If you offer me properly cooked, brisket, pulled pork, or pork ribs and said I could only have one of them, chances are good that I’d pick the ribs. There’s something so satisfying about the gentle tug it takes to pull the meat from the bone, the tactile feel of eating with your fingers, the pile of bones that stacks up higher and higher as you become fuller and fuller. Ribs are fun.
But ribs are—though to a lesser extent than brisket—shrouded in mystery. There are so many options! Spare or baby back? St. Louis? Dry or sauced? 3-2-1? 2-2-1? Must the membrane be peeled? What temp do I cook ribs at?
There is no need for such confusion. Ribs can be dead simple, with just a few easy-to-remember critical temperatures. Once you have those down, everything else is just refining a recipe to your taste. Here, we want to lay out the basics of ribs, from the different kinds to the temperatures you need to cook them to juicy, tender perfection. Let’s get into it!
Rib types: What is the difference between baby back ribs, spare ribs, and St. Louis-style ribs
To begin with, there are three types or styles of ribs that we mean when we talk about pork ribs. There are baby back ribs (also called pork back ribs), spare ribs, and St. Louis-style ribs. We’ve included a picture with all three kinds laid out next to each other for reference.
Baby back ribs
First, there, on the side, you see baby back ribs, which come from the top of the rib cage, right by where it attaches to the spine. These ribs are more curved than the others and, by dint of their location directly under the loin, very meaty. In fact baby back ribs often have an extra “cushion” of meat atop their bone structure. This meat is transitional meat, not quite loin, not quite rib. The higher meat-to-bone ratio helps to account for their continued popularity, even all these years after a certain fast-casual chain dropped the jingle that made them famous. The thicker meat also means that they cook differently, taking more time for the heat to reach the center of the cut.
(Baby back ribs are equivalent to beef back ribs, though no butcher will allow any bit of ribeye to remain as a meat-cushion atop the beef version!)
Next come spare ribs. Spare ribs take up where the baby backs let off and go all the way down to the belly. Full spares have a section of cartilage-y bits near their “natural” (uncut) end. They also include the sternum bone, ensconced in one corner of the slab. A full slab of spares is wide and takes up a lot of real estate on the smoker, but, because of those cartilage bits some other anatomical stumbling blocks, it doesn’t necessarily provide much more enjoyment per square inch than does a rack of baby backs. That being said, they are the default rib in the American BBQ mind, and are widely considered the “original.”
St. Louis-style ribs
This brings us to St. Louis-style ribs. St. Louis is famous for its BBQ sauce consumption, and they tend to make their ribs on the saucy side, but the sauce has nothing to do with St. Louis-style ribs! St. Louis-style is a specific cut of ribs, recognized by the USDA as “Pork Ribs, St. Louis Style” (NAMP/IMPS 416A), consisting of a slab of spare ribs trimmed of the sternum, rip tips, and cartilage. They are a tidy rectangular shape and have relatively straight, flat bones. Chances are good that when people talk about spare ribs, this is actually what they mean. Though they may cost a little more than spares per pound, I think the value is solid. Yes, some people love the knobbly bits, etc. on the spares, but in general, most people just want to pick up that bone, suck the meat off of it, toss it down and keep going. St. Louis-style is great for that.
What are country-style ribs?
Country-style ribs aren’t ribs. In fact, I can’t for the life of me fathom how they got that name unless it was handed them by a grocery store executive from the city who didn’t know thing-one about ribs—or the country. Country-style “ribs” are strips of meat from the shoulder end of the loin and the shoulder itself. Yes, they are vaguely rib shaped, but this (very useful) cut of meat is about as much a rib as the trotter is. I don’t understand the “country-style” bit. “The country” is where BBQ got its start, and that’s where ribs that are actually ribs are eaten. Is the idea supposed to be that they’re rustic? More rustic than carving up a slab of ribs with a big knife right at your plate and eating them off the bone with your hands, smearing sauce all up your face? Sir, I think not!
Rib-eating needs a roll of paper towels—country-style ribs get a fork. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good cut for many things, but I wish the guy that thought up the name had gone a different direction. 1
Cooking pork ribs
Armed with a better understanding of rib species, we can move on to their preparation. You’ll find voices for and against every choice that lies on this path, but ultimately there are very few things that must be done to get good ribs. You must season them to make them delicious. You must melt the collagen and other connective tissues in these otherwise tough cuts to make them tender. In fact, the melting of collagen into gelatin—a process that happens mostly above 170°F (77°C)—is of prime importance. If you served me tough ribs, well seasoned or tender ribs that I can shake salt on at the table, I’d take the latter over the former in a heartbeat. But we don’t have to either/or this thing. We can get the seasoning and the tenderness.
Removing membrane from ribs: is it necessary?
First, as we move through the preparation, comes the question of removing the rib membrane. On the back (bone) side of every rack of ribs, there is a fibrous membrane that runs down its length. It is generally accepted that this should be removed. (Well, not every rack has it. Some producers will remove the membrane before selling the ribs. If those are the ribs you have, you can get very frustrated trying to remove a membrane that isn’t there.)
To remove the membrane, try to find a loose corner of it, making a small incision under it if necessary. Then get a good grip on it (a tea towel or paper towel will help), and pull it up. Your chances of getting it all in one go are small. Instead, you will most likely take it off in fits and starts, patchwise. This is fine and happens all the time to everyone. But boy it feels good when you get a whole membrane to come off in one swipe.
But what if, despite your best efforts, the membrane just won’t come loose? Don’t worry about it. Removing the membrane is, as I said, generally recommended, but by no means is it a requirement for good ribs. If your rib membrane is being stubborn, score it with a sharp knife and move on. I’ve made several slabs both ways, and the scored ribs stand up to their stripped counterparts very well.
Trimming the flap from spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs.
If you’re cooking spare or St. Louis ribs, there will usually be a flap/mound of meat on the bone side of the slab. To make for more even heating and uniform doneness across the slab, this should be trimmed down. Try to get it pretty close to the bone, but don’t worry if you don’t get it all. On our rib cooks, we like to season that trimmed meat and toss it onto the smoker next to the ribs so that we can have a mid-cook pre-rib snack.
Do I need a binder to apply rub to ribs?
As you can see here, we chose to use a little bit of yellow mustard as a binder for our seasoning. Though I like this step and never skip it, it is by no means necessary. Applying the rub directly to the meat will work, and probably just as well! But I like the instant adhesion you get to some of the drier (fattier) parts and to the bones when you use a binder. Mustard is traditional, but you can use whatever you like. The point of the binder is not to add flavor (you won’t taste this few teaspoons of mustard after all is said and done), but just to get the rub to stick. I like it, but if you’re going for a pared-down, simple rib cook, feel free to leave it out.
Applying the seasoning
Seasoning ribs is fun and easy. You can use whatever you like to season them, from your favorite BBQ rub to a simple combination of salt and pepper. (We did both for the images in this post.) Note that though they are called rubs, BBQ seasonings are most easily applied by shaking them onto the ribs to evenly coat them, then patting the rub into the meat so that it adheres. A spice-shaker or the rub bottle itself is a great way of applying the rub.
Once the rub is applied, you want to let it “melt” in a bit. This isn’t actual melting, of course, but the drawing of liquid out from the surface of the meat into the rub. The salt pulls water from the cells through osmosis, and the water brings proteins and other molecular bits with it. This coating of protein-rich juices and spices will eventually cook to form the bark on your ribs.
Note: to spritz ribs or not to spritz ribs?
If you read about BBQ a lot, you’ll run into all sorts of opinions about spritzing. Spritzing—opening the smoker and spraying the ribs with a liquid like vinegar, apple juice, or beer—will help prevent the bark from charring during a long cook and will help more smoke stick to the surface, but spritzing adds little flavor directly to your ribs, so don’t stress about that liquid you use.
While it’s good for bark (if applied after the bark has set) and good for smoke flavor, it is not thermally advantageous. In fact, spritzing can actually slow down the rib cook. Spraying ribs with liquid will cool them as that liquid evaporates in the smoker—possibly even lowering their internal temperature—stealing the thermal momentum they have achieved. How much time you lose when you’re already fighting a stall is hard to say, but it certainly won’t speed things up!
If you decide to cook your ribs naked (the ribs, not you) then spritzing can really help your bark, and you should consider spritzing every half hour or so once the bark has set up. But if you’re wrapping your ribs, you won’t need a spritz. (More on that directly.)
Smoking ribs and temperature: cooking to temp, not to time
You may have noticed that in the above discussion of rib-types, there was no mention of the different times and temperatures needed for the different styles. The reason for this is that, in the end, you don’t need to cook them differently. It’s like with steak: medium-rare for a tenderloin is the same temperature as medium-rare for a ribeye or a sirloin. Cooking ribs to temperature is the same.
Ok. I know that many, many people will read this and say things like “you don’t need to cook ribs to temp, just use the bend test” or “I’ve never cooked ribs to temperature before and they’re delicious.” So I want to be clear up front: I’m not saying you must cook ribs to temperature and disregard the 3-2-1 rule or anything like that. I’m not saying the bend test isn’t efficacious (necessarily). I’m saying that, especially if you’re not a bona fide pit-master yet, you can simplify your rib cooking by relying on only a couple of key temperatures, and that doing so will give you easy results without a lot of fussing about details.
Forget the lore, forget the “traditions.” Make killer ribs by cooking them in a smoker burning at 275°F (135°C) up to an internal temp of 160°F (71°C), then wrapping them in foil and cooking them until they reach 203°F (95°C). Then let them “dry out” in the smoker for another 20 minutes, unwrapped. Use a leave-in probe thermometer like Signals™ to monitor the temps and they’ll turn out great.
By cooking the ribs to 160°F (71°C), you give the bark a chance to set up and you give the meat a chance to absorb smoke flavor. Great, we like that but what about the wrapping?
We wrap ribs to combat the “stall.” When meat cooks past about 155°F (68°C), its fibers contract, expelling water. The water makes its way to the surface and evaporates in the hot smoker—in essence, the meat perspires. This evaporation cools the meat, creating an hours-long time during the cook wherein the temperature nearly flatlines. As if that weren’t bothersome enough, the stall happens just outside of the good collagen-melt zone. So the meat sits there, not getting appreciably more tender for what can feel like an age.
By wrapping your ribs in foil (or paper, if you like) you create a high-humidity environment where there is no evaporation. All the heat that goes into the ribs goes into raising the temperature and melting the collagen. By the time the ribs reach 203°F (95°C) they will usually have had enough time in the collagen-melt zone to be nice and tender.
You may still be unconvinced. But here’s the thing. Each rack of ribs is different, each smoker is different, each location within the smoker is different. We cooked six racks of ribs at the same time and they all reached 160°F (71°C) at wildly different times. If we had wrapped the baby backs when we wrapped the spares, their bark would have been destroyed as it hadn’t even set by that time.
Consider this graph from the ThermoWorks app of the temperatures for the racks of ribs on the bottom grate of our smoker. It shows how different the times to certain temperatures can be. The rack closest to our heat source reached 160°F (71°C) well before the others did. We wrapped each set by temp, not by time. (Also, you can see that each rack had at least partially stalled by the time we wrapped it and you can see the how the wrap beat the stall as the temperatures rise much more quickly after each wrapping.)
Using hard-and-fast time rules for cooking ribs (or any food, really) is like using gallons of gas expended to measure distance. Sure, there is a correlation in there, but based on your car’s MPG and how fast you drive on the way, you may not end up at your desired destination. Measuring miles is far more accurate for distance, and the same goes for temperature and doneness.
It’s like Steven Raichlen says:
The most accurate way to assess the doneness of smoked foods is to check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer. Even the pros do it. Especially the pros do it.—Steven Raichlen, Project Smoke, pg. 30
Cook at 275°F (135°C) with a leave-in probe thermometer until 160°F (71°C), wrap the ribs in foil, and cook to 203°F (95°C), then verify both final temp and tenderness with an instant-read thermometer like Thermapen®. That’s it! Everything else is personal preference, a question of how much time you want to put into preparation, how much you want to work on getting a very specific kind of “bite.” All six racks that we cooked clung to the bone just until we bit and pulled a little bit and left a clean bite mark. If I wanted them to fall off the bone, I’d give them another degree or two in the foil.
Using thermometers like Signals and Thermapen and these simple, critical temperatures is the fastest, easiest gateway to tremendous homemade ribs. Give it a try and I’m pretty sure you’ll experience happy cooking.
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