You can’t judge good ribs by temperature alone. While the pork ribs internal temp is essential, the color, texture, and feel are just as vital. Of course, the level of doneness depends on how you cook your ribs and what you intend to do with them. The first question is, how do you like your ribs? Competition tender? Fall of the bone? The choice is yours. So let’s find out how to tell when ribs have cooked to your preferred doneness.
When are Pork Ribs Done
According to the USDA, pork is cooked at a minimum temperature of 145°F (63°C). The key word here is minimum. You can eat pork ribs at 145 degrees F., but they won’t be tender. Barbecued ribs are cooked to a much higher internal temperature. That is the secret to tender rib meat and the difference between “done” and “finished.”
Done versus Finished
If the USDA guideline is merely a guideline, so is any number you read on the internet. As the saying goes, when it comes to barbecue, the meat lets you know when it is finished. That is not to say that temperature isn’t important. Internal temps between 195°F and 203°F (90°C to 95°C) is a great place to start. The only problem? How to measure the internal temperature of a slab of meat filled with bones?
Why You Should Cook Ribs Passed “Done.”
Done, by official standards, means safe to eat. Though, that doesn’t always indicate the preferred doneness temperature. Do you like medium-rare steak? It probably isn’t cooked to meet safety standards. Ribs, however, are tough at the recommended minimum cooking temperature. They become tender when cooked low and slow. Reaching an internal temperature of 200°F lets the meat soak up smoke flavor and breaks down tough cartilage and collagen, encouraging sugar, gelatin, and water production.
Can You Overcook Ribs?
Can pork ribs be overcooked? Yes and no. Think about it this way. You can cook meat to extreme temperatures if you live off the USDA guidelines. The truth is that ribs can be cooked at a wide range of temperatures. Some methods might call for very high internal temps. But as long as the meat is tender and moist, it is perfect regardless of the temperature (provided it is safe).
Checking the Pork Ribs Internal Temp
Barbecue is about the look and the feel of the meat. While a temperature probe or instant-read thermometer are useful tools, they are just tools. There are several ways to test ribs for doneness, and I recommend using a combination.
Temp Checking Pork Ribs
Rib meat can be less than an inch thick and about a half-inch wide. Bone and fat also heat differently than meat. Finding the right place to get an accurate measurement can be challenging. For this reason, it is important to test between each bone, particularly in the middle of the rack. Doing this will help you determine proper doneness.
Ribs Bend Test
A raw rack of pork ribs will easily fold in half. The meat is loose and flexible. As it cooks, the meat contracts, and the rack becomes rigid. As the internal temperature of the ribs starts moving above 190°F, the meat breaks down, and the rack loosens. If you lift it with a pair of tongs in the center of the rack, it will bend, and the crust will crack. A fully cooked rack of ribs should bend into a U shape. If the ribs are overcooked, the rack will break.
Bone Pull Back
As meat cooks, it shrinks due to water loss. As this happens, the meat will pull back from the tips of the rib bones. Depending on the type of ribs and the level of doneness, this can be anywhere from a quarter inch to nearly an inch (with large beef ribs, it will be more). Consider this a sign of how well the ribs are cooked.
Slow-cooking ribs causes the bones to harden and dry. Also, the connective tissues that hold the meat to the bone start to break down. As this happens, the bones become loose. If you enjoy fall-off-the-bone ribs, they are ready as soon as you can slide the bones out of the rack. If you want to keep the meat on the bone, give the bones a light twist. They should move slightly. Since the meat has pulled back from the bone, you can get a hold of the end and twist it.
The testing methods above rely on textural changes in the meat as it cooks. Another way to get a feel for this is by poking the meat with something sharp. Poke the meat with a skewer, a toothpick, or the probe of your meat thermometer. It should slip in easily with little resistance. If this is the case, the ribs are done. Some people call this the toothpick test.
Any of the tests above will help you achieve tender ribs. Use them if you’re new to cooking ribs on a grill or smoker. Not only will it help you improve your technique, but it will teach you what to look for. Experienced pitmasters rarely need fancy thermometers. And they don’t need to poke and twist and bend their ribs. They know by color, smell, and feel. With experience, you, too, can reach this level of expertise.
Pork Ribs Internal Temp Chart
Temperatures are a guide. Use them accordingly. The important part is cooking a rack of ribs that you and your family will enjoy.
|Ribs by Type||Smoking Temp||Target Temp|
|Spare Ribs (St. Louis)||225°F||195° to 203°F|
|Baby Back Ribs||225°F||190° to 195°F|
|Country Style Pork Ribs||250°F||145° to 155°F|
|Beef Back Ribs||225°F||190° to 195°F|
|Beef Short Ribs (Plate)||225°F||195° to 200°F|
|Country Style Ribs (Beef)||250°F||175° to 180°F|
Wrapping, The Stall, and Fixing Bad Ribs
There are millions of secrets for how to phenomenal ribs. Most of these tips are worthless. However, you can do a few things to make tender, moist, and flavorful ribs.
Most BBQ aficionados remove the membrane from the underside of the ribs. This is especially important for tender pork spare ribs (St. Louis cut ribs) or baby back ribs. To remove the membrane, lay the rack out, bone side up. With a blunt instrument like a butter knife, lift the membrane away from the bone in the center. Slide the knife upward along the bone, and work your fingers underneath. Use a paper towel to get a good grip, and pull the membrane away from the bones.
BBQ rubs provide delicious flavor, but they also create color. This is why you see so much paprika in rubs. It has a nice red hue that adds beauty to the bark. A mustard binder will add great color from the turmeric. The salt in your rub absorbs moisture from the meat and helps hold it in place. Sugar, mainly brown sugar, will caramelize on the meat’s surface, adding color and a mildly sweet flavor.
Wrapping ribs is an old trick. It holds in heat and moisture and helps keep the meat nice and tender. Known as the “Texas Crutch,” this method is standard for most recipes. Wrap ribs with aluminum foil to retain moisture and produce a tender, ‘steamed’ rib. Or you can wrap the ribs with pink butcher paper, which produces less moisture and keeps the bark intact. Though wrapping keeps ribs from drying out, it can also reduce the amount of smoke flavor absorbed into the meat.
Let’s say you’ve put a rack of ribs on the grill, smoker, or in the oven to cook. The temperature rises slowly but consistently. Then, around 150°F, the temperature stops going up. It can hold steady for an hour sometimes. This is referred to as ‘the stall,’ and despite what some might say, it is not your enemy. It is during this cooking time that the magic happens. Collagen breaks down, and the meat becomes tender even though the cooking seems to stop. Monitor the stall, but don’t worry about it. Let the process naturally progress, and the temperature will rise quickly afterward.
Tough ribs are undercooked. They also fail the bend, twist, and poke tests listed above. If the pork ribs’ internal temp is above 200°F and the ribs still seem tough, remove them from the cooker, wrap them tightly in foil, and place them in a warm place to rest for at least 30 minutes. I wrap them in foil, cover them with a clean towel and place the ribs in a cooler to keep warm. They will increase in tenderness as they rest.
Dry ribs have cooked for too long but aren’t necessarily overcooked. They’ve just spent too much time in a dry, hot environment. Wrapping will solve this. If they hit the optimal internal temperature but are still dry, it’s time to wrap the ribs. Adding moisture with a 1/4 cup of warmed apple juice in the foil packet will work wonders. Again, keep the ribs warm (but not heated) in the wrapping for 30 minutes. Also, dry meat is why barbecue sauce was invented.
Beef Rib Doneness
There are two types of beef ribs. The first is beef back ribs. These ribs are mostly bone, with the bulk of meat in between. Beef back ribs cook similarly to baby back pork ribs. That makes them harder to temp check, so they need to be tested more by feel than by any number on your digital thermometer. A rack of beef plate ribs has a thick layer of meat on top and is cooked like brisket. These ribs are easier to monitor than beef back ribs. Test the temperature in the thickest part of the meat to determine doneness.