Everybody started their low n slow journey with pork ribs. Done right, they’re delicious and full of flavors. Compared to brisket and pork butt, they don’t need a long time to cook either.
However, pork ribs come in different weights and sizes. Thus, it’s sometimes hard to tell when they’re ready. And unlike beef ribs, it’s not always easy to insert a thermometer probe into a rack of pork ribs.
That’s why I’m going to show you how to tell when pork ribs are done without a thermometer in this article. But we need to redefine “done” and “ready” first. Because there is a difference between the two.
The Difference Between Done And Ready
According to USDA, when pork ribs internal temperature reaches 145F, they’re basically “done”. What it means is that the thickest point of the meat is at a temperature where it is edible. Unfortunately, the meat might still be unchewably tough.
So, it’s better if we wait a little longer and bring the internal temperature to about 190F to 200F. What happens at this point is that all the connective tissues have melted away, resulting in softer and more succulent meat. This is when the ribs are officially “ready”.
Knowing the difference between done and ready is critical in cooking not only ribs but also great barbecue in general. The best way to make sure that your meat comes out perfect yet safe to eat is having a reliable thermometer. That way, you can monitor the internal temperature and pull the meat out when it’s the right time.
That being said, when it comes to pork ribs, the big question is that is a thermometer necessary? Well, let’s find out in the next section.
Should You Use A Thermometer To Check?
One thing you should know is that there are many types of pork ribs. Depending on the breed and how a butcher cut them, they also vary in thickness. Not to mention the amount of meat between the bones. When cooked, the meat near the bone is usually hotter than the one between the bones.
With that in mind, a typical thermometer probe is often too thick for pork ribs. You can hit the bone as a result. And that won’t give you the correct reading. What you need to check instead is the temperature of the meat in the middle.
Some thermometer manufacturers recognize this problem. So they come up with probes that feature a thin needle (affiliate link). You can easily slide them in without hitting the bone. But they do cost some money.
If you can, then I’d highly recommend getting one of those. If you don’t have it, there are still other ways to tell when ribs are done.
Understand that these methods are just guidelines. Each has its pros and cons. And they’re not as accurate as a thermometer. But as you gain more experience, you will know when they are. Read on, pitmasters!
How Do You Know When Ribs Are Done Without A Thermometer?
These are my 3 preferred ways to check if ribs are done.
The Bend Test
Also known as the bounce test, you start by picking up one end of the slab and wiggling it gently. If the ribs are ready, it will bend and you’ll see some cracks on the surface or bark.
Keep in mind that these cracks should look like they’re about to break. If they’re small instead, your ribs might need a little more time.
Another version of this test is to hold the ribs in the middle. The two ends will drape over your hands. Don’t forget to look for those close-to-breaking cracks. The ribs should be flexible but not falling apart.
Speaking of falling apart, if you overcook the ribs, you might end up with a pile of meat and bones using this technique. So be careful there!
The Toothpick/Skewer Test
Simply poke a toothpick (or skewer) into the meat between the bones. If there is no resistance and the toothpick goes through easily, the ribs are done. Also, make sure that you do this on different parts of the ribs.
This is a favorite of mine. You won’t ruin the ribs with this method even if you happen to overcook them.
The Pop-up Test
Another way to tell is by looking at the tip of the bones. When you see the meat sort of pulling back, revealing about a quarter inch of the bones, the ribs are ready.
Now, this technique might not be true all the time. There are cases where the meat contracts due to high heat, yet it isn’t done. There are also cases where low heat (usually under 225F) cooks the ribs, exposing the bones and all. But at that point, the meat is way overcooked. Sometimes, the meat doesn’t even pull back!
With this method, it’s best if you have a fair amount of experience. That way, you can tell whether or not it is a good sign.
So, to sum everything up, here is a handy video about these 3 methods from BBQ Guru.
Other Methods You Can Try
Besides the 3 techniques described above, there are some more that you can experiment with, starting with the color test.
The Color Test
Ribs usually take on a rich reddish-brown color when it is ready. But like the pop-up test, this can often be misleading.
That’s why you should incorporate it with other methods here. Don’t just use it by itself.
The Time Test
Depending on the type and thickness of the ribs, the length of time to cook them varies as well. For a smaller baby back with less meat and fat, you might need only 5 hours to finish it. Whereas it takes about 6 to 6.5 hours to cook a thicker and larger rack of spare ribs.
Cooking temperature also plays a role in determining the cook time. The higher the temperature, the quicker the cook and vice versa.
You also have to consider the elevation where you cook the ribs. Yes, that matters too! At sea level, you will need less time to finish a slab. Yet be prepared to increase it to about 25% if you live at a higher altitude.
But regardless, to keep things simple, your job as a pitmaster is to keep a constant temperature throughout the cook. The ideal one is from 225F to 250F. At this temperature range, everything comes together. The fat slowly melts away. The gorgeous bark starts to form. And underneath that, it is the beautiful smoke ring.
Once you do that consistently, the rest will be easier to control. And you will know how much time it takes until the ribs are done.
The Twist Test
You start this one by twisting a bone in the middle of the slab. If it breaks free from the meat with ease, the slab is ready.
The Peek-a-boo Test
As the name suggests, simply cut a rib bone and take a peek at the meat. The middle of it should be tan or off-white. The juices should be clear. There should also be a line of pink meat around the edge, but that is actually the smoke ring I mentioned earlier.
Keep in mind that no pink meat in the center or pink juices. None of that or the ribs isn’t finished yet.
The Taste Test
Instead of looking at the meat, you actually taste it yourself. Be mindful not to eat it all if it’s good. C’mon, save some for your friends and family!
Should Ribs Be Fall-off-the-bone?
Fall-off-the-bone ribs tend to have a mushier texture. That’s because you might have left it too long in the foiled wrap. The bark might be too soft. And the flavor isn’t as strong. At this point, the ribs are pretty much steamed or boiled.
But some people actually prefer this. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s barbecue after all. Whatever makes you happy, folks!
Me? I still like my ribs juicy and tender but with a bit of resistance when I bite into the meat. Not to mention a crusty bark full of smokey goodness. Ooh wee!
All I’m saying is, you do whatever you want. Nobody should come into your house and tell you how to cook a slab of ribs. But sometimes, you should try a different way of doing things. You might end up liking the end result.
Wrapping It Up
To make sure that your pork ribs are perfectly smoked, you need to understand the difference between “done” and “ready” even though the two terms are interchangeable. “Ready” is better since the meat will be soft and full of flavors, while “done” is safe to eat yet the meat is still tough and chewy.
In fact, it’s all about the internal temperature. “Done” is around 145F and “ready” is somewhere from 190F to 200F. You know this by using a thermometer. The problem is that the probe is usually too thick to enter the meat without hitting the bone. That will give you an inaccurate reading.
Fortunately, thermometer companies come up with a solution by making probes with a thin needle. But not everybody wants to get an extra tool just for the ribs. Still, there are other ways to tell without using a thermometer.
My favorites are the bend test, the toothpick test, and the pop-up test. They’re somewhat reliable but do come with their own disadvantages. That’s why the best way is to use a thermometer still.
I hope you enjoy my article on how to tell when ribs are done. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to let me know by leaving a comment down below. Also, please share this with your friends and family, especially if they’re into all things BBQ.
And with that, have a good one!