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Are My Ribs Ready Yet?

"Cooking takes patience, perseverance, and practice." Meathead

There is an old joke among some competition cooks about how to tell if the ribs are ready. Take one slab of spareribs and one slab of baby back ribs and put them both in the smoker. When the baby backs are dry, the spareribs are done.

OK. Maybe that's a bit extreme. But it underlines how hard it is to tell when ribs are ready. That's because ribs come in so many different weights and thicknesses. Not to mention the fact that keeping an outdoor oven at a precise temp is tricky. So here are some guidelines and techniques for telling when they are done (click here for a meat temperature guide for other meats).

Ribs should not fall off the bone!

Properly cooked ribs will not not not fall off the bone! The only ribs that fall off the bone are ribs that have been boiled and steamed and that process usually robs them of flavor because water is a solvent. Steamed and boiled ribs usually have a mushy texture. Properly cooked ribs will pull cleanly off the bone with your teeth, but they will still have some resilience and chew, like a properly cooked steak, but not be tough. Remember, boiling meat is the way to make flavorful soup, not flavorful meat.

How to tell when they are ready

Every grill and smoker is different and every slab of meat is different, so exact cooking time depend on a number of variables. The goal is to get the meat to 180 to 190°F. But a thermometer is not much help with ribs. It is very hard to get an accurate measurement because the meat is thin, the temp it varies from end to end, and bones are a different temp than the meat.

The time test. The ideal cooking temp is about 225°F, hot enough to brown the surface, to develop a crusty bark, and to melt fat and collagens. On most cookers, when the oven temp is 225°F at sea level, it takes about three to four hours to cook a slab of baby backs and about five to six hours to cook a slab of St. Louis cut ribs or spares.

They are slightly undercooked at that stage. I then put the sauce on and sizzle it in on a hot grill for about 5 minutes per side (click here for saucing strategies). This finishes the cooking and makes sweet sauces taste their best. But you have to stand there and watch them so the sauce won't burn. If you skip the sizzling step, add another 30 minutes of cooking time at 225°F.

At higher cooking temperatures decrease the cooking time. For example, at 325°F, baby backs can be done in only 90 minutes, but there will be shrinkage and they will be tougher. At higher altitudes, increase the cooking time 20% or more. The key here is to keep the cooking temp under control, and that is the barbecue chef's craft.

That said, it should be noted that each slab is different, and some can take a good bit longer. In the words of one of Merrill Powers, known as Captain Que to his friends, "they're done when they're done!"

the bend test for ribs

The bend test. This is the method I like best. I pick up the slab with a pair of tongs and bounce them slightly. If they are ready, the slab will bow until the meat starts to crack on the surface, as shown at right. A small crack means you need a little more time. It should be close to breaking when you lift the slab. You'll get the feel for this with practice.

The twist test. Another technique is to grab ahold of the tip of a bone somewhere near the middle. If you twist, it should start to break free of the meat. This means the collagens in the tough connective tissues have melted and turned to gelatin.

The popup test. A lot of books and websites say to wait until the meat begins to pull back from the tips of the bones, exposing about 1/4" of bare bone as in the picture at right. Some folks call this the natural popup thermometer. Problem is that this is not necessarily a sign that they are ready. Heat can cause this shrinkage. Put ribs on a hot grill and they will shrink within an hour, but they won't be done. On the other hand, if you keep the temp under 250°F, by the time the meat pulls back, it is overcooked.

The peek-a-boo test. If you are unsure if the meat is ready, you can cut into it and sneak a peek. The meat in the center should be white and there should be no pink juices. Remember, if you have cooked with smoke, there will probably be pink meat near the surface, but the meat in the center should be white or tan. Click here to see a perfect rib.

The taste test. Some cooks pull one bone off the end, look at the meat, and then taste it. This works fine, especially because you get to eat the rib you removed! Problem is when the meat is not ready. Then you have to pull off another bone. Then another. Then there's nothing for the guests.

The toothpick test. Jack Waiboer, a champion cook from South Carolina likes the toothpick method. "You poke a toothpick into the meat between the bones. When it slides in with little or no resistance you have a done rack of ribs. It's best to test various parts of the rack to be sure you have them done to your liking. With a little practice you can better judge the doneness of your ribs than the bend test. I hesitate to use the word accurate in a barbecue conversation. After a few beverages accuracy seems to depend on the quality of the bourbon."

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