There is a big difference between an internal temp that is safe to eat and an internal temp that yields fall-off-the-bone tender ribs.
The following is my guide to making safe yet incredibly delicious ribs that will sure to be a crowd-pleaser. I include some helpful info, tips, a dry rub recipe, and easy recipe to smoke your ribs to perfection.
Baby Back Ribs vs. Spare Ribs
First, you need to know which ribs to buy: baby back or spare ribs. Baby back ribs also referred to as baby backs, are known for their leanness and fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Some believe that the word “baby” in baby back ribs refers to the age of the pig. It does not (they do not come from baby pigs!). The name refers to the smaller size of the ribs.
These ribs are loin ribs taken from the convex side of the pig’s ribs. If you cook them with the rib bone intact, they become robust and flavorful, even without added BBQ sauce.
Then there are spare ribs. They are pulled from further down from the hog’s spine and are coated with some belly meat. Spare ribs are larger and fattier than baby back ribs.
Since they have more fatty marbling, spare ribs are more flavorful than baby back ribs. However, spare ribs also have more cartilage, so many still opt for baby back ribs for their tenderness over flavor.
Baby back ribs also take less time to cook than spare ribs, due to their smaller size.
How Many Racks of Ribs per Person?
When it comes to ribs, you must remember that about half of their weight is bone. One rack of baby rack ribs is around 2 pounds with about 1 pound of meat. So, you should figure 1 rack of baby back ribs per hungry adult that you’re feeding.
Spare ribs range from 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, again, with half of that being bone and cartilage. So, 1 rack of spare ribs should feed 1.5 to 2 adults.
If you’re feeding a small party, most would recommend serving baby back ribs because of their lean tenderness. If you’re feeding a large party, then it’s more economical to serve spare ribs since they are larger and more affordable.
What is the Best Way to Cook Ribs?
Slow cooking ribs at low temperatures gives the best results because all ribs have tough connective tissues that need to be rendered. If you toss your ribs on the grill, the collagen cannot properly dissolve and the result is tough meat.
Many people choose to cook an entire rack of ribs on a pellet grill. Others think a charcoal grill is the way to go. Smoking them is an excellent choice because you can count on that added layer of smoke flavor, even if you top them with your favorite barbecue sauce.
You can also further enhance the smoky flavor of the meat by choosing different types of wood chips. The three best flavors to complement your rib meat are hickory, pecan, and cherry.
Whatever cooking method you choose (or whichever is available to you), can still yield equally delicious results. It really comes down to slowly reaching the best internal temp for ribs rather than how you cook it.
I personally prefer to smoke ribs, so I’ve included easy steps to do just that at the end of the article.
Best Internal Temp for Ribs
Remember, there’s a big difference between an internal temp that gives you safe meat to eat vs. deliciously tender meat. According to the USDA, a safe internal temperature is 145 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the best internal temperature for ribs is 203 degrees Fahrenheit for mouthwatering tenderness.
Why Should You Cook Ribs to a Higher Temperature Than Necessary for Safety?
Cooking temperature measures the safety of meat. It does not address the flavor and texture of your meat. If you want your ribs to be tender and juicy, it is essential to cook it to a higher internal temperature than meat safety suggests.
To ensure safe eating, you want to make sure you cook the ribs to 145 degrees F. But the magic number to achieve tender, fall-of-the-bone ribs is 203 degrees F.
That’s because you can only break down the connective tissues by cooking the meat to a high temperature. It will not dry out the meat to cook it to this temp. Using indirect heat to cook them will ensure that they are succulent and juicy.
What is Meat Safety?
Meat safety should be taken seriously. First, it refers to handling meat properly by storing it for only a certain amount of time, at a specific temperature. If meat is kept at room temperature for too long a period, it can grow bacteria or other contaminants that make consumers ill.
Meat safety also refers to internal cook temperature, a specific temperature that can kill food-borne diseases in different types of meat products. It is essential to cook your meat to specific temperatures to avoid making yourself or others sick.
Thankfully, when it comes to slow cooking meats like ribs or smoking a brisket, you easily surpass the safe internal temp to reach the ideal temp for tenderness.
How to Measure Internal Temp of Meat
Hands down, the best way to measure the internal temperature of meat is with a meat probe thermometer. Cooking your meat to the proper temperature will ensure that your meat is free from contaminants like listeria, E. coli, salmonella, as well as other parasites, bacteria, and infections.
Not all meat thermometers are created equal. An analog meat thermometer will get the job done but there are more modern options availabe. A digital instant-read meat thermometer, for instance, gives you an instant reading so you don’t let too much heat escape while checking the temp. But if you want to go all out…
A wireless digital probe can be left in the meat while cooking. It sends a signal to your digital device, allowing you to monitor the cook throughout the entire process. All from the comfort of the inside of your home!
How Do You Know When Ribs are Done?
Did you know that there are a few ways to test your ribs to check if they are done? Of course, a good meat probe takes the guesswork out for you. But these tricks are great to know if your thermometer is on the fritz!
Carefully pick up your ribs using heat-resistant gloves or tongs. Bend the ribs gently. Do they bend easily, with the meat gently tearing from the bone? If so, they are done.
Like the bend test, the twist test requires you to twist your rack of ribs gently. If the bone begins to tear away from the bone gently, they are done. That tells you that the collagen has melted, and the meat is nice and tender.
If you don’t think you can safely or easily pick up the meat to bend or twist, you can do what is called a “skewer test.” Take a wooden skewer and press it between two bones. If there is no resistance, the meat is ready to be pulled.
How to Cook Perfect Ribs (Tips & Recipe)
Ok, so now you know the best internal temp for ribs but what’s the best way to get to that point? Here are some tips along with an easy yet yummy ribs recipe and a dry rib recipe.
Remove the Membrane of the Ribs
This is the first step that a lot of people miss! You will notice that the back of your ribs have a thin membrane covering them. This membrane is sometimes referred to as the “silver skin.”
While it is optional to leave this on, it’s better to remove the silver skin yourself (or ask your butcher to) before cooking. That will ensure that your dry rub seasoning and smoke flavor penetrate the meat.
The membrane can also turn leather-like and become an unpleasant coating on your meat, leading to tough ribs.
To remove the silver skin:
1. Lay the ribs on a cutting surface, silver skin side up. Using a sharp knife, slide it under one edge of the silver skin. If it is too tight in one spot, try another.
2. Once the silver skin lifts in an area large enough to grab it, use a paper towel to grip it tightly. Then gently pull it up off the meat. The entire skin should peel away as a large sheet. If it breaks, repeat the process with whatever skin is leftover.
Easiest Smoked Rib Recipe
You can pop ribs in the oven or cook them slowly on a grill, but I prefer smoked ribs over any other. The following is a simple yet effective recipe for cooking a tender and delicious rack of pork ribs in a smoker.
- 1 rack, baby back ribs
- 4 tbsp mustard
- Favorite dry rub for ribs (recipe below if needed)
- Favorite BBQ sauce
1. Preheat your smoker to 220 degrees Fahrenheit
2. Prepare the rack of ribs by peeling the membrane from the back of the ribs.
3. Apply a coating of mustard to the ribs, covering both sides.
PRO TIP: Applying mustard is optional but highly recommended. Mustard acts as a tenderizer and can help create that beautiful bark that smoked and barbecued meat is known for. The mustard also provides the meat’s surface layer for the dry spice rub to adhere to.
4. Apply the dry rub, covering both sides of the meat. Try our recipe below if you don’t have a dry rub that you already love!
5. Place the ribs in the heated smoker, meat side up. Carefully insert a meat thermometer into the thickest meat section, between the rib bones. Do not touch the probe to the rib bone.
6. Smoke the ribs for 2-3 hours until the internal temperature of the meat is about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the ribs and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.
7. Return the wrapped meat to the smoker. Carefully re-insert the probe. Smoke for an additional 1-2 hours of cook time until they reach an internal temperature of 190-200 degrees Fahrenheit.
8. Remove the ribs and unwrap them. Brush the meat with your favorite sauce unless you want “dry” ribs. In that case, just unwrap them.
9. Place the ribs inside the smoker for a final time. Again, insert the meat thermometer. Continue to smoke for about 1 hour.
PRO TIP: You may notice the meat “stall” in temperature during this final stage. It may even dip down in temperature before coming back up. This is normal.
10. When the ribs have reached an internal temperature of 203 degrees F, pull them from the smoker. Let them cool enough to handle. Then cut them up and serve!
Dry Rub for Ribs Recipe
Do you need a tasty, tried-and-true dry rub recipe for your ribs? My simple recipe is easy to make, using ingredients you likely already have in your pantry. This dry rub works well with any cooking method you choose, not just smoking.
- 4 tbsp paprika
- 3 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp onion powder
- 1 tbsp salt
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1. In a small bowl, mix all ingredients. When ready, rub on the meat!
PRO TIP: You can make this dry rub mixture ahead of time to be ready to go when you go to smoke your meat. That gives you one less thing to prep for barbecue day!
You can store the mix in an airtight container for up to a month!
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As a mom of three little eaters, I am excited to share my love of cooking, smoking, and baking with you. My love of food started when I went to college in Berkeley, and has followed me ever since! When I am not “momming,” writing, or cooking, you can find me reading, traveling, or hiking.