You probably already know that ribs are at their best when they’re cooked for a long time at low temperatures. But how will you know when they’re ready to come off the grill?
There are several different methods, and most experts can’t agree on which one is best. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of the best-known techniques. Read on to find out how to tell if ribs are done using these tried-and-true hacks.
About Grilling Pork Ribs
Pork ribs need to be cooked just long enough for the fat to render without allowing the meat to dry out. Because this can be a tricky feat to master, let’s go over a few frequently asked questions before we get into the tests.
At what temperature are pork ribs considered done?
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll go with an internal temperature of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the fat and connective tissues have broken down enough to tenderize the meat.
Can you overcook ribs?
Yes, it’s possible to end up with overcooked ribs. As you’ll learn from our chosen techniques, the meat should separate from the bone easily when light pressure is applied. However, if the meat is literally falling off the bone, it’s likely been cooked for too long.
My ribs came out too tough. What happened?
How to fix tough ribs? The short answer is to cook them longer. Toughness is the hallmark of undercooked ribs. Here’s why.
Because ribs contain a great deal of fat and connective tissue, the meat is naturally tough before it’s cooked. Only the long, slow cooking process can break down the tissues and render the fat to give you the tender, succulent texture you crave.
So, if you’re wondering how to tenderize ribs, make sure you allow for plenty of cooking time. As we’ve pointed out in The Timing Test, below, baby back ribs should be cooked for 3-4 hours, while spare ribs and St. Louis ribs typically take 5-6 hours before they’re done.
Do ribs get more tender the longer they cook?
Yes, up to a certain point. When the pork is cooked past 203 degrees, it begins to dry out and resemble sawdust more than anything else. While you’ll want to cook the ribs to at least 195 degrees, avoid leaving them on for much longer, or the meat will have an unpleasant mushy texture.
Can ribs be pink?
Yes. If you’re making smoked ribs, the meat will have a pinkish tinge around the edges (see The Visual Test, below. This is a normal reaction, and it will remain even when the pork is fully cooked. Otherwise, pink ribs are a sign that the meat hasn’t fully cooked through yet.
How To Tell If Ribs Are Done: 7 Simple Methods
Method #1: The Peek Test
Unlike many large cuts of meat, the ribs come with built-in sensors: the bones themselves.
Often, you’ll be able to gauge whether your ribs are ready by taking a close look at the edges of the rack. When about a quarter inch of the bones are visible, then the ribs are probably ready to be taken off the grill.
This phenomenon is known as “pull back,” and it serves as a decent indicator of doneness. Of course, it’s always a good idea to have an instant-read thermometer to use as backup, just to be certain. Often, meat will shrink when exposed to high temperatures, even if it’s still undercooked in the center.
Even worse, if you’ve been cooking at around 225 degrees Fahrenheit (the typical recommended temperature for grilling pork ribs), the pull back might not occur until very late in the game. This increases your risk of overcooking the meat by a wide margin.
Method #2: The Bend Test
This fast and easy method is also known as the “bounce test.” It takes a little bit of practice, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s bound to become your favorite.
To begin, grasp one end of the rib rack with a pair of sturdy tongs. Lift the rack and gently bounce it up and down. If the meat develops a deep crack down the middle, then the ribs have probably reached the proper temperature. If the fissure is just beginning to show but still relatively small, continue to cook the ribs until the crack becomes more visible.
When you’ve used the Bend Test a few times, you’ll start to recognize the feel of cooked ribs versus undercooked ones as soon as you’ve raised the slab from the cooking grates. For a visual demonstration, take a look at this video tutorial.
Method #3: The Toothpick Test
This is another easy technique, and one that’s used on many types of grilled meat. The best thing about the toothpick test is that it doesn’t do any visible damage to the surface of the meat, making it a great option when you’re serving guests.
Take a regular toothpick (either round or flat) and insert it into the meat between two of the rib bones. Cooked pork ribs will offer very little resistance, while raw meat will create a barrier that’s difficult to penetrate. Use the thickest part of the rib for greater accuracy. You might also want to insert the toothpick into a few different spots, just to make sure.
Method #4: The Timing Test
Amateur grillers who are used to indoor ovens are likely to appreciate this technique.
Set your grill or smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook baby back ribs for 3-4 hours at this temperature, increasing the time to 5-6 hours if you’re making either spare ribs or St. Louis style ribs. If desired, apply a layer of your favorite barbecue sauce and allow the meat to cook over high heat for 10-15 minutes longer.
For this test, you’re likely to need the aid of a thermometer to make sure that the ribs have cooked to a safe temperature. However, if you use the time frames we’ve provided, there shouldn’t be a problem in that regard.
Method #5: The Taste Test
Yes, that’s right–for this test, you’ll cut into the meat and take a small bite to determine whether it’s achieved the proper consistency. For obvious reasons, you’ll want to wait until you’re virtually certain that the meat is done. If it isn’t, there’s a chance you might contract a food-borne illness from the uncooked pork. Fortunately, experts have determined that it’s safe to consume pork as long as the internal temperature has reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit–what most would consider medium-rare.
Method #6: The Twist Test
For this test, use a small sharp knife to separate one of the rib bones from the rest of the rack. Grasp the rib in the middle (taking care not to burn yourself) and give it a quick sharp twist. If most of the meat falls off the bone, then the ribs should be done.
Remember that you shouldn’t have to twist too hard to get the results you’re looking for. The connective tissues in the pork should have broken down by now, meaning that the meat should slough gently away from the bone. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to put the rack back on the grill for a bit longer.
We’re not too crazy about this test because it takes an entire rib away from the rack before serving, but it’s fine if you’re only cooking for one or two people. Besides, you’ll get to eat the results.
Method #7: The Visual Test
Another less aesthetically pleasing technique is to cut into the rib rack and take a quick peek. Wait until you’re reasonably sure that the meat will be done before you resort to this test.
If the meat is white around the edges and either white or tan toward the center, then the ribs should be ready. Look out for any pink spots, as these usually indicate blood spots, meaning that the pork is still rare to medium-rare. One exception: If you’re making smoked pork ribs, then the meat around the edges will remain pink even when it’s fully cooked.
If you’re a beginner, you might want to stick to this method until you’re more comfortable with the basics. As you gain confidence, however, you should try to use some of the less invasive tests. Once you cut into the ribs, the exposed flesh will cook quickly, meaning that those spots could become overcooked before the rest of the rack is done.
Now that you’ve made your way through our extensive list of techniques, you’ll have a good idea how to tell if ribs are done. We heartily recommend the Bend Test, but the others have their benefits as well. Remember–the more often you cook ribs on the grill, the easier it will be for you to gauge their doneness. If you think that sounds like a thinly veiled excuse to fire up the grill more often, then we’re singing the same tune.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!