What should you do when you can’t seem to remove the membrane from a rack of ribs? And is it necessary to take it off in the first place? In this guide, we’ll explore this phenomenon to help you make the most of your barbecue.
Can’t Get Membrane Off Ribs
If you’re having a hard time getting the membrane off a rack of ribs using your fingers, try inserting a butter knife or a metal chopstick beneath the silverskin instead. Leaving the membrane intact won’t do any serious harm, but it will make the ribs tougher to eat and may have an adverse effect on the smoke flavor.
What is the Membrane on Ribs?
The membrane is the thin layer of white skin that runs along the length of the rib rack. It may also be called the silverskin, the caul fat, or the peritoneum.
You may already know that the caul fat is responsible for holding organs in place. When it comes to ribs, that means it holds in the heart and the lungs. As these are vital organs, this membrane has a lot of work to do during the animal’s life.
Do All Pork Ribs Have a Membrane on Them?
You can find a membrane or silverskin on many cuts of meat. If you’ve ever prepped a pork tenderloin for the smoker, you’ve probably removed the silverskin that runs along the length of the cut. The feature is prominent on beef tenderloin as well.
Because St. Louis-style and Kansas City-style ribs are trimmed to give them a more uniform shape, you might assume that the membranes have already been removed. While this may be the case, you shouldn’t rely on it.
It’s more important to remove the membrane from baby back ribs than it is for other rib types. Back ribs are cut from around the spine, and the membrane is thicker in this section. That means the ribs may have a leathery texture if you don’t remove it.
Sometimes, the butcher will remove the membrane before packaging the ribs for sale. For example, Costco claims that the membranes have been removed from their rib racks. This isn’t always true, but you should be able to tell by inspecting the rack.
Why You Can’t Get Membrane Off Ribs Sometimes
When you’re having a hard time getting the membrane off, it’s usually because the peritoneum is too thin and fragile to peel away easily. Although it’s frustrating, this is actually good news.
If the membrane is so thin and papery that it won’t come off, there’s a good chance that it won’t ruin your barbecue. The reason you want to remove it in the first place is because it will be tough and chewy when it’s cooked. In this case, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Tips For Membrane Removal
In most cases, membrane removal is a snap. It shouldn’t take any longer than a minute or two, and it will improve the quality of the smoked ribs.
While the membrane isn’t inedible (see the section below), it makes the ribs look less appealing once they’re cooked. It also makes them tougher to chew. Perfectly cooked ribs should melt in your mouth, and the membrane will interfere with that.
More worrisome is the fact that the membrane might prevent the smoke flavor from penetrating the ribs. The peritoneum will act as a barrier between the smoke and the meat. This likelihood increases if the membrane is especially thick.
Fortunately, if the membrane is thick enough to interfere with the flavor and texture, it should be easy to remove it before cooking. Here are our preferred methods for removing the membrane from a rack of ribs.
The Paper Towel Method
Place the ribs on a work surface with the bone side facing up. The membrane should be clearly visible—almost like a sheet of plastic stretched over the rack.
Take a couple of paper towels in one hand and use the same hand to hold the rib rack. With the other hand—preferably your dominant one—peel the corner of the membrane away from the ribs.
Your next step is to gently move your fingers between the bones and the membrane, moving along the length of the rack so that the membrane comes away in one piece. If it breaks apart, you’ll need to go back and remove all the pieces separately.
The Knife Method
If the membrane is putting up a great deal of resistance, you can insert a butter knife just beneath it. Slide the knife along the length of the rib rack, peeling up on the membrane as you go. If it tears, repeat the process with all the remaining pieces.
The Chopstick Method
This is a great technique if you happen to have a set of metal chopsticks lying around. Because not everyone has these utensils on hand, it isn’t the most popular method, but it’s actually more effective than using a butter knife.
After pulling up one corner of the rib membrane, slide the metal chopstick underneath it. Continue to pull, taking care not to tear the membrane, until the entire piece has come away from the rib rack.
What To Do When You Can’t Get Membrane Off Ribs
If you’re having a hard time getting the membrane off, don’t spend too much time and energy on it. It’s fine to leave the membrane in place during cooking.
Consuming the membrane won’t do you any harm. While it affects the texture and appearance of the cooked ribs, you don’t need to take it off if the substance is really putting up a fight. Just season and cook the ribs as you normally would.
If you find that the membrane is making it too difficult to chew the meat once it’s cooked, you can always discard it at that point. This might not be an ideal solution, but it isn’t the end of the world either.
Removing the Membrane from Cooked Ribs
You might have forgotten to take the membrane off the ribs before cooking them, or decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble. In either case, you can still remove it before serving time.
Some pitmasters prefer this technique. When the meat approaches the ideal serving temperature, it begins to achieve that fall-apart texture that makes ribs so appealing. However, it also means that the ribs may separate when you attempt to move them.
The membrane will shrink during the smoke, and it will be tougher and harder to remove. You can still tear it off before serving the ribs, but the practice is more difficult. That’s one of the reasons why we suggest doing it while the ribs are still raw.
What About Beef Ribs?
Beef ribs require a different cooking technique than pork ribs. However, they also may be packaged with the membrane still intact.
You should remove the membrane from beef ribs before cooking them for the same reason you would remove it from pork ribs. The membrane will give the ribs a chewy texture that makes them more difficult to eat.
The Bottom Line
The next time you buy a rack of ribs, ask your butcher if they wouldn’t mind taking the membrane off for you. If this isn’t a possibility, you can try to remove it yourself. Fortunately, the process is usually a simple one.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!