Perfectly smoked ribs can be a difficult skill to master. The process isn’t complicated, but since the ribs take so long to cook, there are a few things that could go wrong along the way. In this guide, we’ll help you avoid these pitfalls—and offer a few tips on how to fix tough ribs when all else fails.
How To Fix Tough Ribs
Ribs need to cook slowly at low temperatures. If they cook too quickly, especially over high heat, the meat will be tough and dry. Should you encounter this issue, try wrapping the ribs in foil and putting them back on the smoker over low heat. You can also shred the meat, reheat it slowly in barbecue sauce, and add it to a sandwich; or use it as the base for stew or chili.
A Primer On Pork Ribs
Rib meat is located close to the bone, and it contains a great deal of connective tissue and fat. As such, it needs to cook for a long time, preferably over low heat. When ribs are done right, the meat will be tender and moist.
There are a few different types of pork ribs, and which one you choose will affect the cooking technique. Understanding the difference between the various types will help you get the results you want.
These large, impressive-looking ribs come from the underbelly of the hog, where the meat is rich and fatty. This gives them a ton of pork flavor, but the high fat content—coupled with their size—means they take a long time to cook.
St. Louis-Style Ribs
A rack of St. Louis-style ribs is just a rack of spare ribs that’s been trimmed to remove the sternum and lower cartilage. Butchers and pitmasters take this step to make the rack look more presentation-worthy, and the uniform shape makes for easier handling.
Baby Back Ribs
These ribs are sometimes called “loin back ribs” or simply “back ribs.” That’s because they’re cut from the top portion of the rib cage, near the loin.
Despite the misleading name, baby backs aren’t taken from younger animals. The “baby” description comes from the fact that they’re smaller than spare ribs. The meat is also leaner, meaning the racks cook through in less time.
Why Did My Ribs Come Out Tough?
When you take that first bite, you’re expecting the rib meat to melt in your mouth. Instead, it’s overly chewy or downright tough. What went wrong? Let’s take a look at some of the most common culprits behind this issue.
As we mentioned, ribs require low-and-slow cooking in order for the meat to reach the correct consistency. That’s the main reason why they’re such a popular choice for the grill or smoker.
When rib meat is undercooked, the connective tissue hasn’t had a chance to break down. As a result, it will be tough and sinewy, and it won’t slide off the bone easily.
The Heat Was Too High
This issue is directly related to undercooking, even though grilling the ribs over high heat would seem to have the opposite effect.
When the fire is too hot, the ribs will cook to a safe internal temperature in a hurry. But when it comes to naturally tough cuts like these, time is just as important as temperature. The meat will still be safe to eat, but that doesn’t mean it will be tender to the bite.
When the internal temperature of the ribs reaches 195-205 degrees, they’re tender enough to come right off the bone. If you leave them on the heat too long, though, they’ll move past this texture and become unpleasantly dry. This will toughen the meat, giving each bite a straw-like consistency.
The Membrane Is Still Attached
Pork ribs come with a membrane attached to the bone side of the rack. This membrane is known as the peritoneum, and it’s there to protect the internal organs while the animal is still alive and breathing.
Sometimes, the butcher will remove this membrane prior to processing. If they don’t, you’ll want to remove it yourself. In addition to preventing the smoke from permeating that section of the rib rack, it will have a tough, leathery texture when it’s cooked.
Tips On Prevention
Tough ribs are a disappointing phenomenon, but fortunately, they’re also avoidable. Here are a few pointers to help you out the next time ribs are on the menu.
Cook Them Low and Slow
If undercooked ribs are the culprit, it’s an easy fix. You may even be able to salvage them by returning them to the smoker for a while longer (see How To Fix Tough Ribs, below).
Whenever possible, set the smoker temperature to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If you need to speed things along, you can ramp it up to 250 or even 275, but make sure you adjust the cooking times accordingly. At 225, a rack of spare ribs should take about 6 hours to cook, and baby backs should be done within 5 hours.
The ribs are done when they reach an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. As they rest, they should cook to 200-205 degrees, which should give them the consistency you want.
Marinate The Rib Racks
A good acid-based marinade can help promote tenderness before you add the ribs to the smoker. It’s permissible to marinate ribs for up to 24 hours, but don’t be tempted to leave them in there for too long, or the meat will have a jelly-like texture when it’s cooked.
Instead of making a marinade or resorting to a store-bought version, consider soaking the rib racks in vinegar instead. Since the vinegar is so acidic, the ribs should only need 30 minutes or so to benefit from this tenderizing technique. Again, don’t soak them for too long—after 2 hours, the proteins will start to break down to the point of mushiness.
Remove The Membrane
To remove the membrane (also called the “silverskin”), turn the rib rack bone-side up. Slide a butter knife or spoon beneath the membrane and move it along the length of the rack, gently tugging so that the piece comes off in one whole sheet. If it breaks into pieces, don’t worry—just pick up where you left off.
Par-Boil The Ribs
As a last resort, you can pre-cook the ribs before adding them to the smoker. In a pot that’s large enough to hold the rib racks, bring several quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add the ribs, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 45 minutes.
When you’re ready to finish the ribs, add them to the smoker and cook until they’ve reached an internal temp of 195 degrees. If desired, brush them with barbecue sauce for the last 15 minutes of the cook.
How To Fix Tough Ribs
Prevention is all well and good, but what can you do to fix tough ribs that have just come off the smoker?
First of all, if they’re undercooked, put them back on the smoker over low heat. If they’re already coated in sauce, consider wrapping them in foil to prevent the sauce from burning and becoming bitter. At this point, they should have absorbed enough smoke flavor—you’re just trying to salvage the texture.
If that’s no longer an option, here are a few alternatives. Tough meat doesn’t have to be the end of the world—it only means you have to get creative with your ingredients.
Reheat With Sauce
Moisture is one of the key ingredients when it comes to saving tough, dry meat. Mix your favorite barbecue sauce with apple cider vinegar, using a ratio of 1 to 1. Slather the ribs with this mixture, then wrap them in foil.
Reheat the ribs in a low oven or a smoker set to 250-300 degrees. The sauce and vinegar solution will impart flavor, and the meat will steam inside the foil wrapper, which will keep it from drying out.
Add To Stew
Rib meat is just another type of pork, which means you can add it to soups, stews, or other braised dishes. This method works best if you served the barbecue sauce on the side, but if there’s already sauce on the ribs, the meat might still be suitable for chili.
Once the ribs are cool enough to handle, separate the meat from the bones. Saute aromatic vegetables (such as onions, carrots, and celery) in olive oil, then add the pork and just enough water or chicken stock to cover the meat.
Simmer until the pork is tender. Add whatever vegetables, fresh herbs, or seasonings you desire. Cook for another 30 minutes or until the flavors have blended and the vegetables are cooked through.
Make A Sandwich
When you add the pork to a sandwich or taco, you’re less likely to notice the chewy texture.
Pull the meat off the bones while the ribs are still warm and set it aside. When you’re ready to assemble the sandwiches, reheat the meat slowly over low heat until hot, along with your favorite barbecue sauce. Serve the mixture on toasted bulky rolls, topped with coleslaw and crispy onion strings.
The Bottom Line
The most common culprit behind tough ribs is undercooked meat. Using a low temperature and waiting until the internal temp reaches 195 degrees will help to ensure success. If all else fails, you can still salvage the results, and you’ll have new knowledge to apply to your next attempt.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!