This method of cooking ribs is meant for the bigger pork ribs – spare ribs. If you're cooking baby back ribs or St Louis-style ribs then you should be using the shorter 2-1-1 method instead. The 3-2-1 ribs method is a great way for cooking whole spare ribs. The 3-2-1 refers to the hours for each part of the method. Cook uncovered for 3 hours with smoke, 2 hour wrapped in foil and then 1 hour uncovered again. The temperature should be around 225°F for the entire cook. This process is a great, unkept secret for tender and juicy barbecued spare ribs.
The trick to this whole process revolves around the 2 hours in foil otherwise known as the Texas Crutch. For this stage most people will add apple juice or some other liquid at the bottom of the foil to braise the meat. Braising relies on heat and moisture to break down the tough connective, collagen, in the meat. This is where you can really experiment with the liquids, but be sure to warm them first.
To start, you should remove the membrane from the spare ribs. That membrane is basically a waterproof layer between the ribs and the rest of the hog. Remove the membrane and put some flavor in its place!
3 hours of smoke
You can spray the ribs with apple juice every hour. Using a simple spray bottle will keep you from basting away all your rib rub.
2 hours in foil
After 3 hours the meat should be pulling back from the bones. This pulling back is your hint to start the next stage of the 3-2-1 method – the 2 hours in foil.
Pull the ribs from the smoker and lay on a large piece of heavy duty tin foil. Spray 1/4 cup’s worth of apple or your choice juice on the ribs. You can also pour it before the ribs are placed on so you don’t lose too much rub. Wrap up the ribs in the foil and place them back on the smoker for 2 more hours. There nothing else to do here but simply wait. There’s no need to peak – there’s still in there.
Now here’s where you can fool around a little. For competition barbecue 3-*2*-1 will make your ribs a little too tender. Too tender!? Yeah, that’s what I really said – there are actually explicit judging criteria for a properly cooked rib. This is why you’ll eventually want to play around here if you want to change the “bite” of your ribs – even if they are just for your kitchen table judging panel.
1 hour uncovered – the home stretch
The ribs are extremely soft and tender at this point. Carefully remove them from the foil and place them back on the smoker. Now is a good time to lightly re-dust the ribs with some rib rub if needed. The goal of this last hour is to firm the meat back up a little to give it a nice crust. After 30 minutes your should start checking the ribs for done-ness. A good indicator is the rib meat will tear apart as it bends when you pick them up.
Let the ribs rest for about 15-20 minutes before cutting into them. This will let the juices naturally redistribute throughout. Enjoy your 321 ribs!