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Toothpick & Bend Test For Ribs: Are These Methods Reliable?

It takes a long time to cook ribs until they’re tender to the bite. The exact length of time depends on the type of ribs you buy, the size of the rack, and the reliability of the smoker temperature. That’s why it’s useful to have a trick or two up your sleeve that will help you check the progress of your barbecue.

Toothpick & Bend Test For Ribs

To test ribs for doneness, you can either insert a toothpick into the center of the rack or lightly bounce the rack on the grilling grate. If the toothpick goes in and out easily, or if the rack bends slightly when you bounce it, the ribs have probably reached the right consistency.

At What Temperature Are Ribs Considered Done?

Pork is considered done when it achieves an internal temp of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the meat is safe to eat, according to the USDA.

That doesn’t mean you can pull ribs off the smoker when they reach 145 degrees, however. Pork ribs are fatty cuts of meat that contain a great deal of collagen. In order for the fat and collagen to break down, the meat needs to cook to at least 165 degrees. At this point, you’ll be closer to the finish line, but not quite there yet.

The meat needs to cook to at least 195 degrees before it’s tender enough to slide off the bone when you bite into it. In our opinion, this is the ideal time to take the ribs off the heat. The internal temp will rise by another 5-10 degrees while the ribs are resting, so they should be at about 200-205 by the time you serve them.

Some chefs recommend removing the ribs from the smoker a little bit sooner than that—at around the 180-185 degree mark. They may or may not have reached your desired consistency at that temperature, which is why the toothpick and bend tests are useful skills to have in your arsenal.

The goal is to stop cooking the ribs before they’ve cooked past 205 degrees. If they’re allowed to overcook, the meat may be dry or mushy.

How Long To Smoke Ribs

When smoking ribs, we like to set the temperature to 225 degrees. This ensures low-and-slow cooking, which will allow the ribs to reach the desired texture.

A rack of baby back ribs, which typically weighs 2 to 2.5 pounds, should take roughly 5 hours to cook at this temp. Meanwhile, 6 hours is the estimated cooking time for a 3-4 pound rack of spare ribs.

What’s The Best Way To Test Ribs For Doneness?

A calibrated instant-read meat thermometer is the only reliable method. If you have one of these on hand, you won’t have to second-guess your other techniques.

To calibrate a digital thermometer, fill a regular glass with ice and cold water. Place the thermometer probe in the center of the glass, taking care not to touch the sides or bottom. Stir a few times, then hold the thermometer still until the temperature holds steady.

Next, check the digital readout. Does it read 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius)? If so, the thermometer is calibrated and ready to go. If not, push the reset button and manually adjust the readout to 32 degrees Fahrenheit while still holding the probe steady in the ice water.

Can Ribs Be Pink When They’re Cooked?

Most smoked meats will have a pinkish tinge to them. This comes about when the myoglobin in the meat—the protein that gives raw meat its red or pink color—binds with the nitric oxide from the smoke. In the case of pork ribs, the meat was already pink, but this reaction allowed it to retain some of its rosiness instead of turning brown.

That said, the juices should run clear when you separate the ribs after cooking. The meat might still be safe to eat if you see a little bit of pink, but it won’t have the right texture.

In other words, if you’re using the smoker to cook your ribs, it’s fine for them to be slightly pink beneath the surface. On the other hand, if you’ve prepared them in the oven, any pinkish color indicates that they need to cook longer.

The Toothpick Test

As long as you keep a calibrated thermometer handy as a backup tool, you can take a couple of shortcuts to gauge the doneness of the ribs. The toothpick test is one of the most popular, and it doesn’t require any fancy equipment.

To perfect this technique, insert a toothpick (either flat or round) into the fissure between two ribs. The test is more reliable if you choose a spot toward the center of the rack, since the ones on the end will likely cook faster.

When the ribs are getting close to done, the toothpick should slide in and out with little resistance. If it’s difficult to insert the toothpick, make sure you’re not pressing up against any bone. If you’re not, and the toothpick still won’t go in easily, leave the ribs in the smoker for a while longer.

The Bend Test

This technique is even simpler than the toothpick test. Grasp one of the short ends of the rib rack using a set of heatproof tongs. Lift it so that the opposite end is resting on the cooking grate and bounce it up and down a couple of times. Watch the center of the rack to see if any cracks appear. When they do, the ribs should be about ready.

Note that you don’t want the meat to be slipping right off the bones when you lift the rack. Once the ribs have cooked to this point, there’s a good chance that they’ll be too dry.

Other Methods

The toothpick and bend tests aren’t the only shortcuts available. Try one of these alternatives to hone your meat-testing skills even further.

The Peek

The next time you buy a rack of pork ribs, take a close look at the edges. Does the meat stretch all the way to the end of the bones? Most of the time, it will—at least when the ribs are raw.

As the meat cooks, it shrinks, which means more of the rib bones will be exposed. When the ribs are done, you should be able to see about 1/4 inch of bone protruding from the edge of the rack.

While it serves as a decent rule of thumb, this isn’t a foolproof method. For one thing, meat begins to shrink as soon as it’s exposed to heat. 1/4 inch of visible bone doesn’t necessarily mean the ribs are cooked all the way through, especially when you’re trying to achieve a target temp of 195 degrees.

Conversely, this level of shrinkage may not occur until the meat is overcooked. This is a particular hazard when you smoke the ribs at a low temperature, which is the standard recommendation.

The Twist

The twist test is the preferred method of the hungry griller. Insert a small knife into the meaty portion that connects one of the end ribs with the rest of the rack. Carefully grasp the rib in your fingers (you might want to use heatproof gloves) and twist sharply. If the rib comes free from the rack, leaving most of the meat behind, the ribs are done.

This method affects the presentation of the ribs, because you’ll be separating one of them from the pack before you’ve even taken them off the smoker. For that reason, we don’t recommend it if you’re cooking for a large group.

The Taste

As we pointed out, it’s safe to eat pork as long as it’s cooked to 145 degrees. If you’re approaching the end of your estimated cooking time, there’s a good chance that the ribs crossed this threshold a while back.

That means you can taste the meat to find out whether it’s achieved the right texture or not. All you need to do is slice off a small segment of the rib meat and wait for it to cool slightly before taking a bite.

This is another test that has adverse effects on the presentation. Use it if you’re only cooking for one or two people. Also, remember not to try it too early, or you’ll run the risk of contracting a food-borne illness.

The Bottom Line

As you grow more confident, you can experiment with a variety of shortcuts to test the temperature and consistency of your ribs. A thermometer is still the only tried-and-true method, but there’s no harm in sharpening your own skills as well.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!