5 Mistakes to Avoid When Cooking Ribs

updated Jun 5, 2020
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Credit: Olive and Mango/Kitchn

There are certain foods that really define summer, and towards the top of my list are ribs. The season wouldn’t be complete without a finger-licking, tender rack of ribs. It doesn’t matter whether they’re grilled or oven-baked or made lightning-fast in the Instant Pot, ribs are a summer essential.

Since they are seasonal fare, rib cooking can be full of questions and possibly missteps. If you need a quick refresher before you dust off your rib bib, these common mistakes can be avoided with a few simple tips. Here’s are some of the most common rib cooking mistakes, plus what to do instead.

1. Not removing the membrane from the back of the ribs.

If you’re dreaming about a super-tender rack of ribs, then you’ll want to keep an eye out for the thin membrane on the underside of the rack. This thin layer isn’t inedible, but it does toughen up quite a bit during cooking.

Follow this tip: To ensure a meal of tender ribs is in your future, start by flipping the slab upside down and removing the membrane. Starting at one end of the slab, carefully slide a knife under the membrane, then use your hands to pull it away from the bones. If it feels especially slippery, use a paper towel or clean kitchen towel for a better grip.

2. Not pre-cooking the ribs before grilling.

The smoky char of grilled ribs is undeniably delicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ribs need to be cooked on the grill from start to finish. Ribs benefit from a lengthy cook time over a low temperature, which can be tough to control on the grill, and can easily lead to burnt meat.

Follow this tip: Pre-cooking the ribs before they hit the grill not only gives you more control over the cooking temperature, but it can also make for more tender meat. You can oven-bake, boil, or even use the slow cooker for pre-cooking before firing up the grill.

Credit: Olive and Mango/Kitchn

3. Putting the sauce on the ribs too soon.

Most sauces contain some type of sweetener — sugar, honey, or maple syrup. It makes a tasty addition, but it also has a knack for easily burning. When slathered on the ribs too soon, it’s likely to char and burn.

Follow this tip: It’s up to you if you want to sauce your ribs (if you have a good dry rub, or simply don’t like it, it’s not 100 percent necessary). But if sauce is your thing, wait until 10 to 15 minutes before the end of cooking to add it on. It’s plenty of time for the sauce to heat up, stick to the ribs, and get just the right amount of crispiness around the edges.

4. Undercooking or overcooking the ribs.

Avoiding this dilemma can be especially tricky for those inexperienced with cooking ribs. Normally we’d suggest using an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of the ribs (the magic number is 145°F, according to the USDA), but this test proves tough to tackle with ribs. Instead, knowing when the ribs are ready to come off the heat is all about specific visual clues.

Follow this tip: These important clues all have to do with the texture of the meat. The first sign is when the meat pulls away from the bone. The ribs are done when the meat pulls back and exposes about a half-inch to an inch of bone at the thinner ends of the ribs. Also, when picking up the rack with tongs, it should slightly bend in the center, but not fall apart.

Credit: Olive and Mango/Kitchn

5. Grilling ribs completely over direct, high heat.

Direct, high heat works well for quick-cooking foods, like hot dogs, burgers, and chicken breast, but ribs don’t fare quite as well when cooked in the same conditions. High temperatures and direct heat can easily lead to uneven cooking, and can dry the ribs out.

Follow this tip: If you’re grilling ribs (versus oven-cooking), placement on the grates is important. While a few minutes over a high flame can leave a nice finishing char, the majority of cooking should happen over low or indirect heat. This guarantees more even cooking, and will help lead to more tender ribs.