How to Smoke Ribs in an Electric Smoker

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Smoking ribs can be tricky because there isn’t always a great place to insert a thermometer probe, but you can easily smoke ribs in an electric smoker. All you need to do is set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit and use the 3-2-1 method for smoking ribs.

A general rule of thumb for the 3-2-1 method is to prepare 2-3 racks of ribs and do the majority of the cooking during the beginning of the process. The sooner you get the smoking started, the more intense the flavor of smoke you are going to get in your ribs. If you are smoking only 1 rack, you may find the ribs to be done before the 6 hours, resulting in overcooked ribs. For 1-2 racks, a 2-2-1 method should work better.

The 3-2-1 Method for Cooking with an Electric Smoker

Preheat your smoker. Fill up the water pan with water and the smoker box with wood chips. While the smoker is preheating, prepare the ribs. Remove membrane from the inside of the ribs so that your spices and seasonings can really flavor the meat. Once you’ve rubbed the ribs, you’re ready to smoke.

3. Smoke your ribs directly on the racks for 3 hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Place ribs directly on smoker rack.

2. Remove the ribs from the racks and tightly wrap them in aluminum foil. Before closing the aluminum foil pocket, pour a little apple juice, wine, beer, or any other favorite flavor (about 1/8 of a cup) into the packet to enhance the steam process that will tenderize the ribs. Place them back in the smoker for 2 hours.

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We added olive oil and a drizzle of honey to keep the ribs moist during the next two hours of smoking.

1. Remove the ribs and liberally coat both sides of the ribs with BBQ sauce. Put the ribs directly on the racks for 1 hour.

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Smother your favorite BBQ sauce over the ribs for the final hour of cooking- they’ll come out caramelized and moist!

After a total of six hours of smoking, you’ll have tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Best Wood Chips for Ribs

Hickory and mesquite are both very popular woods chips for smoking ribs, but don’t limit yourself to trying new wood.

  • Hickory has a sweet to strong taste that is almost bacony.
  • Mesquite is a strong flavored wood, but it can create a bitter taste if used on its own.
  • Cherry, apple, maple and pecan woods are all lighter woods that have a mild sweet flavor.

Try combining mesquite with hickory or a fruit wood to reduce the bitterness and for extra flavor.  You can read more about different smoking wood flavors here.

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Want a little sauce with those ribs?

 

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76 thoughts on “How to Smoke Ribs in an Electric Smoker

    1. Have you tried using a smoker box? Char-Broil sells a cast iron and a stainless steel smoker box. You add the wood chips to it, and place it in your grill. This will add the smokey flavor you may be looking for.

      1. Turn the temp down OR cut the total cook time (probably at the front end). My smoker only gets to about 185 and the 3-2-1 works perfectly for me 🙂

    2. You can use wood chips in any type of grill – figuring out what to use is the key. Some people just wrap them up in heavy duty foil. Can leave open at the top. My newest way to add to the regular (gas) BBQ is to buy a very small (4 – 5″) cast iron pan, put it below your cooking surface (like where briquettes go). The cast iron heats up nicely, the chips smoke nicely – voila! Also – some may not agree with me, but I tend to use *mostly* wet ships or shred and ALSO leave a few dry ones around the edges and a tad in the middle. Gets the moist/wet ones smoke faster. I love cooking with smoke and fire!

      1. I agree with you, moist chips work the best! My electric grill at 225 is perfect for the smoking process but should be down to between 160-180 next 2 hrs, 160 for last with sauce!

    3. You can use a cast iron smoking box. I addition I would put a water pan inside the grill to create moisture.

    1. Mesquite is a very strong wood. What do you like using with it? We like blending it with apple and cherry.

  1. What am I doing wrong, I have the digital electric smoker, I use the 3-2-1 method on my ribs, they taste amazing but when I take them out of the foil all the bones fall off, I use a little butter, honey, and brown sugar on my ribs before I wrap them, is this what is causing them to get so tender?

    1. Are you wrapping them for the full cook? Or just the last leg? You may want to try only wrapping them for the last leg of the cook.

      1. Yeah i’m using the 3-2-1 method, 3 hours direct on the grates, 2 hours wrapped, and 1 hour with bbq sauce.

    2. cooking too long. I can cook for a total of 4 hours and they will be loose on the bone. I cook at 220.

  2. My first smoke was large pork ribs. The 3-2-1 method DEFINITELY does not work. I “racked” the ribs for 3 hours. They were done. I still wrapped them in foil with my thin, homemade BBQ sauce inside. After another 2 hours they turned into “pulled pork”. All the bones fell out. The thin ends were charred. They were delicious, but we had to eat the overdone meat with a fork. To be honest, my wife loved them that way, but not me. I want to hold a rib and bite the meat off. I did use the recommended 225 degrees for smoking. I used pellets comprised of alder, cherry, and pecan woods. I also filled the water box. I should have somehow used the meat probe instead, but of course, the ribs are boney.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that. Usually, the 3-2-1 method works seamlessly. Were you smoking baby back ribs or spare ribs? Sometimes baby back ribs need less time to smoke, depending on the thickness of the rack.

      1. I like the idea of cooking the baby back ribs for 2 hours and 2 hours in foil. I am not sure about putting BQ sauce all over the ribs when I already put dry rub on them. Would it be better to place on grill and use a brush to add a small amount to them. Cook on grill for 20 mins?

    2. Yeah I tried the 3-2-1 method ONCE and ruined my ribs. You only need to smoke for 90-120 minutes max at 220 to get a nice smoke flavor. Smoking ribs for 3 hours makes rib jerky that tastes like chewy smoke.

  3. Going to try ribs this coming weekend. Hoping it a success. How often should I fill the smoker with new chips. Usually a handful lasts about an hour and a half. Thank for this post. Great info!

    1. Only first 3 hours of time after that the meat is sealed up and smoke I sent going to penetrate the meat

  4. do not understand, you said fill water pan and smoke box with
    chip, does that mean fill water pan with water and smoke box with chips? or no water all chips. thx in advance for your advice.
    Eddie Fisher NEWBIE

  5. I have been doing 3-2-1 and it has worked out every time I have done it. I set the temp at 230. I have been not adding any apple juice lately when I wrap them and there seems to be enough juice in the meat to keep them moist but I am only doing 45 min on last leg with the sauce! Mmmmm

  6. I did this method yesterday,also used beer for the wrapping process and they came out perfect at the end! Meat was perfect,bones stayed in until you bit into the rib and then it slid free from the meat,tender and juicy with tons of great flavor! Thank you!

  7. Im using electric smoker for very first time.want to do rack of ribs.well 2 racks.could you tell me how long and what all i do thank you.

  8. Smoking boneless ribs using an electric smoker (this is the first time using a smoker). Conflicting stories on how long. Using a homemade dry rub and cherry wood. I am thinking four hours total.

    I will update on how it turns out. Excited about learning how to smoke meats.

  9. We have water in the pan and wood chips in the box of our Char-Broil vertical electric smoker 503. we cannot get the chips to smoke at 225 degrees. what are we doing wrong? We soak the chips like the directions say and nothing unless we turn it up high. then it’s too hot for the meat to go in.

    1. Try not soaking the chips, this will allow the chips to smoker sooner and at a lower temperature.

    1. We recommend that you do not soak the wood chips for the Digital Electric Smoker. Soaking the chips actually makes them take longer to smoke as they have to dry before they will smoke.

  10. What about beef short-ribs on a DES? Would I follow the same 3-2-1 instructions? Can’t wait to try this!

    1. Yes, you can follow the same guidelines for smoking beef short-ribs in an electric smoker. Enjoy!

  11. Hi All and Greetings from Canada.Am going to smoke baby back ribs and ordinary pork ribs.I read somewhere you put the bone down in the smoker ,,,,is that true or does it matter.Am going to do the 3-2-1 method again.

  12. We’re about 2 hours in on some ribs, and the amount of smoke has seriously diminished. Is that normal? Do I need to take the box out and add more chips? I filled it 3/4 followers with cherry and apple, as the guide said that would last 4-6 hours.

    1. Hi Jamie, if you notice that your wood chips stop smoking, you can add more wood chips to your smoker box for continued smoking.

  13. How often do you change the woodchips? I have a Masterbuilt Electric smoker. Chips usually last 45 min at a temp of 180º.

    1. Hi Arilina, your best bet is to replenish your wood chips when they stop smoking. Each smoker is different, so whether it is every 45 minutes or every hour, continue to add wood chips when the chips in the smoker stop smoking.

  14. Used 3-2-1 method. Ribs were great. Tasty and juices. Now for the question! How well do you need to clean smoker? First couple uses I spend hours cleaning entire smoker. Looked like it just came out of box. Is this necessary or can it get seasoned like a cast iron pan? Ribs were well worth the cleaning time.

    1. Hi Jack, cleaning the racks will help keep the air flow constant during the smoking process, but you can season the inside of the smoker by not necessarily cleaning the sides every time. For more information on how to clean your smoker check out our article How to Clean a Digital Electric Smoker.

  15. Hello my electric smoker works quite well , but I’m having trouble with getting the wood chips to smoke at 225. Should I turn up the heat for pre heating , then down to smoke ? I ended up taking some charcoal briquettes hot & placing wood chips on top to obtain smoke.

    1. Hi Michael, you can turn up the heat for pre-heating if your wood chips are not smoking correctly before you add your meat, then return the temperature to 225°F when you are ready to smoke your meat. Make sure your wood chips are dry, as this will help aid in the process.

  16. The instructions say, “Fill up the water pan and the smoker box with wood chips.” Are you putting the wood chips in both the smoker box and water pan or are you using the water pan to generate steam for the smoking process?

    1. Hi Steve, you would want to fill up the water pan with water and the smoker box with wood chips.

  17. Hello,
    I just purchased my electric smoker and it seems to take forever for it to pre heat before I put my meats in. How long does it take to get the temp up to the 225 deg desired temp? What is the desired pre heat temp before putting your meat in?

    1. Hi Che, the preheat cycle for the electric smoker takes around 40 minutes to reach an initial temperature of 225F. 225F is standard temperature for smoking meats, but you can lower the temperature to 190F if you want to try for a longer cooking time.

  18. I have tried smoking ribs before and didn’t like how they turned out. I followed the directions on this page and modified for baby back ribs per Brian on 10-2015 (I had short ribs) and they are falling off the bone and so tender! I just need to find a better BBQ sauce.

    I book marked this page. I might make some more next weekend.

  19. Question….
    When using the 3-2-1 method and the water runs dry, should you keep filling it until the ribs are done? Or, just the initial time? This is in an electric smoker. Thanks!

    1. Hi Valerie, we suggest making sure the water pan is filled at all times, as it helps regulate the temperature of the smoker and the water vapor helps ensure that smoke adheres to and flavors the meat.

  20. I am still a rookie using the electric smoker, but here are my thoughts on the 3-2-1 method. First off I think cooking at 225 is too hot, I modified this approach to 215 degrees for the 3-2 portion of the cooking process and then 180 for the last hour. The reason I did this is to avoid burning the ribs. Personally I like to serve bbq sauce as a side because I prefer the ribs without sauce. Just as a side note I don’t use mustard or olive oil for the rub to stick too, I think you get a better smoke taste this way.

  21. I’m new to smoking, I have not read much about how often to refresh wood chips for an MES. Any thoughts? I was goin to do some baby back ribs 221

    1. Going to try some ribs for first smoke experience think I’ll try apple juice method can you start with frozen ribs & how much longer is the cooking time ?

      1. You want to make sure and thaw your ribs first. They should be above 45 Degrees F before starting them.

  22. I love smoking ribs use baby back from market butcher with a lot of meat on back of rib. Marinate for 24 hr. in sealed plastic rap. I use 2-2- 1/2 method at 210deg but the 1/2 is out of the electric smoker onto the barbeque grill hi temp and put lots of BBQ sauce for people who want it others may want little or no sauce this late step provides a custom approach for each guest.

  23. so far I love the elec smoker. But I noticed all the grease is going into the water pan keeping the water from evaporating and keeping the meat moist. I looked at the pics to make sure I put it together right. any ideas?

  24. My husband got an electric smoker so I can use it while he is at work. I’m going to try this today. Should I wrap the 2 separately or together? Also should I do 2-2-1?

  25. To MW
    I have tried a lot of different BBQ sauces including some home made but I have to tell you Ol West from some folks in South Dakota is phenomenal. I have no affiliation with them just love there sauce. They also have an Irish Mustard that is off the hook. Good luck with your smoking!

  26. New to smoking with new electric smoker. First rack took 5 hours to get to 160°. Probably temp gauge problem. At what temp should I wrap in foil?

  27. If having trouble getting smoke turn heat up and get a good smoke going before adding meat. Then turn down to desired cooking temperature.

  28. Hi, I have been running ribs in my vertical gas smoker for 6 months. Some things I learned.
    1. Get a remote meat and smoker temp thermometer. The thing stuck on the door is not very accurate. I found placing the rib probe between the largest gap on 3 racks I cook at a time.
    2. I get the smoking started by pre-warming unit to 250, then hit two corners of the chips (I use chunks so skip if using small chips) with a blow torch to light them. They will continue to smolder. Think of this like when you started a briquette grill. Drop the temp to 225 for cooking.
    3. Pull from the first leg of smoking when internal hits 160.
    4. Wrap with some added liquid. They variations. That’s the fun of this at home !
    5. Pull out the chips, if any are left. Wrapped meat will not absorb the smoke. But keep the smoke going the entire 1st leg!
    6. Adjust the final time based on done-ness of meat. If already falling off the bone with un-wrapped, leave it alone!
    7. Normally I get maybe 30-45 minutes with ribs on an open BBQ grill to set the glaze. Based on how done they are, I might run a little longer at 300. DO NOT DRY THEM OUT. Watch them here as this is the critical step to make them perfect. I’ve had to run longer some times (due to cold weather) but never much more than an hour and half. If you had the internal temp correct at 160 when going to wrap, then the temp during 2nd leg was not correct and that will need to be the adjustment first.

    Smok’em and Suck’em them down !!

  29. Lots of great ideas! I’ve mastered chicken breast! This weekend I am smoking my first side of ribs, using a new rub ! It’s JOHN HENRY’s EAST TEXAS RUB. Anyone ever tried that rub or even heard of it??

  30. Okay, I’ve been reading the comments here and I’m a little confused. I’m smoking 4 short racks (2 full racks cut in half) of baby back ribs, should I be using the 3-2-1 or 2-2-1 method? I have the smoker per heating to 225 degrees.

    1. Hi Richard, the 3-2-1 method is best for St. Louis Ribs and the 2-2-1 method is best for Baby Back Ribs if you are doing 2 full racks cut in half.

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