The Theory Behind 3-2-1 Ribs

Date Posted:10 May 2016 

The Theory Behind 3-2-1 Ribs main image

Well folks, here's some really top info from one of our own, Chris Bollins.  Chris writes...

Pork ribs are where my BBQ journey started many years ago, quickly turning into an obsession trying to chase that perfect tenderness and flavour. I have tried just about every technique for cooking pork ribs and it even led me to some very dark times in my life (yes, I boiled ribs once). Like most people I eventually stumbled across the 3-2-1 method, an apparently fail-safe way to cook perfect ribs every time. If you are not familiar with the 3-2-1 method, let me break down the theory of it quickly:

3 hours of smoke, unwrapped at roughly 225f – 250f, followed by

2 hours wrapped (usually with butter, sugar and a liquid e.g. apple juice, cider vinegar)

1 hour unwrapped, heavily basted with your choice of barbecue sauce

This method was developed as a rule of thumb in the U.S. where their ribs are a lot thicker and meatier. Here in Australia, pork belly is worth a lot more to a butcher so our ribs are normally a lot thinner and are slightly different cut which means our cooking times for this method can differ.

The number 1 question I am asked about barbecue is “How long should I cook this for?” and I always give the same answer that cooking times are basically irrelevant when you’re talking about low n slow barbecue, it is no different with ribs and therefore I find people have a lot more success with the 3-2-1 method when I explain to them exactly what each step does.

So let’s take another look at the process and I will explain what is happening each step and how long it normally takes me but remember that each piece of meat is different and every smoker cooks differently.

3 – This first step is giving the ribs that smoky flavour we all love so much as well that nice colour we want on the outside. In my smoker at 300f, this step is normally around 2 hours.
2 – Wrapping the ribs is what creates tenderness. This step should be gauged on feel and takes me anywhere from 1 to 1.5 hours to take them to the tenderness I like. Some people like their ribs falling off the bone, others with a bit of chew so it is completely up to you how long you leave them wrapped.
1 – This final step is basically just to set your sauce and make them as sticky as you like. I would only set sauce for 20-30 minutes, anything longer than that becomes unpleasant for me.


All of the times I have listed above are a rough guide that work for Barbecue Mafia low and slow Brisbane, our smoker and the meat that we use, but I still adjust accordingly while cooking.

Unless you are doing competition, cook ribs the way you like them and not the way you read they should be or the way you see them on TV. I personally like my ribs Memphis style, I smoke them for around 2 hours with a good dry rub and then wrap with only butter and cider vinegar for about an hour and then serve straight on to a plate with some homemade vinegar sauce.

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