Pork ribs (either St. Louis-style spare ribs or baby backs) are easy to cook, but sometimes it can be difficult to know when they’re ready to come off the grill or smoker. While there are several ways you can determine when pork ribs are ready, conflicting information can leave you wondering which method is most effective way to determine when they’re ready to eat.
Common Methods for Checking Ribs
The most popular method is looking for the bones to start peeking out. You’ll see about a quarter inch of the bones (referred to as pull back) start to peak out all along the slab, or portions of it. That’s usually a pretty good indication that the ribs are about ready.
Another method is to bend the slab of ribs. Using a pair of tongs or gloves, pick up the slab and give it a slight bend towards a U shape. If there is no separation or cracking between the ribs, they’re not ready. A slab of ribs that’s ready should crack easily and almost break in two.
Probing is another method that’s used by many BBQ chefs, if you have experience cooking a brisket you’ll be familiar with this method. I use the point of a skewer and simply probe the meat in between the bones, you’re looking for minimal resistance and for the probe to slide into the meat and pull out cleanly.
There are other methods as well: twisting a bone, cutting into the ribs, and even not checking at all. Instead, some grillers cook their ribs for a specific amount of time and then pull them as soon as the time’s up; I call this the “ready or not, here I come” method.
The problem with all of these methods is twofold. First, if you are an inexperienced BBQ chef you may not know exactly how deep a crack should be or just how easily the probe should slide in and out, etc. Further, while a good indication, the bones sticking out doesn’t always happen. Second, and more importantly – these methods are never 100% accurate. They’re fine as general guidelines but with 100% accuracy possible through technology; why risk wasting a great rack of ribs and six hours of your time?
The Fool-Proof Way to Know Your Ribs Are Ready
I strongly recommend trusting internal temperature over cook time or any of the above indicators. The problem with most thermometers is that the probes are too thick which makes it tough to check the meat’s temperature between the bones which is where you need to check it. If the probe is too close the bone it will give a false reading. Never fear, Thermoworks makes a needle probe* with a diameter of 1/16 inch, perfect for checking pork ribs. This device is simple to use, compatible with the Thermoworks Smoke* meat thermometer, and it requires no experience. Simply slide it into the rib meat between the bones and check the reading.
The USDA recommends cooking pork ribs to an internal temperature of 145°F for safety reasons. However, at this temperature the meat is rubbery and tough. Pork ribs aren’t ready to be served until their internal temperature reaches 195°F to 203°F. At this temperature, fat and collagen throughout the meat has broken down and flavored the ribs. This contributes to the overall taste and texture of the ribs. If the bones are peaking out and they are probing easily at 195°F I pull them, if the probe is still tight or no bones are peaking out I let them go to 203°F and then pull them off.
Finally, the meat should keep its shape after biting into it. You may have heard that ribs are perfectly cooked when they “fall off the bone.” That is actually not true. If the meat falls off the bone, it’s overcooked and has a mushy texture — not ideal for any occasion.
Moral of the story, rely on the precision of a thermometer for juicy ribs that everyone will come back for!
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