Enjoy the most tender, finger-licking smoked pellet grill ribs using the easy 3-2-1 method! Featuring a perfectly balanced sweet, spicy and smoky dry rub, these fool-proof St. Louis-style pork spare ribs will be the star of your next summer barbecue party, and everyone will rave. These smoked ribs are a guaranteed hit.
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
Melt-in-your-mouth tender: When you sink your teeth into these pellet grill ribs, they easily fall right off the bone. After cooking low and slow, all the collagen and connective tissues break down to transform into the most succulent meat that will leave everyone full, happy and impressed.
Perfect results every time: Thanks to the popular, reliable 3-2-1 method, we take any guesswork out of the cooking process. We follow a specific smoking timetable that has been proven over and over again to deliver juicy, tender ribs.
Makes for easy summertime entertaining: While these pellet grill ribs take six hours to smoke, there’s very little hand-on work, so you can use that time to focus on any appetizers, side dishes or desserts, or you can simply kick back with a drink in hand while these BBQ ribs transform in the smoker.
What is the 3-2-1 rule for smoking ribs?
The 3-2-1 rib method refers to three different timed cooking stages. We first smoke the ribs uncovered without sauce for three hours, then we wrap the ribs in foil with a liquid and smoke them for two hours, and then we brush the ribs with sauce and smoke uncovered again for one hour. This is truly the easiest way to make the best ribs.
In total, this is a six-hour smoke, so we want to use a low temperature – 225 degrees is perfect. This temperature keeps our ribs extra tender and moist.
Keep in mind, rib racks are different sizes, so in the last hour of smoking, you may not need the full cooking time. There are three easy methods I like for checking to see if the ribs are done.
One method is to grab an exposed bone from the center of the rack and give it a twist. The meat should begin to pull away from the bone. Another trick is to try the toothpick method – simply insert a toothpick in the meat between the bones of the rack. If the toothpick slides into the meat without resistance, the ribs are ready.
You can also check the internal temperature to see if your ribs are finished. The internal temperature should be between 195-203 degrees. While the USDA says pork is safe to eat at 145 degrees, ribs need a higher final temperature before the collagen sufficiently melts. To take the internal temperature, simply slide a thermometer into the thickest part of the meat without touching the bone.
Let’s first chat about the ingredients to make sure you have everything you need to make the best smoked pork ribs.
St. Louis-style pork ribs: These are pork spare ribs that have been trimmed and cut into a uniform, rectangular shape after removing the sternum, cartilage and rib tips. Thanks to the trimming, this cut is a bit easier to handle compared to pork spare ribs, and its flat surface encourages more even browning.
Please note that this recipe is not for smoked baby back ribs, which requires a different cooking time because they’re smaller with a lower fat content.
Apple cider: We use this to spritz the ribs during the smoking process as well as add to a foil packet during the second step of the cooking process. I prefer apple cider to apple juice because of the additional spice, but apple juice works just as well. Some people even use apple cider vinegar. Pineapple juice can also work, especially if you go with a teriyaki-BBQ sauce.
Spice rub: For this spice rub, we use a mixture of dark brown sugar, chili powder, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, allspice and cayenne pepper. Of course, you’re welcome to use your own favorite dry rub if you prefer.
BBQ sauce: While you can certainly use a store-bought BBQ sauce, I highly recommend a good homemade sauce, which is super simple to prepare and tastes so much better. If you’d like to play up the sweet notes of pork, try my blueberry BBQ sauce, or if you prefer a spicier option, my coffee-bourbon BBQ sauce or honey-sriracha BBQ sauce are perfect.
Now let's walk through a few simple steps to show you this easy way to achieve the best results.
Step 1: Before preparing the ribs, the first step is to make our spice mixture. This is as simple as stirring together the brown sugar with the spices in a small bowl (photo 1). For now, we set aside the rib rub.
Step 2: After removing the ribs from the package, we blot them dry with a paper towel and flip the ribs over so that the bone side is facing up. Most ribs will have a thin membrane that we need to remove.
The membrane is the silver skin on top of the meat (photo 2). To remove it, we insert a sharp knife underneath the membrane and lift the knife up to separate the membrane from the meat. We can then grip the membrane with our fingers (photo 3) and continue to pull the membrane down the length of the ribs (photo 4). If any membrane is left, we repeat the process (photo 5).
Step 3: With the bone side still facing up, we rub the rack of ribs all over with the spice mixture (photo 6) and then flip the ribs and rub the mixture all over the meaty side (photo 7). Don't forget to also coat the sides of the ribs with the rub.
Step 4: For our next step, we’re ready to smoke. We heat the smoker to 225 degrees with a water pan and add the ribs meat-side up directly on the grill grates (photo 8). We close the smoker and let it smoke for three hours.
Tip: While this step is optional, I like to pour the apple cider into a spray bottle and spritz the meat every hour to ensure the meat stays nice and moist.
Step 5: After three hours, we lay several pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil on top of each other, fold the edges up to create almost a makeshift pan and add the apple cider and pieces of butter in the center. Now we place the rib rack in the foil, seal the edges and place the foil packet back on the smoker (photos 9-12). We smoke the ribs in this braising liquid for two hours.
Step 6: And just like that, we’re ready for the final smoking stage. For this, we remove the ribs from the foil, brush with BBQ sauce (photo 13) and smoke again – this time for one hour.
Step 7: After our three-part smoking process, our ribs are ready to pull from the grill. We let the ribs sit for 10 minutes to allow the juices to settle down, and then we slice each rib individually on a cutting board (photo 14).
That’s it! Feel free to slather these succulent pellet grill ribs with more BBQ sauce and devour. You’re in for a good meal.
What to Serve With Ribs
What’s a good barbecue without plenty of delicious side dishes? Since we already have the smoker fired up, these smoked baked beans and smoked mac and cheese are the ultimate cook-out side dishes. They feed a large crowd, and the leftovers are just as tasty. Here are a few other favorites.
- Bacon macaroni salad
- Hawaiian potato salad
- Pesto tortellini salad
- Brown butter mashed potatoes
- Coconut-lime rice
- Roasted potato salad
When it comes to any kind of pork, I prefer a lighter, sweet wood, such as applewood, cherrywood or pecan. Pork has a subtle sweetness, which is why it works so well with these woods. If you want a bolder smoke flavor, you could go with hickory, but I wouldn’t go stronger than hickory. Otherwise, you risk overwhelming the meat.
Also known as silver skin, the membrane prevents the rub from penetrating the meat and results in a tough texture. While the connective tissue breaks down when cooking low and slow, this is not the case with the membrane. No matter how you cook it, the membrane will still come out tough and chewy, and you don’t want that for your ribs.
After cooking, allow the ribs to cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If stored properly, they should last for about three to four days. You can also freeze leftovers for two to three months. After that, they’re still safe to eat, but the quality starts to go down.
While both ribs are delicious, they come from different parts of the pig. After the loin is removed, baby back ribs are cut from where the rib meets the spine. St. Louis-style ribs, however, are cut from the belly.
Baby back ribs are smaller, leaner and meaty while St. Louis-style ribs are well-marbled with fat. That marbling gives them such a wonderful flavor and helps them stay juicy and tender.
While this rib recipe specifies a pellet smoker, you can use any type of smoker. I use a vertical Pit Boss smoker, but a Traeger grill also works perfectly -- both of which run on wood pellets.
Or you could even use a propane or charcoal smoker with soaked wood chips. The process and cooking temperature is essentially the same, but an electric smoker self-regulates the temperature, which makes the process simple for even a barbecue beginner. They all deliver perfect ribs with that smoky flavor we love.
Place ribs meat-side down in foil: I’ve tried these pellet grill ribs with the meat side in the apple cider and the bones in the apple cider and thought the ribs were a bit juicier when they cooked with the meat side down. That said, it does soften the bark. I prefer the softer bark with more tender meat, but if a crunchy bark is important to you, you may want to place the bones in the apple cider instead.
Let the meat rest: Before carving, let the ribs sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. This allows the juices to settle after smoking. If you cut into the ribs too soon, you risk drying out the meat.
Use a paper towel when removing the membrane: The membrane can be slippery, so if you have trouble getting a grip, you can use a paper towel to get a hold of the skin.
Allow the spice rub time to sit: While you can certainly rub the ribs with the spice mixture and smoke them right away, giving the mixture some time to sit can make for even more flavorful ribs. Plan for at least four hours, but you could even take care of this step the night before smoking.
Moisten the bones if necessary: If you have trouble getting the dry rub to adhere to the bone side, rub the bones with yellow mustard or olive oil.
You’ll especially love these smoked St. Louis-style ribs with a Belgian strong dark ale. This beer has a rich caramel-like malt backbone that matches the caramelized pork, and the spicy, fruity yeast esters are perfect with the meat’s subtle sweetness.
For wine, a zinfandel pairing is just what you need. With its medium to full body, it holds up well to the fatty pork, and it has a zippy, peppery finish that’s perfect with the warm spices from our rub. We also get plenty of fruity notes that complement the pork.
If you prefer a cocktail, you’ll enjoy a good bourbon drink. You can go a fruity route with a smash, such as my blueberry bourbon smash, cherry bourbon smash or peach bourbon smash, or a simple sweet tea mint julep is lovely.
For one mouth-wateringly delicious summer dinner, I hope you try these pellet grill ribs. You will love every succulent bite.
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Smoked Pellet Grill Ribs (3-2-1 Method)
- Large cutting board
- Spray bottle optional
- Heavy-duty aluminum foil
- ½ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 racks of St. Louis-style ribs
- 2 cups apple cider or apple juice divided, plus extra for spritzing if desired
- 4 tablespoons salted butter divided, cut into cubes
- Favorite BBQ sauce
- In a small bowl, stir together the dark brown sugar, chili powder, salt, pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, allspice and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
- Remove the ribs from the package and blot dry with paper towels. Flip the ribs so that the bone side faces up. Locate the thin membrane. To remove it, insert a sharp knife underneath the membrane and lift the knife up to separate the membrane from the meat. Grip the membrane with your fingers and continue to pull the membrane down the length of the ribs. If any membrane is left, we repeat the process until you remove it all.
- With the bone side still facing up, rub the rack of ribs all over with the spice mixture and then flip the ribs and rub the mixture all over the meaty side as well as the sides. If possible, let the meat sit in the refrigerator with the rub for at least four hours or up to a day, though you can also smoke right away.
- Prepare the smoker with a water pan and heat to 225 degrees. Grease the grill grates and add the racks of ribs meat-side up right on the grates. Close the smoker and smoke for three hours. If desired, pour the extra apple cider into a spray bottle and spritz the ribs every hour, though this is optional.
- After three hours, lay several pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil on top of each other, fold the edges up to create almost a makeshift pan and add 1 cup apple cider and 2 tablespoons cubed butter in the center. Place the rib rack meat-side down in the foil and completely seal the foil. (Please refer to process images in the post if that's helpful). Repeat with the second rack and remaining 1 cup apple cider and 2 tablespoons cubed butter. Place sealed ribs back on the smoker and smoke the ribs in this braising liquid for two hours.
- Remove the ribs from the foil, brush the meat with BBQ sauce and place on the grates again meat-side up. Smoke for another hour (see notes).
- Remove the ribs from the smoker, place on a cutting board and leave undisturbed for 10 minutes to allow the juices to settle. Cut the ribs into individual pieces. Serve with additional BBQ sauce if desired. Enjoy!
- Rib racks are different sizes, so in the last hour of smoking, you may not need the full cooking time. Ribs are finished when the internal temperature reaches around 195-203 degrees. Alternatively, you can twist a center rib, and if the meat begins to pull away, it's finished. You can also insert a toothpick into the meat between the bones, and it's ready if the toothpick slides in without resistance.
- I prefer to place the ribs meat-side down in the apple cider because I think it makes the meat a little more tender and moist, but this does soften the bark. If you want a crunchier bark, place the rack bone-side down.
- The membrane can be slippery, so if you have trouble getting a grip, you can use a paper towel to get a hold of the skin.
- If you have trouble getting the dry rub to adhere to the bone side, rub the bones with yellow mustard or olive oil.
- Nutritional information is only an estimate. The accuracy of the nutritional information for any recipe on this site is not guaranteed.