Even if you’re new to grilling, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “falling off the bone.” Amateur pitmasters often use this phrase to describe pork ribs that are perfectly done—at least in their opinion. Should ribs fall off the bone when you take them off the smoker? Let’s take a closer look.
Should Ribs Fall Off The Bone?
We don’t recommend cooking ribs until the meat falls right off the bone. Instead, we aim for an internal temperature of 200-205 degrees, taking the ribs off the heat when they cross the 195-degree threshold. At this point, the meat should come off the bone easily, but it will still have a decent amount of “chew.”
Why Do Ribs Need To Cook For So Long?
The meat that surrounds pork ribs is high in fat and collagen. That means they need to cook to a minimum internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit to give the collagen a chance to break down. If you take the ribs off the heat sooner, they’ll be too tough and gristly to eat.
In fact, you should cook the ribs even longer than that if you want the meat to be nice and tender. 200-205 degrees is the recommended serving temperature, so we try to take the ribs off the smoker when they reach the 195-degree mark. During the resting period, the internal temp will continue to rise, meaning the meat should be perfect at serving time.
How Long To Smoke Ribs
Although the process takes a while no matter what type of pork rib you choose, some cook more quickly than others.
If you’re in a hurry, we would recommend using baby back ribs. Because they come from the upper portion of the rib cage, around the loin, the meat is relatively lean. When you set the smoker to 275 degrees, a rack of baby backs can be done in just 3 to 4 hours.
Spare ribs are larger, so they’ll take longer to cook. The average rack weighs 3 to 4 pounds. As long as the weight falls within this range, the spare ribs should be done in about 5 hours when the smoker temp is set to 275 degrees.
We should point out that 275 is a tad high for smoked ribs. Whenever possible, try to aim for a cooking temp of around 225 degrees. At this temperature, baby back ribs should be done in about 5 hours, while spare ribs usually take around 6 hours.
Should You Wrap The Ribs In Foil?
Wrapping the ribs in a double layer of butcher paper or aluminum foil will trap in heat and moisture, making it easier to predict the total cooking time. Because this method speeds the process along, it’s known in barbecue parlance as “the Texas crutch.”
It’s not necessary to wrap the ribs in order to achieve impressive results. However, it does give you better control over the timing. Should you opt to wrap the ribs, we would suggest using the 3-2-1 method for spare ribs, and either the 2-2-1 or the 3-1-1 for baby backs.
With the 3-2-1 method, you’ll place the spare ribs directly on the cooking grate for 3 hours. During this time, the meat will be infused with smoke flavor. At the 3-hour mark, you’ll take the ribs off the heat and wrap them in foil or butcher paper, then put them back in the smoker for 2 hours. During the last hour, you’ll remove the wrapper.
The 2-2-1 technique follows the same template, but the ribs are wrapped after 2 hours instead of 3. Because baby backs are smaller and leaner, they don’t really need the extra hour.
If you balk at the idea of steaming the ribs in foil for 2 hours, try the 3-1-1 method instead. As you’ve probably guessed, this entails leaving the ribs on the smoker for 3 hours, then wrapping them for 1 hour. Once again, you would remove the foil for the final stage.
Since we enjoy a hearty dose of smoke flavor and a nice crisp bark on our ribs, we prefer the 3-1-1 template over the 2-2-1. Try using it the next time you smoke a rack of baby back ribs.
If you use the 3-2-1 for baby backs, the meat might turn out too mushy. Conversely, spare ribs are better equipped to handle the extra hour in the foil, because they take longer to cook through anyway. With the 3-2-1 method, they’ll benefit from the full 3 hours of smoke, and the ribs should still turn out tender and juicy.
Should Ribs Fall Off The Bone?
It can be tempting to assume that fall-off-the-bone ribs are done to perfection. After all, if the meat is falling apart, that means it’s fork-tender. That’s what you want, isn’t it?
Yes and no. Your goal is to smoke the ribs until the meat slides off the bone under gentle pressure. For example, when you bite into the rib, you should be able to remove the meat from the bone using only your teeth.
However, when the meat falls into pieces as soon as you lift the rib rack with the tongs, it’s overcooked. The ribs should be rich and meaty, and not overly dry. Meat that’s falling apart will have the consistency of pot roast, which isn’t the result you’re looking for.
Tips On Testing Ribs For Doneness
Now that you know the ribs shouldn’t be literally falling off the bone, how can you tell when they’re ready? The only way to be positive is to test the internal temperature with a reliable meat thermometer. When the ribs have cooked to 195 degrees, it’s time to take them off the smoker and set them aside to rest.
There are also a few practical tests you can perform. While neither of these should be considered a substitute for a decent thermometer, they’re useful skills to have nonetheless.
First, use your tongs to grasp one end of the rib rack. Lift it most of the way off the cooking grate, then gently bounce it once or twice. When you see a crack appear toward the center of the rack, the ribs are approaching the finish line.
Another option would be to keep a box of toothpicks on hand. During the last half hour of the estimated cooking time, insert one of the toothpicks into the center of the rack, between two of the ribs. If you meet with resistance, the ribs need to cook longer. If the toothpick slides in easily, they’re probably done.
For the “peek test,” you’ll use the bones of the ribs as a built-in temperature gauge. Check the edges of the rack to see how much of the bone is peeking out. Often, when there’s about a quarter-inch of bone showing, the ribs are ready. Since this phenomenon might not occur until the ribs are overdone, this isn’t the most reliable method.
The Bottom Line
Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to cook ribs until the meat falls off the bone. That texture indicates that the meat is overcooked and dry. To avoid this fate, remove the ribs from the smoker when they’ve cooked to 195 degrees.
Of course, there’s no accounting for taste. Some people truly enjoy the texture of fall-off-the-bone ribs, perhaps because they smother the meat in barbecue sauce anyway. If this applies to you, go ahead and cook the ribs to your liking—even if it means they’re overdone by our standards.