foiling is just to further tenderize the rib and the final time is simply to “bake” on the BBQ sauce. The final cook time must be limited so the sugars in the sauce don’t burn! Hope that made sense!

  • Chris Caputo

    What about the concern of over smoking the ribs giving them a bad flavor? I have a pellet smoker and cannot stop the smoke. Would you consider an initial hour or so in a 225 degree oven then applying rub and smoking?

    • Steve Harris

      Try using cherry or pecan wood, the smoke from those is a much lighter smoke and it doesn’t over power the meat. I prefer a bit more so I mix 1/2 cherry with 1/2 mesquite.

  • The Yancey

    I use that crutch from time to time with my St. Louis ribs. Mine smoke a bit lower and I go 4-1-1.

  • ladyredcyn

    Tried this yesterday – total perfection. Thanks!

  • Ronnie M. Gaskill

    New to smoking, but I like the 3-2-1 method because it’s easier for me to make good ribs. I am always trying new things with my smoker but for now I will stick with this method. Love the book by the way…!

  • Sharon Brucks

    Finally, someone who talks about not wanting ribs that end up as an odd pile of meat with bones poking out this way and that as you try to cut them. Why do people want that? Thanks for this article.

  • Steve Koehler

    I don’t considered the wrapped stage of the cook as boiling. It’s more of an extended simmer. Boiled is that awful tradition some have of putting a slab in boiled water before grilling to boil the fat out. This low and slow process allows the proteins to melt and tenderize. We’re not really boiling anything out. It’s a way of adding moisture and to tenderize the meat further without overcooking it. This process is used by many professional BBQers on the competition circuit just as we wrap pork butts and briskets when they hit a certain temperature, which allows them to continue cooking without burning the meat to a crisp. I wouldn’t for a minute accuse them of boiling their product. They add liquid to help in the process but it’s not to boil the protein but to tenderize it. Sorry. Have to disagree on this one.

  • MA_resident

    I wondered why I was disappointed with the ribs I got at a national chain rib restaurant. They were certainly fall-off-the-bone, slathered with sauce. Then I realized that as far as I could guess, they didn’t have a smoker. I’m pretty sure these ribs were boiled within an inch of their lives, and then sauced. Makes the whole rib thing pretty pointless.

    I wish I’d gone to Memphis more when I lived only three hours away!

  • Daniel Nelson

    Do people ever skip the last hour or keep it in foil for the last hour to have ribs that really fall off the bone?

    • FL_BigFoot

      I did today.

      • Daniel Nelson

        How did they turn out?

        • FL_BigFoot

          Really yummy! I did three racks (about 10 lbs) of the thicker St. Louis style ribs. All I did was put McCormick Season All Salt on the ribs and smoked over pecan chips. I smoked them for 3 hours and then placed them in wrapped aluminum foil pans for 3 more hours. The smaller ends literally fell off the bone, while the thicker portions still had a nice, tender “chew” to them as you pulled them off the bone. We had sauce on the side. There are plenty of good commercial brands available. It just depends on your taste.

          Last Saturday I bought a new Cuisinart 36-Inch Vertical Propane Smoker (COS-244) to go with my Kamodo Joe 24 inch Smoker. It was my first propane smoker, so I was simply testing it. I did chicken breasts & thighs the same way on Sunday and they too were amazing.

  • FL_BigFoot

    I tried a variation of the 3-2-1 method today. I did 3 hours on the rack and then 3 covered in foil pans, with apple juice. The only seasoning I used was Season Salt and pecan chips. I prefer pecan, because it has a lighter, nutty taste. They were falling off the bone tender and fantastic! I may cut back 30 minutes on the last part, just because the smaller portions of the ribs were almost too tender. I served sauce on the side.

    Thanks for the tip!

  • Hammerd

    I use the 200 18 5 method… 200 degrees, an 18 pack of beer, and 5 hours of cooking. Always works.

  • Mark Salter

    I try to go with a 3-1-1 … 3 hours of smoke at 225 or slightly below.
    2 hours wrapped is simply far overcooked, TOO Tender, Too Fall Off the Bone. Quite often, I reduce that wrapped time to 45 minutes staying at the 225 temp range. With the final hour approaching 275.

    However, I definitely understand your trepidation.

  • Making BBQ at home allows you to develop your own flavor profile, and cooking style. While the competion purist like completly dry cooked ribs, that doesn’t mean they are what you like. This 3-2-1 method will produce a good product that most people will enjoy, but the method is not carved in stone. As a few people here suggest you can very the different times used. If you like a dryer more chewy texture, then reduce the wrapped time. The wrapped time does two things. It allows the meat to steam some and cook all the way through. It is also a time to add either liquid or dry spices, or both. Some people add butter and brown sugar, some people add cider vinegar, but I like to add a little whiskey and some brown sugar. Because the dry rub I use is on the spicy side I can adjust the heat profile with more or less brown sugar. I have found the the wiskey adds a great taste to the meat, and since I don’t sauce my ribs the last hour it helps keep them moist. I have found that i like to do a 4-1-1 timing. This allows the meat to keep a little chew, and still tendorize it some. When i have a crowd to feed I will often add a 2nd coat of brown sugar to some of the batch after I unwrap them. Since I do not sauce them it helps to reduce the extra heat i put in my rub.

    Since i use an electric smoker (smokin-it #2) that doesn’t have a lot of air flow the biggest thing i’ve learned over the years is not to oversmoke things. A good friend taught me a trick to test the smoke before you put your meat on. Place a peeled hard boiled egg in the smoke for 5 or 6 minutes, and taste it before you add your meat. If it has a bitter taste, then wait a little longer before you put your meat on. Bitter is bad! I have also learned to make smoked egg salad now, and let me tell you it’s worth making, if you like egg salad.

    Hope this has help some people to understand that it’s YOUR BBQ, and you can make it to YOUR taste. There are no rules, and sometimes even mistakes can turn out good.