It takes a long time to smoke a rack of ribs, which makes it all the more disappointing when they don’t turn out right. If your ribs came out dry, we’re here to tell you what might have happened—and to give you a couple of options for damage control.
Ribs Came Out Dry
Dry ribs are often the result of impatience on the part of the pitmaster. The ribs need to cook for a long time at a low temperature in order to achieve that juicy, tender quality that you’re going for. If you take them off the heat too soon, the fat and collagen won’t have a chance to moisturize the meat.
Taking It Low and Slow: Why This Matters
There are several different types of pork ribs. One thing that they all have in common, though, is the need for a long, slow cooking process.
Ribs contain a lot of connective tissue, collagen, and fat. This translates into a hefty dose of pork flavor, but only if they’re cooked the right way. If you try to cook the ribs too fast, the meat will remain stringy and tough.
After several hours of cooking at a low temperature, ribs should be tender and juicy. The meat should slide off the bone under gentle pressure (contrary to popular belief, it shouldn’t fall right off the bone).
Why Your Ribs Came Out Dry
Most of the time, when ribs turn out too dry, it’s because they didn’t cook long enough. That might seem strange, considering that many lean cuts dry out as a result of overcooking. However, it makes more sense once you understand the process.
Ribs need time as well as heat in order to achieve the proper texture. You can cook them quickly over high heat, and they’ll technically be safe to eat. However, if they cook too fast, the collagen won’t have a chance to liquify and baste the meat.
What’s more, the fat will remain chewy and slippery instead of rendering out. Some of it might crisp up, but the meat won’t benefit from the added moisture that rendered fat provides.
How To Tell When Ribs Are Done
The best way to test ribs for doneness is to insert an instant-read thermometer into the meaty portion between two of the bones. Make sure to test the center of the rib rack, as the ones on the edges will cook through more quickly.
You should pull ribs off the heat when they reach an internal temp of 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Tent them loosely with foil, then wait 10 to 15 minutes before serving them. The temp should rise to 200-205 degrees, which is ideal for smoked ribs.
As an alternative, you can insert a toothpick into the center of the rack. When the toothpick slides in and out easily, the ribs should be done. A fully cooked rack of ribs will also bend slightly in the middle when you lift it up with a pair of tongs.
How long will this take? A rack of baby back ribs should cook for about 5 hours, while spare ribs might need 6 to 7 hours on the smoker. The cooking process will take longer if you opt to smoke the ribs unwrapped the entire time.
Why Your Ribs Came Out Chewy
Often, ribs turn out chewy because the membrane was still attached to the back of the rack. The membrane, or silverskin, is a thin whitish layer of caul fat that shrinks and toughens when the meat is cooked.
It’s usually easy to remove the membrane before you add the rub to the ribs. Just locate the end of the membrane, grasp it in one hand, and gently tug along the length of the rack until no trace of it remains. Paper towels make the membrane easier to grip.
The butcher may have removed the membrane already. If you don’t see the telltale layer of fat—which resembles a sheet of plastic stretched over the bone side of the ribs—then you shouldn’t have to worry about removing the membrane yourself.
The ribs might also be chewy because they were undercooked. Be sure to wait until the internal temperature hits the 195-degree mark before taking the ribs off the heat.
Are Overcooked Ribs Dry?
When ribs stay on the smoker for too long, they don’t necessarily dry out. Instead, the meat will go past the fall-off-the-bone stage and become unpleasantly mushy.
What’s more, overcooked ribs may lose their bark—that crunchy exterior that provides contrast to the tender meat. This is a particular concern if you’ve left the ribs inside the foil wrapper too long.
Try to follow the 3-2-1 method when making smoked spare ribs. That means smoking the ribs unwrapped for 3 hours, then wrapping them in foil for another 2. For the last hour, remove the foil wrapper to give the bark a chance to crisp up again.
For baby back ribs, the 2-2-1 method is a good strategy. The ribs get 2 hours over direct heat, 2 hours in the foil, and another hour unwrapped. Alternatively, you can use the 3-1-1 method to make sure the baby backs get plenty of smoke-kissed flavor.
How To Fix Dry Ribs
One option for fixing dry ribs is to mix up a 50-50 blend of apple cider vinegar and barbecue sauce, then apply it to the meat before wrapping the rack in foil. Put the prepared ribs back on the smoker or a low oven—no hotter than 300 degrees.
Cook the wrapped ribs gently for about 1 hour. The meat will steam inside the package, and the vinegar mixture will help to keep it tender without overcooking. After an hour, the ribs should have absorbed enough moisture and flavor to make them palatable.
Another strategy would be to repurpose the rib meat into a new dish that provides plenty of moisture on its own. Pull as much of the meat off the bones as you can, then add it to a stew, chili, or casserole. The smoky meat will give the dish rich layers of flavor.
The Bottom Line
If your ribs came out dry, it’s not the end of the world. Since this issue is often the result of undercooking, you may be able to fix matters by giving the meat more time on the smoker.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!