There's something special about the mouthwatering aroma of tender, smoky, baby back ribs sizzling on the grill. For backyard BBQ guys like me, cooking perfect, fall-off-the-bone Baby Back Ribs is like unlocking the gates to BBQ paradise. In this post, I'll discuss the modified 3-2-1 method, a tried-and-true technique that guarantees juicy, fall-off-the-bone ribs.
Baby back ribs have long been my go-to if someone asked me to make ribs. Cook these low and slow using the modified 3-2-1 method and you will be rewarded with some of the best baby back ribs you have ever tasted.
The 3-2-1 method for making ribs calls for smoking the ribs for three hours, braising them in foil pouches for two hours, then cooking them unwrapped and slathered in sauce for one hour. That is a total of six hours of cooking time. In my experience, that is just a bit long for baby back ribs.
The modified 3-2-1 method used in this recipe shortens that last hour to only 20 - 30 minutes. The ribs will be fully cooked by then and only need a little time on the grill, covered with BBQ sauce. You want to let the sauce thicken, but not burn. Besides, they will smell so great you won't be able to wait an hour.
This recipe was inspired by my other recipes for St. Louis Spareribs, Smoked Dino Bones with Bourbon BBQ Sauce, Smoked Brisket & Burnt Ends, Smoked Hot Wings, Smoked Tri-Tip and of course Bourbon BBQ Sauce.
If you are wondering about the difference between baby backs and spare ribs or St. Louis style ribs, look at my post Baby Back Ribs vs. Spare Ribs: What's the Difference?
- Dry Rub
- Brown sugar
- Granulated sugar
- Seasoned salt
- Smoked salt
- Onion powder
- Celery salt
- Black pepper
- Chili powder
- Dry mustard powder
- Ground ginger
- Ground allspice
- Cayenne pepper
- Braising Liquid
- Apple juice
- Baby back ribs
See recipe card for quantities.
Make the Dry Rub
Delicious baby back ribs begin with a great dry rub. Place all dry rub ingredients in a food processor and pulse 10 times. The ingredients could also be combined with a whisk in a small bowl, but a food processor does a much better job. Dry rub will keep in a closed container in the pantry for three months.
Prepare the Baby Back Ribs
There is a tough membrane on the bone side of the ribs that needs to be removed before cooking. Use a sharp paring knife to lift the membrane then pull it off using a paper towel for a better grip. Also remove any silver skin from the meat side of the ribs.
Liberally sprinkle dry spice rub on both sides of the ribs. Cover with plastic wrap (not foil) and refrigerate for 6 hours. If covered with foil, the salt in the rub will eat holes in the foil and leave gray goo all over your ribs.
Smoke the Baby Back Ribs for 3 Hours
Configure your smoker for indirect heat and preheat to 225° - 250°F for 30 minutes. This is particularly important if you are using a ceramic cooker like a Big Green Egg or Kamado Joe. It takes time for thick walls to heat up.
Soak ½ - 1 cup of your favorite wood chips (e.g. apple, cherry or other fruit woods) in water for 30 minutes. Then, drain the water and add the wood chips to the smoker. Place a drip pan filled with water under the grill grates.
Place the ribs in the smoker, and cook for 3 hours. I use a wire roasting rack that I turn upside down to make a convenient rib rack. Each vertical slot holds one-half rack of ribs.
The temperature probe (seen to the right of the ribs) measures the ambient temperature inside the smoker. The Fireboard will then adjust the temperature as needed throughout the cooking process.
Braise the Baby Back Ribs for 2 Hours
This next step is where the connective tissue breaks down and the ribs become tender.
After three hours of smoking, the ribs are ready for the next step. Place the smoked baby backs on heavy-duty aluminum foil, bone side down. Add a pat of butter on top of the ribs.
Fold the foil to make a tent. Seal the top and one end tightly. Pour 6 - 8 ounces of the braising liquid in the other end and seal. Place the wrapped ribs back in the smoker and cook for another two hours.
The braising liquid will add a little flavor but is really there to finish the cooking process. Apple juice or apple cider will provide a nice fruity element. Beer is another popular choice for braising. Add 8 ounces to the foil pouch, drink the other four. Open another beer and repeat with the next foil pouch.
It's important to create an airtight seal with the aluminum foil. Crimp the edges of the foil together, making sure to seal it tightly. This traps the steam inside the foil packet which tenderizes the rib meat.
The ribs are done when the meat has pulled back a bit from the end of the bone and the bone can be easily twisted and removed (e.g. the bend test). Use a pair of tongs to gently twist one of the ribs. If it twists easily and the meat starts to separate slightly, they're ready. Serve with your favorite side dishes.
Finish Baby Back Ribs with BBQ Sauce
Unwrap the ribs and brush them with your favorite barbecue sauce. Return the ribs to the grill, unwrapped and meat side up, to caramelize the sauce and develop a sticky glaze.
This final step has been modified a bit for baby back ribs. The standard 3-2-1 method calls for one hour on the grill as the last step. That is far too long for baby back ribs. These little ribs will be fully cooked when they come out of the foil pouches. This step just needs to caramelize some barbecue sauce. Cook only until the sauce thickens and caramelizes a bit. Do not burn the sauce, which is easy to do if cooking over direct heat. Cooking time should be only 20 - 30 minutes, not an hour.
Place the ribs on the grill meaty side up. Brush the ribs with barbecue sauce and cook at a low temperature (about 250°F) for 20-30 minutes.
These baby back ribs are ready to eat.
The Kansas City style dry rub used in this recipe does not contain garlic powder which often appears in BBQ dry rub recipes, but is not commonly found in the sweeter Kansas City style rubs. Also, there is no kosher salt in this rub. The reason is that the rub is salty enough due to the smoked salt and celery salt.
For this recipe, I used amber ale for my braising liquid. Apple juice or a mixture of apple juice with a little apple cider vinegar also works well.
The baby back ribs in this recipe were made in a Kamado Joe ceramic cooker. A Big Green Egg, charcoal grill, Traeger grill or other pellet smoker would also work well when configured for indirect heat. I have also made baby back ribs in an offset stick burner but that takes a bit more patience and a lot of adjustment throughout the cooking process. I am not aware of a temperature control device that will work with a stick burner so it has to be manually adjusted every 20-30 minutes.
Store leftover baby back ribs in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Reheat the ribs wrapped in foil in a 275°F oven until warm.
If you are going to get serious about cooking low and slow in your smoker, invest in a good temperature control device like a Fireboard. Watch my video on Why You Need a Temperature Control Device.
Congratulations, you've just mastered the modified 3-2-1 ribs method for creating the absolute best ribs. The combination of a flavorful dry rub, slow smoking, braising and a delicious BBQ sauce glaze results in irresistible, tender ribs with a delicious smoky flavor. Enjoy!
Looking for other recipes like this? Try these:
These are my favorite dishes to serve with this recipe.
Baby Back Ribs
- ¾ cup brown sugar packed
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup paprika
- ¼ cup seasoned salt like Lawry's
- ¼ cup smoked salt
- ¼ cup onion powder
- ¼ cup celery salt
- 2 tbls black pepper freshly ground
- 2 tbls chili powder
- 2 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 racks baby back ribs
- 2 cups braising liquid i.e. beer, apple juice
- Place all dry rub ingredients in a food processor and pulse 10 times. Dry rub will keep in a closed container for three months.
- Remove the tough membrane from the back of the ribs.
- Liberally sprinkle dry rub on both sides of the rib racks. Cover with plastic wrap (not foil) and refrigerate for 6 hours.
- Setup the smoker for indirect heat at 250°F. Soak ½ - 1 cup wood chips (e.g apple, cherry) in water for 30 minutes. Add the wood chips to the smoker. Place the ribs in the smoker, and cook for 3 hours.
- Remove the ribs and wrap them in a foil tent, bone side down, sealed at one end. Pour the braising liquid in the other end and seal. Return the ribs to the smoker and cook for another two hours. The ribs are done when the meat has pulled back a bit from the end of the bone and the bone can be easily twisted and removed.
- Remove the ribs and setup the grill for direct heat. Brush your favorite BBQ sauce on both sides of the ribs and place them on the grill. Turn once. Cook only until the sauce thickens and caramelizes a bit. Do not burn the sauce.