Want to know the secret to perfectly cooked BBQ ribs? Here’s our guide walking through everything you need to know, and how to know when they’re done.
Cooking ribs is a lot more difficult than it looks. Its thin layer of meat across the rack makes it difficult to toe the perfect line between cooking them long enough for the fat to render for that beautiful drip-off-the-bone feel, without cooking them for so long that they dry out.
With this simple guide, you can prepare perfect BBQ ribs and have something your guests will proudly write home about (probably).
In this post, I’m going to break down all the possible tests you can do to work out whether or not your ribs are ready to eat. Here’s how to tell when ribs are done, so you can savor every last perfect ounce of flavor.
What Temperature Should You Cook Ribs on the Grill?
The short and simple answer to this questions is that it depends on the type of grill you are using, as well as whether you are grilling them wrapped or unwrapped.
In either case, your preferred cooking temperature will be determined by the length of time you wish to have the ribs cook. If you have enough time to spare, you can set the grill to low and slow but if you are a little pressed for time, you can ramp up the temperature a bit to speed things a long. Don’t go too far however, as the meat will be more prone to drying out.
As a general rule, a temperature of 225°F (107°C) is recommended when cooking ribs on the grill or smoker. At this temperature, it will take somewhere between 5 and 6 hours to have the ribs cooked.
Generally, ribs require grilling at a minimum temperature of 190°F (88°C). This is the ideal temperature that breaks down all the connective tissues that account for their lack of tenderness. However, cooking your ribs on the charcoal grill at a temperature of 225°F will not necessarily make them tender.
You can follow these steps to getting your ribs as tender as possible:
- Smoke them for 3 hours unwrapped
- Cook for a further 2 hours, this time wrapped in foil
- Cook for a further hour, wrapped in the foil, but this time at a higher temperature
As opposed to a charcoal grill, a gas grill is ideal for fast cooking. So, you will definitely be working with high temperatures here. But as the case with a charcoal grill, a steady temperature of 225°F (107°C) will ensure your ribs cook for a period of 6 hours or so.
Needless to say, the temperature will also be impacted by various factors such as whether the ribs are wrapped in a foil or not.
But since gas grills are ideal for fast cooking, you need not work with the standard temperature of 225°F (107°C) . Instead, you can increase the temperature to 325°F (163°C) and cook the ribs on top of a rack unwrapped. This way, you will only need some 1 to 2 hours to break much of the connective tissues making them tough. After about 2 hours, watch out for a deep color and wrap them in a foil to allow some steam to escape. You can then take them back to the grill and cook for 1 to 2 hours or so.
How Do You Tell When Your Ribs Are Cooked?
The first question you need to settle is which between ’done’’ and ’ready’’ perfectly describes completely cooked ribs. When ribs are ready, they should have achieved an internal temperature of about 180°F (82°F) (Source) . At this temperature, all disease-causing bacteria have been killed and the meat is safe for consumption. However, it will retain some toughness and since you have probably not added any seasonings and condiments, you won’t like the taste.
On the other hand, your ribs are done when the minimum temperature required to break down the tough connective tissues and melt the fats has been achieved. As we have already seen, this is usually 145°F/63°C (Source). At this temperature, your ribs are tender, moist and delicious enough to be cooked.
So, when it comes to cooked ribs, we will go with both ’done’’ and not ’ready’’. In the following section, we shall discuss some proven tests to tell that your ribs are done and ready.
1. The Time Test
This is the most commonly-applied test when checking the readiness of ribs. As has already been highlighted, ribs require a temperature of about 225°F to cook in both the charcoal and the gas grill. Under this temperature, a slab of baby-backs would take between 3 and 4 hours while a slab of St. Louis cut-ribs would need between 5 and 6 hours. However, it is important to remember that your ribs will still be undercooked at this point so you may have to prolong the cooking on the hot grill. This sizzling phase ensures each side is cooked for a duration of 5 minutes. So, depending on the slabs you are using, you will need to physically time yourself.
The greatest advantage of this method is that it gives an allowance of an extra 10 minutes when cooking on the hot grill. Or, an extra half an hour if temperatures remain the same but you happen to have missed the sizzling step.
However, one glaring con of the Time Test method is its unreliability, especially if you are not skilled in determining the various weather conditions that affect the cook time. These include things like higher altitude and higher humidity that both increase the cook time.
2. The Bend Test
In this method, you would need to pick up the slab using a pair of tongs. You then lift the slab gently and bounce it slightly. Watch out how easily meat cracks and breaks free from the bones, as that’s indicative of readiness. The larger the crack, the more ready the rib.
This method is great because it introduces a little creativity and skill into the entire grilling experience.
However, its accuracy may not be guaranteed given that there may be a slight variance in the time taken for different ribs on a grill to be ready.
3. The Toothpick Test
This is considered one of the easiest methods for testing the readiness of ribs. You take a toothpick and then poke it into the ribs, focusing on the meat between bones. If your ribs are ready, the toothpick should slide in with very little resistance. When using this method, it is important to poke a few more places of the meat, focusing in the centers as well as the thickest places.
The Toothpick Test is great because it causes minimal damage to your ribs. You can effectively test the ribs for readiness and still leave them presentable.
But on the flipside, the method brings your hands very close to the grill, so there are high risks of burning your fingers.
4. The Taste Test
Just as the name suggests, this test involves getting a small chunk of the meat from the grill and tasting for its readiness.
The Taste Test is a great way of whetting your appetite as you wait for the main meal. Also, there is no wastage as you get to eat each piece you taste.
However, this test is not ideal when the meat tested is not ready but you have to eat it anyway. Aside from the foul aftertaste it leaves on your mouth, we all know the health concerns related to eating undercooked meat. Also, depending on the size of the ribs and the number of tests done, you may eventually have nothing to serve on the dinner table.
5. The Pop-up Test
In this method, the meat is expected to pull away from the bone tips. Experts argue that exposure of about ¼ inch of bare bones is indicative of ready ribs.
The main advantage of this method is that you are able to visualize the changes without getting closer to the heat.
But a glaring drawback lies in its inaccuracy. Meat is known to shrink from the tips of bones depending on the amount of heat. And has already been suggested here, high heat does not necessarily mean your ribs are done. Even worse is the fact that when you grill your ribs under a steady temperature of 250°F and wait till the meat begins to shrink from the bones, your ribs will be already overcooked.
6. The Peek-a-Boo Test
This is yet another method that simply calls for mere visual inspection. All you do is cut the ribs and look into them. Usually, a white color denotes readiness. Also, be sure there are no bloody spots as are usually indicated by pinky juices. In case you were cooking with smoke, it is natural for the meat closer to the surface to be a little pinky. However, all meat closer to the center should be tan or white.
The most outstanding benefit of the Peek-a-boo Test method is that it equips you with a few skills on telling the readiness of ribs based on color fluctuations.
However, it is not a practical method when testing the readiness of ribs that are cooking unwrapped. After slicing them and finding they are not ready, taking them back to the grill will only mar the cut surface and further tests on readiness may not be accurate.
7. The Twist Test
In this method, you grab a piece of rib and hold it near the middle. Gently twist it and notice how meat falls off from the bone. The more the meat breaking free from the bone, the most likely cooked it is.
This method has two major drawbacks. First, there is the possibility of getting burnt. And secondly, the twisting mars the shape of the ribs and make them less presentable.
What Are Undercooked Ribs Like?
Color – Ribs that are done and ready should have a tan or white color. While there may be a little pinkness near the surface especially if you were smoking it, the center of the meat must always be white or tan.
Feel – In terms of feel, the ribs should easily break away from the bone when you gently tear it using your teeth (Source). There might some cracking sound too.
Taste – Taste will vary depending on the type of meat. However, cooked ribs will be tender and sweet to taste.