Myth: The Bones Make The Meat Better

"Closest to the bone, Sweeter is the meat, Last slice of Virginia ham, Is the best that you can eat."Popular song, The Closer To The Bone, by Louis Prima, 1957

It is a common belief that bones make grilled and barbecued meat taste better. The shibboleth goes that bone-in ribeye is tastier than boneless, that bone-in pork shoulder makes better pulled pork than boneless, that bone-in chicken breasts are more succulent than boneless, etc.

Fact or myth?

Mostly myth.

On slabs of ribs, there is no question that the intercostal meat, the meat between the bones, is special. It is loaded with connective tissue that can gelatinize and become sweet and succulent. There is also a lot of fat marbling in there, and the old saw that "fat is flavor" is no myth. On poultry, the connective tissue between the ribs is often sucked and savored because it is so tasty and because, if you did it right, it has seasoning on it.

But what about other bones? What about bone-in ribeye, shown above, or T-Bones, or pork butts?

Anatomy of bones

Bones are complex structures and they differ from species to species and location to location. In cattle, leg bones are different from neck bones or rib bones, etc. In chickens, leg bones are very different from rib bones. The differences are mostly in the function of the bone. Bones have important architectural functions. They are load bearing and protective. But there are some things that most bones have in common.


Bone exteriors.The exteriors are walls of calcium and other minerals called "compact bone" designed to bear loads and protect organs. The larger the animal, the thicker the compact bone. Obviously, bovine leg bones have much thicker calcium than chicken breast bones. Bone walls do not dissolve or melt during cooking. There are small channels running through the calcium to carry blood and nerves to and from the marrow, but in general, the calcium is not very porous so very little marrow can leak out during roasting or grilling, even under the pressure of heat.

Marrow. The marrows of bones are complex. Dr. Antonio Mata, the meat consultant, says that bone marrow can be broadly divided in two categories, red marrow and yellow marrow. "Red marrow is the hard honeycomb marrow that we have all seen in ribeyes, T-bones, and porterhouses because the bones are often cut open by a bandsaw," he says. "It can also be found in the ends of bones." These highly porous marrows, also called spongy marrows, serve are home to stem cells that produce blood cells. That's why the ends of pork rib bones often turn black during cooking. Although amost all blood is drained from muscle tissue during slaughter (the pink liquid is myoglobin, a protein, and water, not blood), some blood can be trapped in bones. Yellow marrow is the type you find in the center of femurs and other leg bones. It is mostly fat. "You can eat it and it is orgasmic," says Mata (click here to see a recipe for grill roasted marrow). Cowboys call it prairie butter. I call it poor man's foie gras.


Connective tissue. Bones are surrounded by membranes of connective tissue that anchor muscle to them. This sheathing, we call it gristle, is mostly made of a protein called collagen which can partially turn to gelatin when heated to the right temp. Invisible collagen also surrounds muscle groups and fibers (see my article on meat science) and it is more tender in young animals than old. Gelatinized collagen is a major contributor to the richness and mouthfeel of meat. You've seen it when you chill cooked meat, especially chicken. The juices solidify and form a gel called aspic. It is very different from fat. Taste it. It is pure essence of meat. There is a lot more connective tissue and fat between rib bones than any other muscle groups, which explains why we love ribs so. And the rib cage of a chicken has a tender membrane, the pleura, that encloses the organs. It softens with cooking and is fun to rip off with your front teeth. This membrane on pork ribs can get hard and leathery. Not so much fun. But in a steak or roast or even a chicken breast, there is no way the gelatin can wriggle down through the muscle fibers and impact the flavor of a whole piece of meat. Meat is just not that porous.

Cook's Illustrated is wrong on this one

In the May-June 2011 issue of my favorite magazine, Cook's IllustratedPlaceholder, they decided to test the question by taking pork bones, scraping them clean, placing them on top of a pile of mashed potatoes, and baking them. They had a control of potatoes with no bones. When they tasted the potatoes "a majority of tasters found that the sample cooked with bones tasted noticeably meaty." There are several flaws in this experiment. (1) By scraping off the connective tissue and fat, they removed a barrier to any flavor from the marrow. (2) The miniscule amount of flavor exiting the marrow in a real piece of meat then would have to move through a wall of connective tissue and fat to get to the muscle. (3) Mashed potatoes are very very different than animal muscle. Potatoes are infinitely more permeable. Muscle fibers are just not that absorbant. Take a look at our experiments in marinating and brining to see how long it takes for salty compounds to move through muscle, and with salt, there is a chemical and elecrical reaction to aid the movement. (4) Notice that in the results only a "majority of tasters found that the sample cooked with bones tasted noticeably meaty." CI's panels are usually professional chefs with trained palates. This means that many could not tell the difference. In this case, Cook's Illustrated is wrong.

The cooking method matters

In wet cooking methods, such as braising and in slow cookers, where the meat is submerged and simmered for hours in liquid, the marrow can dissolve and can have a major impact on the flavor of the liquid and the meat. Braising liquids are often made with wine and/or water, both solvents that help pull out the marrow. Marrow is a major reason ossobuco, braised veal shanks, is such a wonderful treat (although gelatinized collagen is also important). This is where the idea that bones add flavor to meat began.

But bones contribute no significant flavor to meats cooked by dry cooking methods such as grilling, low and slow barbecue, oven roasting, or frying (frying is considered a dry method because there is no water). A tiny bit of marrow might escape the ends if they have been cut, and minuscule amount may escape if the bone has been sawed open lengthwise, as it often is for T-bones and ribeyes (see the ribeye photo above). But the small amount of liquid in red marrow does not travel far onto or into the meat. It can influence only the meat immediately adjacent to the bone.

It is possible that some of the fat and collagen inside the marrow can exit through the pores in the bones, but again, this is a very small quantity and there is no way it can travel more than a fraction of an inch into the muscle if it can somehow get beyond the sheath surrounding the bone. Some marrow may drip onto the fire, and when it incinerates the smoke and gases might strike the surface of the meat. But this is a small amount of the total drippings, most of which is edge fat, intramuscular fat (marbling), and myoglobin (mostly water from within the muscle cells).

Thermal impact of bones

Bones can have an impact on heat transmission. Some bones, particularly those that have a honeycomb like interior, are slow to heat up because they are a Styrofoam-like insulator filled with air pockets. Then when they get hot, they can retain heat longer than the meat. It's sort of like a pizza stone. If you throw it in the oven, turn on the oven, and then add the pizza, the stone will be cool and the bottom of the pizza undercooked. But if you let the stone heat up for at least 30 minutes, it will crisp the bottom of the dough, and if you serve the pizza on the stone it will keep it warm for almost an hour.


So, depending on how long you cook, the meat closer to the bone can be slightly more or less cooked than the meat just half an inch away. In the case of a steak, the insulation properties of the bone will leave the meat closest to the bone about 5 to 10°F cooler than the center of the steak. So if you take the steak off at 130°F, medium rare, it may be rare along the bone. That can make it slightly more tender and juicy closer to the bone. Or it can be undercooked and stringy.

If you leave the bones on a big rib roast, they make an effective base upon which to stand the roast (hence the name standing rib roast), and they act like a heat shield, at first blocking heat from below until they get fully hot and then they conduct heat and continue to cook the meat after you take it out of the cooker. But normally we don't want one part of the meat lagging behind the rest and then continuing to cook when the rest has stopped. We want the meat to cook evenly throughout. No surprises. And since so much of the fun of a large roast is the rich brown crust, hopefully rife with salt, herbs, and spices, leaving the bones in can prevent up to 1/3 of the surface from browning and make carving a pain. That's why I remove the rib rack from standing rib roasts of beef and crown roasts of pork. I cook the ribs separately, savoring the intercostal succulence, and get the roast brown all over (see my article on beef roasts).

On cuts like a pork shoulder, which is often cooked low and slow for a long time, the bone is mostly buried in the large roast. It is slow to warm, and it can remain hot after the meat begins to cool when removed from the cooker.

I asked Professor Jeffrey W. Savell, Leader of the Meat Science Section in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University how bones impact meat. "We do have some national data about the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of bone-in and boneless ribeye and strip steaks, but the differences were very small. I believe that cooking these steaks with the bone helps to form them so that they are more uniform in thickness when cooked and protects the lean from being overcooked."

Another factor needs to be mentioned. According to Steven L. Moore, Director of Innovation at Brand Formula, a food science consultancy, "Bone, in many cases seals the muscle from losing meat juices as it is cooked. So when a muscle is de-boned there is usually a large area now that is exposed muscle, no longer sealed to help maintain juices through cooking. Removing a chicken breast from the breast bone for instance drastically increases the surface area of the breast that will be directly exposed to the grill or heat, which will result in more evaporation from the muscle or meat juice loss (drying) in cooking. An associated phenomena is the fact that many boneless products have also be closely trimmed while being boned, therefor the boneless version of a muscle versus the bone in version of the same cut or muscle is significantly different, boneless chicken is usually skinless chicken, boneless Boston butt is usually a more highly trimmed Boston butt." On the other hand, removing bone exposes more muscle to seasoning and browning, and seasoned brown meat is very tasty stuff. Who doesn't love the crust of a roast?

There is another factor to consider. You buy meat by the pound. You are paying for bone when you get bone in meat. Sometimes it is cheaper because boning chicken breasts is labor intensive, but the price is something to consider.

Finally, there is one major reason to leave bones in. We love chewing on them. The surfaces are often charred, and if the sheathing has softened, it can be very satisfying. Some people even like sucking the marrow out.

So it seems Mr. Prima was right when it comes to warm air cooking. "Closest to the bone, Sweeter is the meat." But the refrain could easily be, "A fraction away, No difference, no way."

grilled bone in ribeye

Meathead Goldwyn

Meathead is the founder and publisher of, and is also known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", a New York Times Best Seller and named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.

What people say about us

"The world’s leading outdoor cooking resource." Larry Olmsted,

"An amazing compendium of barbecue knowledge." Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, Austin

"I was crowned World Brisket Champion at the Jack Daniels World Championships using your Big Bad Beef Rub. Your site has played a pivotal role in my development." John Lattuca, WeekendWarriorBBQ, Montreal, Canada

"This meal was as memorable as my first sex, only better." Marie Overholt, San Francisco, CA

"The BBQ community is so extremely fortunate to have someone as passionate and articulate as you." Frank Ostini, Chef Winemaker, Hitching Post II Restaurant & Winery, Buellton, CA

"I adapted your brisket rub recipe this summer and my customers love it (8,000 pounds served in 6 months)! My brisket even won 'best beef' in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair." Chef Larry Vito, BBQ Smokehouse, Sebastapol, CA

"Meathead is the best writer covering this part of the culinary world." John Markus, Producer, BBQ Pitmasters TV show

"The Rosetta Stone of BBQ." Bill Lamb

"I got laid last night because of your pastrami" Name withheld for obvious reasons

"Knowledgeable, smart, hilarious, and self-effacing." Laurel Stone

"I have worked as a professional cook in high end French restaurants for several years, so when I hit the internet looking for some BBQ info, I was really pleased to find an in depth and expansive site that had all the tips I was looking for." Aaron Ettlin, Portland, OR

"A Famous Dave's commercial came on claiming the best ribs in the world, and my honey shook his head and said, 'nope, it's right here.' Many, many thanks!" Red Taylor, San Francisco, CA

"We had a fantastic season winning two Grand Championships and five Reserve Grand Championships. I always appreciate referring to your site. Thanks." Steve, Grills Gone Wild, IA

"I have always loved cooking ribs but with our new gas grill they were never as good as charcoal. Well that all changed last night when I made the greatest ribs I have ever tasted. My wife wanted to know if I bought them somewhere and then claimed I cooked them myself." Allen Nicley, Mont Alto, PA

"The Memphis Dust and the pulled pork are excellent! I had to dang near run people out of my house!" Aswad Johnson

"I was about to buy a new smoker. After reading your article about setting up a horizontal smoker, I decided to try rehabilitating something the previous owner of my house left in the backyard. Total investment: $100. I figure I saved at least $500!" Coleman Shelton, Calvert City, KY

" is the most information packed barbecue site known to man." Pitmaster and BBQ Columnist George Hensler

" is the world's go-to place for a barbecue treasure house of reliable information." Ardie "Remus Powers" Davis, author of numerous barbecue books

"This is my new go-to method for prime rib." Candy Weaver, President, Kansas City Barbeque Society

"We've won five Grand Championships and two Reserve Championships in the past three months. Learned much about BBQ from you and wanted to give you credit." Harry Soo,

"The Alton Brown of Que." Joe Mizrahi, Smokin' Joe's, NYC

"I have always loved to travel and eat. Life became boring when I had to give up my worldly adventures. Thanks to you I now love to cook. I am now having adventures at home in my kitchen and my back yard. I am no longer bored, and my large family is grateful too. Thank you so much." Dugan Hoeflinger, Tucson, AZ

"I am in the process of opening a cafe and thought your simple sweet sour slaw is an amazing winner." James Murray, Toronto

"I had two ribs and my boyfriend ate the other 3 1/2 pounds. He couldn't stop to talk. He had to bring a box of tissues to the table because these ribs are so good they make him weep. He tells me that my ribs have deepened his love for me. Well, fine, but I know that just means he wants more ribs." Nancy J. Mostad, Minnesota


Related articles



Many merchants pay us a small referral fee when you click our links and purchase from them. On Amazon it works on everything from grills to diapers, they never tell us what you bought, and it has zero impact on the price you pay, but has a major impact on our ability to improve this site! And remember, we only recommend products we love. If you like, please save this link and use it every time you go to Amazon

...some HTML for the first variant...



Get Smoke Signals, our free e-letter. No spam. Guaranteed

Enter your email:

If you love barbecue and grilling, get a FREE 30-day membership in our Pitmaster Club. We can up your game.

  • FREE 30 day trial membership.
  • Sneak previews of Meathead’s new book.
  • We block ads from members.
  • Real community. No politics. No flame wars.
  • Monthly newsletter.
  • Video seminars with famous pitmasters.
  • Weekly podcasts with Greg Rempe.
  • Weekly BBQ cartoons by Jerry King.
  • Comprehensive Temperature Guide Magnet ($10 retail).
  • Monthly giveaways of Gold Medal grills and smokers worth up to $2000.
  • Discounts on products we love.
  • Support for!

Lookit what our members are cooking:

Post comments and questions below


1) Please try the table of contents or the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can't help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.


Click to ask questions and make comments