Can Only Time Tell: How to Tell If Ribs Are Done?

From cooking time to the toothpick test, there are numerous tricks that allow you how to tell if ribs are done.

To be perfectly honest, even seasoned cooks and pitmasters have a tough time tell when pork ribs are done. And, I say this as a veteran chef! However, over the years I have tried and tested a couple of reliable methods.

In this post, I will outline the best methods and give you lots of other tips on how to know when your ribs are ready to be enjoyed. Let's get started!

Doneness vs. Ribs are Ready to Eat

Now, one of the first things that I want to address before diving in, is the internal temperature at which the ribs are considered done.

According to the USDA and other health guidelines, it is important to cook ribs to at least 145 degrees before it is safe to eat. Technically, at this point, you can take the ribs off the grill, but you should never do this.

bbq spare ribs

If you want delicious, lick-your-fingers ribs, then you should continue cooking ribs until they are between 190 and 203 degrees. Understand, fat, gelatin, and connective tissue only begin to melt at around 160 degrees.

By the time that the temperature is around 30 degrees or so higher, the fats have had time to break down and become incorporated into the surrounding meat. This is what results in tender and succulent meat.

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Internal Temperature vs. Cooking Temperature

Now usually, I would tell you to use a meat thermometer or instant read thermometer to tell you when the spare ribs are ready to eat. In this case, however, these tools aren't as useful as you need them to be.

This is because unlike other types of barbecue meats, pork ribs don't have much meat on the bone. This makes it tricky to get an accurate reading. To add to this, bones tend to heat up faster than the surrounding meat, causing false readings.

This is why I use a BBQ thermometer or digital thermometer to keep track of the cooking temperature instead. Remember, the cooking temperatures on grills are rarely accurate and tend to be off by several degrees. This is why I like to use my thermometer to keep track of the temp inside the grill.

This gives me a better idea of doneness.

The Fallacy of "Fall Off the Bone"

There is one more thing that I want to address before I move onto the various methods that you can use to check if your ribs are done. This is where people believe they need to cook the ribs until the meat falls off the bone.

Contrary to popular belief, the meat shouldn't fall off the bone. This only happens during boiling or maybe slow cooking. Instead, the meat should pull cleanly off the bones only when you tug at it with your fingers or teeth.

How to Check for Perfectly Cooked Ribs?

Here are the different tests that you can try out to determine when the ribs are done:

The Time Test

This is one of the few instances when I will tell you to use time as a way of keeping track of when the ribs are perfectly cooked.

Now, you should adjust your grill to 225 °F. It may be tempting to cook the ribs at high temperatures, but I wouldn't advise it. Sure, the ribs will cook faster but there is a higher risk of them turning out tough and unappealing.

Now, at 225 °F, baby back ribs will cook in about 4 to 5 hours. St. Louis ribs, on the other hand, may take 6 to 7 hours to cook.

As the ribs are almost close to being done, apply your favorite BBQ sauce to them. Grill on each side for a further five minutes.

Of course, time is just a guideline. To get a better idea of whether you've got fully cooked ribs, here are some experiments that you can run...

The Bend Test

The rib bend test is a no-fuss way of telling whether your pork ribs are cooked all the way through. This can also sometimes be referred to as the bounce test as well.

Using your tongs, pick up the rib rack in the middle. Give it a slight bounce. The ribs should immediately begin to droop downwards. If they are done, you will notice that they will begin to crack or come apart in the center immediately.

If there is only a small crack, then they need to be placed back on the grill for further cooking.

The Toothpick Test

Turns out that the toothpick test isn't just for baking, it works just as well for pork ribs. Here, poke a toothpick through the meat between the bones. It should slip through with very little resistance or no resistance at all.

Of course, you are going to have to repeat this test at several points along the rack of ribs. This ensures that it is done at every point.

The Twist Test

Once you near the end of your determined cooking time, grab the tip of a bone that it is near the halfway point of the rack. Twist it. If it begins to separate from the meat, then it means that the meat has broken down enough and is to cooked well.

Other Methods to Tell When Ribs are Done

Here are some other tactics that you can follow when cooking pork ribs. Personally,

Pull Back Test

A lot of people use this method. As the meat begins to cook through, the meat can pull back from the bones. When about a quarter inch of the bone is exposed, the ribs are assumed to be done.

Now, here's why I'm not the biggest fan of this method - it is misleading. In general, meat will shrink when it is exposed to high heat. Therefore, even after a short period of time, the meat will begin to draw back from the bone. However, you will have undercooked ribs on your hands.

Conversely, if the ribs are placed on a gas grill at a lower temperature, then the meat will pull back much later on. The risk here is that you will end up overcooking the ribs.

Peek a Boo Test

This is another visual test. Here, you gently cut into the ribs and take a look at the meat. The center of the ribs should be white and there should be no pink juices. In case you are smoking the ribs, then you can expect there to be some pinkish areas near the surface. Nevertheless, the middle should be white or tan.

The main issue with this test is that you are cutting into meat that may not be ready yet. As such, you will need to repeat the experiment with other sections. As a result, there will be less there for the people you are cooking for.

If this is your preferred testing method, though, I would suggest placing a smaller rack of ribs on the grill as well. You can cut into these as well and spare the main course.

Taste Test

As the name suggests, you simply pull out a rib, take a look at it to make sure that it is done, and then take a bite. The only downside is that, like with the visual test, you run the risk of breaking off an uncooked bit of meat, requiring you to have to do this over and over again.

This is why you may want to throw that additional rack of ribs to make sure you don't accidentally eat the food meant for your guests.

Are My Ribs Overcooked or Undercooked?

I am often asked:

How do you know if you overcook ribs or undercook them?

korean garlic ribs

Well, I have to say that it isn't always easy to differentiate. This is because the meat on the outside will often brown rather quickly.

The texture is often the biggest indicator without cutting into the ribs. If you pick up the ribs from the middle, for instance and it doesn't droop downwards, it means that the connective tissues haven't melted.

On the other hand, if the meat feel soft and squishy, then these are overcooked ribs.

If you do cut into the rib meat, ribs that aren't cooked all the way will have a lot of pink meat, particularly in the middle. There will be plenty of pink-ish juices leaking out as well.

Factors That Can Impact Cooking Time

Now lets take a look at some of the reasons that pork ribs may take a longer or shorter period of time to cook:

The Cut of Meat

It matters whether you are grilling St. Louis or baby back ribs when it comes to the grilling time.

The smaller baby back ribs are cut from where the rib meets the spine. Each rack has about 10 to 13 ribs, each 3 to 6 inches long. These may weigh around 1.5 to 2lbs.

St. Louis cut ribs are meatier as they are taken from the belly area. They have larger amounts of fat and can weigh up to 2.5lbs.

As the St. Louis ribs are bigger and thicker, they naturally take longer to cook - up to seven hours. The baby back rack, on the other hand, may take up to five hours.

The Thickness of the Slab

As you are well aware, each rack can vary quite a bit in terms of thickness. Some will just have a lot more meat than others. Naturally, the meatier ones will take longer to grill.

Thus, you should always carefully consider how thick each rack is. This is something that you should be especially mindful of if you are grilling racks of varying thicknesses. They will cook at different rates.

And, when checking to see if the pork ribs are cooked, check the thickest point on the ribs.

Grilling Temperature

Some choose to grill at a higher temperature while others prefer a slower method of cooking. As mentioned, I would recommend 225 degrees. This may take a little longer but at least you dont have to worry about your ribs drying out while grilling.

And, I also already stated, dont simply trust the dial on gas grills. Instead, monitor the temperature of your your grill or smoker with a meat thermometer. This gives you a more accurate idea of what's going on.

Remember that sometimes the ambient temperature can mess with the temperature of the grill or smoker. For instance, if it is very cold during your outdoor cooking escapades, then the machine will struggle to maintain.

On the other hand, on hotter days, the machine may register as being hotter.

Remember to Practice

It takes time, effort, and more than a little practice to become a pro at figuring out when your pork ribs are cooked all the way through. This is why I would suggest perfecting this method by grilling smaller quantity of ribs regularly.

It can sound like a lot of work but get into the habit of keeping a notebook with you. Jot down the weight and thickness of the ribs, the grilling temperature, and when you took the ribs off the heat. By doing this, you will be able to pinpoint the exact moment that your ribs are cooked.

Not to mention, you will get more used to reading the signs as well!

So, there you have it - this is how you can know that your ribs are grilled to perfection. Keep going at it and you will be able to figure out the signs like a pro!

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
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