Removing the membrane from ribs is one of the best ways to ensure that your BBQ pork ribs are as tender and perfectly smoked as possible. This meat prep guide will show you why you should remove it, and how. Here’s everything you need to know on how to remove the membrane from ribs.
BBQ ribs are one of my favorite dishes. Whether I’m grilling them or smoking them, there’s nothing more satisfying than presenting a beautiful rack of ribs at a grill party or tailgate.
Preparation is key with barbecue, and one of the most important things you can do when you trim the rib rack is to remove the membrane.
Check it out: Learn how to cook ribs on a charcoal grill
This layer of fat can be found on the underside of the rack. While it’s not harmful by any means, it can turn rubbery when cooked and make your meat tough and sometimes even inedible. If you’ve ever come across it when having pork spareribs, beef back, or even smoked venison ribs then you’ll know how nasty it can turn.
The good news is that it’s not difficult, and can be done by anyone.
In today’s guide I’m going to show you exactly how to remove the membrane from ribs, in 3 easy steps.
What is the membrane on ribs?
The membrane is found on most rack of pork and beef ribs from the butcher and is really easy to spot. It’s the layer of silver or white skin found on the underside of the rack (source).
This is sometimes referred to as silver skin (source) and is fairly commonly found on a lot of cuts of meat, particularly pork, lamb, and beef.
There’s nothing abnormal about it, as it’s the protective layer of lining that covers some of the animal’s organs.
Why do we need to remove it?
Although completely safe and not at all harmful to eat, when this layer of silver skin is cooked it can be unpleasant in taste, and really tough. It’s comprised of elastin which doesn’t break down when cooked so can make your smoked pork ribs really rubbery. Let’s get rid of it.
Another reason it’s important to discard it is so that you can make the most of BBQ rubs and marinades to permeate the meat with flavors, and then smoke it with flavored wood to really get some beautiful aromas in there too. Leaving the membrane on effectively forms a barrier, so removing it allows far better smoke penetration.
These stages of meat prep help to make the pork more tender, giving you that iconic fall-off-the-bone consistency that we all aim for.
How to remove the membrane from ribs
Here’s a quick video that shows how to remove this sheet from the back of your ribs. Pay close attention to how you need to get purchase on the skin before then tearing it off. The first bit is always the hardest!
This method also applies for St Louis, spare, and baby back ribs, as well as other meats, like beef short ribs, smoked lamb ribs, and boar.
You will need a dull knife to get to work on the ribs. Don’t use anything sharp because it’ll easily pierce or slice the skin, making it much harder to remove.
You’ll also need a paper towel to help you get good purchase on the skin. The sheet can be pretty slippery, so it’s important to have something dry to get a firm grip on it.
What you will need
- a blunt table knife
- paper towels
- disposable plastic gloves (optional)
Step 1 – Start at the end
Find where the membrane or silver skin starts at one end of the rack. Use a dull knife (or a spoon if you prefer) to slide under the skin and start to carefully pull it away from the bone.
Step 2 – Get some purchase
Slowly start to pull it away until you can can get two fingers underneath. Then use your hands to start to pull it away. Try to be as gentle as possible so as to not risk breaking or slicing the skin.
Step 3 – Tear the skin away
Using a paper towel for purchase, remove the skin slowly, ensuring that you keep it intact. If it does tear then don’t worry – just use the paper towel to remove as many pieces of membrane as you can.
- Use thawed ribs for the best results.
- Paper towels make everything much easier. You might find that you can remove the skin without paper, but it’s always handy to have some nearby in case you can’t get the grip you need.
- Aim for the area between each bone. This should give you the greatest chance of getting good grip.
- Remove any remaining excess fat with a knife to leave you with a cleanly cut rack of ribs
What if I can’t remove the membrane?
If you’re stuck for time of just find the whole removal process too difficult then don’t worry. Many ribs come with the membrane pre-removed.
Also, cooking ribs with this sheet still on is still absolutely fine. Some people even prefer the taste of ribs with it left on. The skin is permeable, meaning that the juices and seasoning of the ribs can still pass through it and infuse the ribs with flavor.
What happens if you don’t remove the membrane from ribs?
I know that this can seem like quite a tough process to go through, so you might be wondering what the point of going through it is?
The membrane is a tough layer of elastin which, unlike fat, doesn’t break down or render even when smoked. This means that your newly smoked ribs can be really tough and even unpleasant to eat.
This might be a matter of personal taste though, and I do know plenty of people who don’t mind (or even quite like) this layer of silver skin that lies on top. So if you’re running short on time or the rib membrane won’t come off, it’s not the end of the world.
That said, it’s an acquired taste so I’d recommend removing it if this is one of your first times cooking BBQ ribs.
Can I remove it after cooking instead?
There’s a bit of disagreement here, but in my opinion it’s important to remove the silver skin prior to grilling or smoking them. This is because it can effectively act as a barrier on top of the meat, preventing the flavors of your rub getting through to it.
Similarly, if you’re smoking or grilling then you won’t get the full effect of the cooking as the smoke and flavors will be unable to penetrate the meat as much as they should.
Why do some people leave the membrane on?
For every person like me who says you should strip off the skin, there seems to be one who prefers it on.
Many like cooking beef with the membrane on because they can cook it, turning it slightly crispy. In my experience this doesn’t really happen with pork, but others might disagree. Another reason is that it can help keep your ribs together as they cook, which can better allow you to aim for a fall-off-the-bone consistency.
I have seen some people claim that it can keep the juices because it helps prevent them evaporate, particularly during smoking. Regardless of whether this is true or not, I want my BBQ rubs, vinegar and smoke to be able to permeate the meat of the ribs without any obstacles.
A simple test to see which side of the divide you fall on would be to cut your rack of ribs in half prior to cooking, and then take the top layer off one while leaving it on the other. Then proceed to cook them side by side. It’ll give you the chance to compare them fairly and see which you prefer.
What’s your best technique for removing the membrane off ribs? Do you prefer it on or off? Do you have a favorite BBQ rib recipe?