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How To Tell If Membrane Is On Ribs—And Why It Matters

Some big-box stores—and maybe even some smaller butcher shops—sell their rib racks with the membrane still attached. What exactly is that thing, and is it all right to leave it in place during the smoke? Here’s a primer on how to tell if membrane is on ribs when you buy them—and what to do about it.

How To Tell If Membrane Is On Ribs

The membrane, or the silverskin, is a semi-opaque layer of tissue that runs along the bone side of the rib rack. It won’t do any real harm if it’s left intact, but it turns unpleasantly tough and rubbery when it’s cooked. It may also prevent the smoke and seasonings from penetrating the ribs.

What Is The Membrane On Ribs Made Of?

When you look at a raw, untrimmed rack of ribs, you’ll see a thin layer of pale white skin running along the underside. That’s the membrane. It may also be called the caul fat, the peritoneum, or the silverskin.

Many cuts of meat have a membrane of some kind. If you’ve ever prepped a pork tenderloin, you’re probably familiar with the silverskin. It’s the semi-opaque flap of tissue that you trim off before applying the seasoning rub.

What’s the purpose of the membrane? When the animal is alive, this caul fat is responsible for holding the organs in place. Since the heart and lungs are all located around the rib cage, the membrane gets quite a workout.

Do You Have To Remove Membrane From Ribs?

It’s a good idea to cut away the membrane before you cook the ribs. In some cuts—like the aforementioned pork tenderloin—the silverskin will toughen as it cooks, but its removal isn’t essential. When it comes to ribs, however, you’ll be sorry if you leave the membrane in place.

Here’s why. The membrane holds the ribs together, almost like a web. As it cooks, it will get tougher, which will make the ribs harder to separate. Because it’s only semi-permeable, it also acts as a barrier to the smoke, not to mention the seasoning rub.

Can You Eat Ribs With The Membrane?

It’s not dangerous to eat the ribs with the membrane still on them. In fact, caul fat is often used to make casings for sausage and other ground meat products.

Although it won’t hurt you to eat the rib membrane, we don’t recommend it. It doesn’t have any real flavor of its own, and it’s tough and stringy to boot. When you’re enjoying a perfectly cooked slab of pork ribs, that’s the last thing you want to deal with.

What Happens If You Don’t Remove The Membrane On Ribs?

First of all, the presentation will suffer. The layer of opaque white flesh will make the ribs look less appetizing, no matter how hard you’ve worked. That would be discouraging even if they still tasted fine.

As we’ve already pointed out, the membrane can also interfere with the smoke flavor. It might even prevent the ribs from cooking evenly. When you take all this into consideration, the few minutes you’ll spend removing the membrane will seem well worth it.

How To Tell If Membrane Is On Ribs

The easiest way to tell is to ask the butcher or salesperson when you’re purchasing the ribs. If they don’t know, you can check for yourself once you’ve gotten them home, but it never hurts to ask.

Once you’ve opened the package, position the rib rack so that the bone side is facing up. If there’s skin there that looks silvery or pale white—almost like a plastic bag is stretched over the bones—then there is membrane attached.

Be aware that the membrane might not cover the whole length of the rack. As you’ll come to learn, it doesn’t always come off in one piece. That’s why it’s a good idea to check even if the salesperson told you that the membrane had been removed in advance.

How To Remove The Membrane From Ribs

To begin, take a couple of paper towels, then grasp one end of the rib rack in the same hand that’s holding the towels. Use the other hand to pull up one corner of the membrane. Do this gently to avoid tearing—your job will be easier if the membrane comes off in one piece.

Carefully move your fingers between the membrane and the bone. If the membrane separates easily, continue to slide your fingers along the length of the rack, peeling the membrane away as you go.

Should you meet with any resistance, insert a blunt knife (a butter knife works well) beneath the membrane instead. You can also use a sharp knife, but be careful not to nick yourself or the ribs.

Slide the knife along the ribs to remove the membrane. If you’ve done the job well, it should come away in one long piece.

It’s not the end of the world if the membrane tears into smaller pieces as you work, but you’ll want to remove all of them before you start to cook. Just keep repeating the same process with your fingers—or the knife, if necessary—until no trace of the whitish stuff remains.

Can You Remove The Membrane After Cooking The Ribs?

Removing the membrane from the cooked ribs is better than not removing it at all. In fact, some chefs prefer to leave it in place throughout the cook, believing that it keeps the ribs from separating when you turn them.

While we don’t recommend this practice, it’s fine to tear the membrane off just before serving time. The job will just be more difficult at this point, since the caul fat will shrink and toughen as it cooks. That’s why we suggest removing it beforehand.

Should You Remove The Membrane From Beef Ribs?

You’ll need to adjust your cooking technique somewhat if you’re making beef ribs instead of pork ribs. However, when it comes down to whether or not to remove the membrane, the answer is the same. The caul fat will give the beef ribs a chewy, uneven texture, so be sure to separate it from the meat before you start to cook.

The St. Louis-Style Difference

You probably already know that St. Louis-style ribs have been trimmed to remove the breastbone and cartilage. This gives them a flat rectangular shape that’s both practical and visually appealing. But is the membrane still intact? And if so, should you remove it?

Some pitmasters don’t think it matters whether you leave the membrane on a rack of St. Louis-style ribs or not. That’s because these ribs tend to come out juicy and tender even with that tough layer still in place.

In our opinion, leaving the membrane intact won’t do you any favors. It might not cause any real harm, but there’s no point to it, either. Since it takes less than a minute to peel the membrane off the rib rack, we would suggest removing it no matter what type of ribs you’ve purchased.

Do You Have To Remove The Membrane From Baby Back Ribs?

Yes. In fact, it’s even more important to take this step with baby back ribs, since they’re cut from the area near the spine. The peritoneum thickens around the backbone, so it will be noticeably tough and stringy once the ribs are cooked.

Do Costco Ribs Come With The Membrane Attached?

When you shop at big-box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club, you have to take what you can get. Although Costco claims that their ribs are packaged with the membranes removed, this isn’t always the case. It all depends on what went on at the processing plant, and not all companies are consistent in their practices.

Your best bet is to check the racks as soon as you unwrap them. If there’s no membrane attached, you’re good to go. Otherwise, it will only take a few seconds to slip it off.

How To Soften Tough Ribs

Tough ribs usually come about as a result of undercooking. The meat is naturally tough and fatty to begin with. As such, it needs to cook for a long time at low temps if you want it to be fork-tender.

Soaking the ribs in vinegar for too long can also toughen the meat. After a couple of hours, the acid in the vinegar causes the proteins in the meat to bind up. To avoid this, keep the soaking time to 20-30 minutes.

If your ribs are too tough, try returning them to the grill. Wrapping them in foil will allow the meat to steam inside the package, which will make it more tender. For optimum results, wait until they’ve reached an internal temp of 195 degrees Fahrenheit before you take them off the heat.

The Bottom Line

Once you know how to tell if the membrane is still attached, removing it is a simple matter. You don’t even need any special tools to do it. If you open the package and you find that the job has been done for you, all the better. It just means you’re one step closer to enjoying all that succulent, smoky goodness.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!