Most aspiring pitmasters are eager to find the ultimate recipe for pork ribs. When they’re done properly, ribs have a delicious hearty flavor, with meat that slides easily off the bone. But is it necessary to marinate the ribs before cooking? In this guide, we’ll help you decide whether this step is worth the extra time.
Should You Marinate Ribs?
Ribs are best when cooked for a long time at low temperatures. As a result, the meat should turn out tender and moist, even if you don’t use a marinade. If you do decide to use one, don’t leave the ribs in there for too long, or they may be too mushy when they’re cooked.
Marinades are usually made with acidic ingredients, such as citrus juice or vinegar. These components break down the proteins in the meat, thereby creating a tenderizing effect.
Some marinades use enzymes, like the ones found in buttermilk or yogurt, to promote tenderness. The results will be similar to the ones you’d get if you had used an acidic blend instead, but the flavor is usually milder.
Contrary to what some beginners think, a marinade doesn’t reach all the way to the center of the cut. Even if you leave the meat in the mixture for several days, the marinade will only penetrate about 1/8 inch or so beneath the surface.
What’s more, marinating for too long can give the meat a mushy texture. While this is more of a hazard with delicate meats like chicken or seafood, pork can also suffer ill effects from prolonged exposure to acidic ingredients.
Marinades vs. Dry Rubs
Dry rubs, sometimes called spice rubs or dry marinades, consist of herbs and spices with no added liquid. While wet marinades are more effective at tenderizing the meat, dry rubs add intense flavor. Spice rubs also contribute to the crispy exterior known as bark.
Coating pork ribs in a dry rub before grilling is a common practice. Some pitmasters prefer to apply the rub the night before, to give the spices a chance to fully adhere to the surface. If you’re planning to apply a sauce to the ribs when they’re done, however, you don’t need to add the rub until 2 hours or so before cooking.
About Rib Types
Pork ribs can be divided into four basic categories: spare ribs, back ribs, St. Louis-style, and country-style.
While all rib types are delicious, there are subtle differences between them. It’s important to understand these differences before deciding which one to buy, particularly if you’re considering a marinade.
Spare ribs are cut from the hog’s belly, just behind the shoulder. You might see them marketed as side ribs. The meat is rich and succulent, owing to the high fat content. Racks typically include 11 to 13 ribs.
Back ribs, which are commonly known as baby backs or loin back ribs, come from the spinal region. A typical rack contains 10 to 13 ribs; the smaller ones are called cheater racks. You can expect a rack of baby backs to weigh about 1 to 2 pounds. These have leaner meat than spare ribs, but they’re tasty, tender, and quite popular overall.
St. Louis-style ribs come from the same section as the spare rib. In fact, they’re the exact same cut, except that the St. Louis-style racks have been trimmed to remove the cartilage and tips. As a result, they have a more uniform shape that helps them cook evenly.
The term “country-style” is not as specific as the rib types listed above. When you see this label, it could refer to a few different cuts.
Real country-style ribs are pork rib chops, which are cut from the shoulder (or blade) section of the loin. A portion of the rib bone may be included, but they contain more meat than bone.
Sometimes, butchers will use this label on strips of Boston butt that include portions of the shoulder blade bone. You can prepare and eat these the same way, but they’re not technically ribs at all.
Should You Marinate Ribs or Not?
Of the rib types we’ve listed here, baby back ribs would benefit from a marinade the least. The meat is lean and tender as a rule, particularly when they’re prepared using the 2-2-1 or 3-2-1 method.
Spare ribs, their St. Louis-style counterparts, and country-style ribs are another story. Marinating the meat will help tenderize it, contributing to the melt-in-your-mouth texture that you’re looking for. On the other hand, you’ll want to use caution to ensure that the ingredients won’t overwhelm the robust pork flavor.
In the end, it’s your call to make. If you want to experiment with flavors that you can’t get from dry rubs and sauces, feel free to use a marinade. Just try not to go overboard with the acid, or you’ll wind up with mushy ribs.
For best results, plan to marinate ribs for 2 to 8 hours. You can also leave them in the marinade overnight, if that works better for you. Whenever possible, try not to let them marinate for more than 24 hours.
On the other hand, if you’d prefer not to take the time to marinate, you won’t be missing much. A good dry rub should provide sufficient seasoning, and if you elect to use a sauce, you’ll be adding moisture to the ribs as well.
What About Brining?
Brining—or the act of soaking the meat in a saltwater solution before cooking—has gained popularity in the last couple of decades. The salt helps the meat retain moisture, so the end result is nice and juicy.
You can brine ribs instead of marinating them, but we wouldn’t recommend doing both. While the brine solution shouldn’t be overpowering on its own, adding a marinade on top might make the ribs taste too salty.
Should you elect to brine the ribs, use a solution of about 1 gallon of liquid for every cup of salt. Feel free to experiment with other seasonings, depending on what you’re serving with the ribs or whether you’re using a sauce. Some popular ingredients include brown sugar, garlic, onion powder, cumin, peppercorns, apple cider, and beer.
Brine the ribs for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours. Some chefs recommend leaving the racks in the brine for up to 48 hours, but we think 24 hours is sufficient.
Again, it’s not necessary to brine or marinate ribs. You can simply season a rack of ribs with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, smoke them low and slow, and slather on your favorite style of barbecue sauce when you’re done. This technique yields results that are often just as satisfying as more complex methods.
Tips on Sauce Application
Don’t make the mistake of confusing barbecue sauce with marinade. Both condiments can be an asset to the barbecue, but they can’t be used interchangeably.
The majority of barbecue sauces (especially commercially prepared ones) contain high volumes of sugar. That means the sauce will burn if it’s exposed to direct heat for too long.
To avoid this, apply the sauce no more than 30 minutes before taking the meat off the grill. It’s best to wait until the ribs are within a few degrees of your target temperature. That way, you can be sure that the meat will be done before the sauce starts to burn.
One final tip: Try not to go overboard with the sauce. The last thing you want is to overwhelm the flavors you’ve worked so hard to perfect. You can always serve more sauce on the side if you deem it necessary.
Ideas For Rib Marinades
Basic Baby Back Rib Marinade
- 1 cup chicken stock or broth
- 1 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
Yields enough for 2 racks of baby backs (about 4-5 pounds)
Simple Country-Style Rib Marinade
- 1/2 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Yields enough for about 3 pounds of country-style ribs
All-Purpose Rib Marinade
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 6 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon prepared yellow or Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
Yields enough for about 3-4 pounds of ribs (any type)
Whiskey Marinade for Baby Back Ribs
- 1/3 cup whiskey
- 1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
- 1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Yields enough for about 3 racks of baby back ribs (4-5 pounds)
The Bottom Line
Marinating allows you to experiment with different flavors and tenderizing ingredients to achieve the results you want. Although the process isn’t necessary when dealing with naturally tasty cuts like baby backs and spare ribs, it shouldn’t do any harm unless you accidentally over-marinate the meat.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!