Understanding Pork Temperatures
Pork ribs (either St. Louis-style spares or baby back ribs) are easy to cook, but unless you’re a very experienced pit master, it can be difficult to know when they’re ready to come off the grill or smoker.
After reading this blog to the end, you’ll know definitively when your pork ribs are done.
There are several ways to determine when pork ribs are ready, but conflicting information might leave you wondering which method is the most effective way to determine when they’re ready to eat.
Which method can you trust? Which one actually works? Do you just go by what your buddy at work swears by after cooking a whopping total of 3 racks of ribs — declaring themselves a pitmaster?
Do you ruin a few racks yourself trying to figure it out? Embarrassingly, I may “know someone” who learned that way and it was an expensive lesson. There’s no need for any of that, I promise.
Common Methods for Checking Ribs
Some of the more popular ways of determining if your pork ribs are done include:
- Visual inspection
- Bend test
- Bone twisting
- Actually cutting into the ribs (10/10 don’t recommend this one)
- Simply going by time
Some of these work better than others, but non of them are 100% accurate. Worry not though, there is a 100% accurate way to determine if your pork ribs are done, and I’ll explain that in detail.
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 peek out all along the slab, or portions of it. That’s usually a pretty good indication that the ribs are about ready.
It’s not foolproof by any stretch, but it is an easy visual cue that doesn’t take long, requiring only a glance.
Another method is to bend the slab of ribs. The bend test is done by using a pair of tongs or gloves and requires slightly more time than quickly peeking at the bones; but it’s not difficult. Simply 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 cracks easily between the bones and almost breaks in two.
Many pit masters will use what’s called the toothpick test. If you have experience cooking a brisket, you’ll be familiar with this method.
I use the point of a temp probe needle and simply probe the meat in between the bones. When doing this, 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.
What Traditional Techniques Miss: Internal Temperature
The problem with all of these methods is twofold. First, if you are an inexperienced cook, 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, bones sticking out from the meat doesn’t always happen.
Second, and more important, 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?
At What Temperature Are Pork Ribs Done?
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 internal temp and pork done temp are clearly not the same thing.
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 peek out and they probe easily at 195° F, I pull them off the grill. 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 (like the Thermoworks Signals or the ThermoWorks Smoke X2 RF) for juicy ribs that everyone will come back for!
Can Pork Ribs Be Cooked In An Oven?
Yes, they absolutely can. You will of course miss out on the amazing flavors imparted by hours of cooking on the grill. Those subtle charcoal and smoke flavors are a thing of beauty to be sure.
That said, not everyone has a grill or smoker. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make ribs. And determining if the ribs are done when using an oven is done the same way as when ribs are cooking outdoors.
Measuring Pork Temperature: The Fool-Proof Way to Know Your Ribs Are Ready
I strongly recommend trusting internal temperature over cooking time or any of the above indicators. The problem with most food thermometers is that the probes are too thick. That makes it tough to check the pork’s temperature between the bones, which is where you need to check it.
If a 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 rib temp. This device is simple to use, compatible with the ThermoWorks Smoke meat thermometers, and it requires no experience. Simply slide it into the rib meat between the bones and check the reading.
So there you have it; that’s the secret to knowing exactly when your ribs are done. Some of the other indicators are great for progress checks, and are important to pay attention to. But, internal temperature is the one foolproof way of perfect ribs, every time.