It’s important to pull ribs off the grill as soon as they reach that precise degree of tenderness. If you cook them too long, they’ll dry out.
However, sometimes they’ll be finished cooking long before you plan to serve them. What should you do then? Here’s our ultimate guide on how to keep ribs warm until party time.
How To Keep Ribs Warm
When it comes to keeping ribs warm, you have a few options. You can use a restaurant-quality insulated container, or make your own out of a large towel-lined cooler. If you only need to keep them warm for 30 minutes or so, put them in a low oven until serving time.
How Long Should Ribs Cook?
The overall cooking time depends on what type of ribs you’re making.
A 3-pound rack of baby back ribs, which come from the loin area and consist of leaner meat, will cook in about 5 hours when the smoker is set to 250 degrees. If you want the process to go more quickly, increase the heat to 275. At this temperature, you can cut the cooking time down to 3-4 hours.
Spare ribs, taken from the underside of the rib cage, take longer to cook, as they’re larger and contain more fat. At 250 degrees, a full 3-4 pound rack should cook in about 6 hours. When the heat is cranked to 275, you can shave an hour off that cooking time.
Should Rib Meat Be Falling Off The Bone?
You may have heard the term “falling off the bone” in reference to pork ribs. While it’s an evocative image, you’ll want to stop cooking before the meat reaches that point.
Ribs are at their best when the meat has been cooked until it’s fully tender, but still moist throughout. When you leave them on the heat so long that the meat literally sloughs off the bone at the slightest touch, they’re overcooked.
Instead, strive for a texture that allows the meat to separate from the bone under gentle pressure. This typically occurs when the internal temp reaches 195 degrees.
What’s The Best Temperature To Use When Smoking Ribs?
Try to aim for a grill temperature of 225-250 degrees when making smoked ribs. As we mentioned earlier, it’s permissible to turn the heat up to 275, especially if you’re pressed for time. Whenever possible, however, stick to lower temps. This will give the ribs time to cook to the right temperature without losing their moisture.
How To Keep Ribs Warm: 4 Easy Methods
Watch Your Timing
In the sections above, we’ve advised you on how long to smoke your ribs for optimum flavor and tenderness. If you follow these instructions, you should be able to time your cook so that the ribs are still piping hot when serving time rolls around.
If you do need to hold them for longer, be forewarned that the meat won’t stay juicy and succulent indefinitely. As a general rule, you have 16 hours max before the ribs start to lose their integrity. Depending on what technique you use, it might not even take that long.
To make the most out of your barbecue, try to have the ribs ready no more than 4 hours before you want to serve them. If you can cut it even closer than that, all the better.
Use The Faux Cambro Technique
Most pitmasters are familiar with the faux Cambro method. This technique involves heating an insulated cooler and lining it with towels, then placing the cooked ribs inside. The preheating step, combined with the residual heat from the ribs, will keep the environment warm and moist.
About 1 hour before the meat is due to be ready, pour about 3 gallons of hot water into a large cooler and close the lid. Make sure the cooler will be large enough to hold all of your rib racks—if you can’t close it with the ribs inside, the method won’t work.
When the meat is finished cooking, pour the water out of the cooler. Use your barbecue gloves to prevent burning your hands. Line the interior of the cooler with clean towels, then close the lid again while you wrap the ribs in foil.
Set the wrapped ribs in a disposable aluminum pan, then place them in the cooler. If possible, keep the probe of the internal thermometer in place so you can monitor the temperature throughout the waiting period.
You can leave the ribs in the faux Cambro for 3 to 4 hours. After that, the temperature will start to drop off. The ribs should stay warm for at least 2 hours after that, but they won’t be as hot and fresh as before.
Invest in a Food Warmer
Not surprisingly, the term “faux Cambro” takes its cue from a real company. Cambro Manufacturing makes insulated boxes that are designed to keep foods warm for extended periods of time. They’re popular with caterers, who often need to transport their ingredients to different locations.
Are Cambro insulated boxes better than the makeshift variety? Yes, in that they can maintain a steady temperature and therefore preserve the integrity of the contained ingredients.
However, this equipment is too expensive for most amateur pitmasters to consider. Unless you regularly cook large quantities of ribs for hungry crowds, you should be able to rely on the faux Cambro method without any problems.
Turn On The Oven
You have another option when it comes to keeping ribs warm: the oven. Although we prefer to cook ribs on the grill or smoker for maximum flavor, there’s no harm in sticking them in the oven once they’re done.
The only thing you have to remember is that your goal is to maintain the temperature of the ribs, not increase it. You don’t want them to cook past the point you’ve already achieved, or the meat will turn out tough and dry.
For this reason, the oven method should be considered a quick fix. Don’t rely on it if you’re more than an hour away from your planned serving time. For best results, keep the ribs in the warm oven for no longer than 30 minutes.
To begin, set the oven temperature as low as it will go. Many newer ovens won’t allow you to set the temperature lower than 170 degrees, but if yours can go as low as 150, use that setting.
After resting the ribs for at least 15 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute, set them in a roasting pan. Cover the pan with foil and set it in the oven until you’re ready to serve the ribs.
Which Is The Best Method?
Whenever possible, it’s best to time the barbecue so that you don’t have to rely on fancy methods to keep the ribs warm. However, if you have no choice, the faux Cambro technique is a good way to go (assuming you don’t have a real Cambro, which would be preferable). This is true especially if you need to transport the ribs for any reason.
One exception to this rule comes into play if you only want to keep the ribs warm while you’re preparing other ingredients. In this case, you may only need to hold them for 20 to 30 minutes, in which case the oven would be your best bet.
The Bottom Line
While the type of ribs you buy will affect the cooking time, the methods for keeping them warm don’t vary much. Your chosen technique should depend on how much time you need, as well as the type of equipment that you have on hand. Happily, it doesn’t take much effort to keep the ribs in prime condition until serving time.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!