If you’ve ever cooked pork ribs on the grill or smoker, you likely often find yourself wondering when your pork ribs are done. Let’s break down exactly how to determine when your ribs are done.
Best Internal Temperature for Pork Ribs
We recommend cooking all cuts of pork ribs to an internal temperature between 198 and 202 degrees F. Unfortunately, taking an accurate internal temperature in pork ribs is a difficult proposition due to thin layers of meat and interspersed bones. Most temperature readings taken directly in rib meat can vary pretty widely from one end of your rack to the other, and change based on proximity to a rib bone.
Despite these issues, an accurate instant-read thermometer and a few other tips and tricks to check for doneness will yield tender and juicy pork ribs every time.
Types of Pork Ribs
The most common pork ribs for grilling, smoking, and braising fall into four main cuts.
Spare ribs are flat and wide, loaded with great intramuscular fat due to their proximity to the belly. They also have a good amount of connective tissue that holds the ribs together and supports the internal organs of the hog. This combination of fat tissue makes spare ribs a great option for low and slow cooking to add tenderness and flavor.
St. Louis Spare Ribs
St. Louis spare ribs are cut down from a rack of full spare ribs. Typically, the end 2-3 bones are trimmed off and the top 2-3-inch section of the bones and cartilage are also removed. This trimming leaves St. Louis spare ribs with a more uniform appearance than other spares with all of the great fatty flavors you’d expect from the full rack.
Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs are possibly the most popular rib type for grilling. With slightly less fat than spare ribs and usually a bit more meat above the bone, these ribs make for great eating and work well in both low and slow smoking or hot and fast grilling applications.
Country Style Ribs
Country style pork ribs aren’t ribs at all (despite the label from the butcher counter). These “ribs” are actually 1.5-2-inch thick strips typically cut from the pork shoulder. Sometimes they include bone segments and sometimes they don’t, but they do have similar fat content to ribs and similar tough connective tissue. They are great to smoke and braise and then serve shredded and loaded with sauciness.
Checking for Doneness
As we mentioned at the top of the post, the temperature is only one of the many factors you can utilize to check for the doneness of your ribs. There is no “magic number” when it comes to temperature and rib perfection, but your thermometer can certainly be used in combination with the following tools to check twice for doneness.
A quality, instant-read thermometer will give you a great deal of information on what’s happening inside those ribs during the cooking process. The light connective tissue in ribs begins to break down around 195 degrees F. Anything under that temperature and your ribs will be chewy, stringy, and tough.
At 195 degrees F, that tissue starts to gelatinize and turn into tasty, melty deliciousness. Most ribs hit their sweet spot for doneness around 198 degrees F, but some take until 203 degrees F to be perfectly tender. This spread in final temperature is one reason why thermometers are a great jumping off-point for rib perfection, but not the be-all-end-all indicator.
Tips for Making the Best Ribs by Taking Rib Temperatures
Here are a few tips to help you get the most accurate temperature for ribs.
- Insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat, between any bones. If your probe is in a fat pocket or touching bones on your rack of ribs, you won’t get an accurate read.
- Use an instant-read thermometer to take temperatures quickly and avoid heat loss inside your grill or smoker. Losing too much heat due to slow temperature readings can drag out the time it takes for your ribs to finish cooking.
- Take the temperature in a couple of locations across the ribs. Having a few readouts will give you a better overall look at where your ribs are and allow you to make adjustments for hot spots and move the ribs around to account for thicker ribs taking longer to cook.
The Bend Test
Once your ribs are nearing your ideal finished internal temperature, you’ll start looking for other doneness indicators to give you the perfect finished rack of ribs.
One tool we use regularly is the “bend test.” The bend test requires you to use tongs to lift one end of your rib rack. Lift the end off of the grates, straight up. The other end of the rack will remain on the grill and you will be able to see a nice bend in the ribs and a slight shredding to the rib meat on top of the rack.
If the whole rack lifts up together, those tough connective tissues are still very tight and your ribs need more time to finish cooking. If your ribs break apart, you may have taken them too far (fall-off-the-bone tender ribs, anybody?).
Looking for bone pull-back is a very visual indicator for rib doneness, but admittedly the least accurate. Most often, when ribs are finished cooking and ready to come off the grill, you’ll notice that the meat has pulled back between the bones and about ½ inch of the bones will be exposed.
One reason this method isn’t as accurate is that it can definitely be exaggerated or understated based on what type of ribs you are cooking and how they were prepared. Spare ribs tend to pull back more than baby back ribs. Additionally, the pull-back on ribs can be enhanced by pressing the meat up in between the bones on the sides of the ribs during the cooking process to improve the visual appeal of the finished rib (this happens regularly in competitions).
Best Internal Temperature for Different Pork Ribs
Spare Ribs and St. Louis Style Ribs
200-202 degrees F is the best internal temperature for spare ribs and their trimmed-down counterpart, St. Louis spare ribs. This higher temperature is due to the fat content and muscle structure of these cuts.
Baby Back Ribs
198-200 degrees F is the best internal temperature for baby back ribs. These ribs tend to be leaner and can dry out if cooked too high. When taking the temperature on baby back ribs you want that thermometer to glide into the meat like it is sliding into softened butter. The ribs may not fall off the bone at this temperature so keep that in mind.
Your ideal temperature may be up above 200 degrees F to get them to completely fall off the bone, in which case you’ll want a bit of BBQ sauce to compensate for some of the lost moisture.
Country Style Ribs
202-205 degrees F is the best internal temperature for country style ribs. As these “ribs” are cut from the pork shoulder, they have quite a bit of fat and tend to hit their ideal texture at a higher temperature than true ribs. We like serving these shredded with some barbecue sauce as they are definitely fall-off-the-bone tender.
If you aren’t sure what type of rib is your favorite to cook and eat, we recommend buying single racks in each cut from the grocery store and cooking them side by side. This will give you a first hand taste tasting opportunity to try each out and see what your family prefers
All ribs are delicious, but some people prefer the fattiness of a spare rib while others prefer the meatiness of a baby back. The only way to know what you like is to give them a try.
If you buy your ribs frozen, you’ll want to defrost them completely before attempting to cook. Cooking meats from frozen can drastically alter the cooking time. Cooking frozen ribs will result in them being a bit drier because of the higher heat used to get them to the finished temperature.
Membrane Removal with Paper Towels
One step that can impact the final texture of your ribs, even more than temperature, can be your decision to leave or remove the papery membrane on the bone side of the ribs. This membrane is thin and white. As you cook your ribs the membrane dries out and can turn leathery.
To combat that undesirable bite of papery/dry membrane, most people choose to remove it completely. Simply lift one end of the membrane using a butter knife, wiggle it loose, grip it firmly with a paper towel and peel it away from the rib bones.
Others prefer to leave the membrane, but to avoid the excess bite of the tough membrane, they use a sharp knife to score the membrane all across the bone side of the ribs. This makes for an easier bite-through experience.
How Long to Cook Ribs
The most useless indicator of rib doneness is the amount of time they spend on the grill. You can cook ribs with black pepper, salt, and garlic powder rub in an oven and then finish on a grill. Or you can spend 6-7 hours low and slow smoking, braising in brown sugar and apple juice, and saucing your ribs to fall-off-the-bone-tenderness.
The amount of time your ribs take depends entirely on the type of ribs you buy and your overall cooking temperature on the grill. Most importantly, and for best results, you want to avoid a magic number for time and shoot for a texture of ribs you enjoy.
Are You Looking for a Cooking Method for Fall-off-the-Bone Smoked Ribs?
Then you are in the right place. The 3-2-1 method of smoking ribs is the easiest way to get fall-off-the-bone, tender ribs. It’s easy to remember that you cook them for 3 hours, then 2 hours, then 1 hour. Thanks to our friends at The Grilling Dad (https://thegrillingdad.com/) here is a sure fire way to achieve ribs nirvana.
- A rack of baby back ribs or spare ribs
- Dry rub (optional)
- Brown sugar
- Apple juice or apple cider vinegar
- Peel off the undesirable (on bone side of the rack of ribs) membrane
- If using a rub, liberally sprinkle it on both sides of the baby back ribs/spare ribs
- Preheat your smoker to 225 degrees F and smoke for 3 hours, directly on the rack, bone side down
- Carefully pull the ribs off the grates. Put them on aluminum foil (about 3x larger than the ribs) bone side down
- Pour about ⅓ cup of apple juice or apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup brown sugar, and a few tablespoons of butter in the aluminum foil with the ribs then seal the foil
- Let them smoke bone down for 2 hours, still at 225 degrees F
- Carefully pull the ribs back off the grill being careful not to puncture the foil because you’ll have hot liquid running down your leg (not fun)
- Let the steam escape by slowing opening the foil and removing the ribs
- Use a sauce brush and liberally apply BBQ sauce after placing the pork ribs on the smoker rack or grill meat side up
- Let them smoke for a final 1 hour at 225 degrees F. Get your sides ready because it’s almost chow time. Your smoked ribs are almost ready