How to Tell if Ribs Are Done? Right on Time

From my point of view, the best way to tell when a rack of ribs is done is by using a combination of the bend test, the toothpick test, the time test, and the twist test. You can also give the peek-a-boo and pull-back tests a try, although they aren’t ideal. More on this later.

As a barbecue guru, I know firsthand that pork ribs can pose a challenge when it comes to doneness simply because they are basically thin layers of meat stretched across a rack of ribs. Too delicate to grill like beef and yet too tough to grill like salmon. However, it is not all doom and gloom, over the years I have perfected a handful of techniques specifically for this occasion so, take your pick or two.

In this post, I will outline and get into 4 foolproof ways to tell when ribs are done. I will also tell you the best internal temperature for pork ribs and why “fall off the bone” may not be a gold standard in this case. Walk with me:

4 Foolproof Ways to Tell if Ribs Are Done

Test your ribs for doneness using the tests below:

BBQ Pork Ribs with Golden Potato Wedges

The Toothpick Test

Using a toothpick to test for rib doneness is my go-to method since it leaves the rack in crisp condition without any visible damage on the surface of the rack. The toothpick test requires you to drive a toothpick through the meat. If the pork ribs are fully cooked, the toothpick should stick out on the other side of the rack with very little resistance.

Do this on different spots throughout the meat to check if the ribs are evenly cooked. The stronger the resistance you feel, the longer you need to cook the rib rack.

Rib Bend Test

The bend test, also known as the bounce test, has been used to test for the doneness of pork ribs since time immemorial because it is simple and fast.

Simply grab a pair of tongs, pick up your rack of ribs, and gently bounce it. If your ribs are done cooking, they should immediately begin to crack and come apart. This indicates that the connective tissue has been broken down and the meat is no longer tough. If the ribs are not done cooking, you will observe a small crack or none at all. In this case, slap the rack back onto the grill grates and keep cooking.

Twist Test

The twist test is as straightforward as these methods go. When you suspect your ribs are cooked, just grab the tip of a bone and twist it. Perfectly cooked ribs will separate from the meat quite easily and you can even pull out a clean bone, leaving behind the succulent meat.

Time Test

As the name suggests, the time test involves cooking your ribs for a specific amount of time. This method relies on a target time just like with an oven. The cooking time largely varies depending on the type of ribs you are grilling.

If you are working with baby back ribs, they should take approximately 4 hours to cook at 225F since they have a low-fat content and are very tender. As for St Louis Ribs, which are larger and feature more rib meat, 5-6 hours should do.

At this point, your pork ribs are done. This is the perfect juncture to slather your favorite bbq sauce on them and grill on high heat for an additional 5-10 minutes to lock in the spices in the sauce. I use Traeger Grills Sweet & Heat BBQ Sauce which pairs divinely with pork dishes.

That said, several factors determine how long your ribs will take to cook so for the sake of accuracy, I always advise using the time test as a guideline. I find using a combination of the time test and any of the other three the most accurate way to test whether pork ribs are done.

Are There Other Ways to Tell if Ribs Are Done?

There are other methods widely used to test for doneness but I do not advocate for them because of their glaring shortcomings. They include the peek-a-boo test and the pull-back test.

Juicy Pork Ribs with Fries

The Peek-a-Boo Test

This test involves cutting into the meat and observing it. When you suspect your ribs are cooked, grab a knife and fork, and cut off a rib. The center should be white and there should be no pink juices if you are cooking on a gas grill. However, if you are smoking the rack, it is common for the meat near the edges to retain a pink hue.

The main drawback here is that when you cut into the meat without letting it rest, you will lose a lot of its juices. This is the opposite of what we are going for since these juices keep our ribs succulent and flavorful.

The Pull-Back Test

The pull-back test argues that meat pulling back from the bone is an indicator that the meat is done cooking. Advocates of this method claim that when the meat pulls back about a quarter inch back from the bone, the ribs are done.

My argument is that all kinds of meat shrink considerably during the cooking process due to exposure to heat. As soon as you start cooking meat, it loses a lot of its moisture content making it smaller. Any pitmaster has experienced meat that has shrunk and pulled off the bone despite the center remaining undercooked.

Additionally, if you are cooking your ribs low and slow, the meat is not likely to start pulling off the bone until later on especially if it is wrapped. This means that if you are relying on this test to take your ribs off the grill, you will definitely end up with overcooked ribs. In my professional opinion, the pull-back test is very misleading and therefore unreliable.

Why Not Just Use a Meat Thermometer to Test for Doneness?

The problem with using an instant-read thermometer or digital probe to test for doneness is the lack of uniformity across pork ribs. There are different types of pork ribs and different methods of cutting pork ribs.

It is highly unlikely, dare I say impossible, to find a rack of spare ribs with the same amount of meat from one end of the rack to the other. Some parts will be thicker with more meat while others will be thinner with less meat not to mention the meat between the bones gets thinner and thinner towards the end of the rack.

You should also keep in mind that the intercoastal meat(meat between the bones), is often a bit cooler than the meat next to the bone. Relying on thermometer readings from different spots on the same rack will give you inconsistent readings that will only serve to confuse you.

That said, if you must use a thermometer, go for one with a long thin probe that can easily maneuver the rib bones. I recommend ThermoPro TP-02S Instant Meat Thermometer. It has a thin probe and it renders quick, accurate results.

Pork Ribs on the Flaming Grill

What is the Best Internal Temperature for Pork Ribs?

There is a big difference between when your ribs are done and when they are ready for the dinner plate. It all comes down to temperature.

According to food safety health guidelines, pork ribs are done at an internal temperature of 145 degrees. We dub it ‘the doneness of pork’. At this juncture, your ribs are safe to eat. However, given that connective tissue starts to break down at 160 degrees, your ribs are bound to be tough and chewy.

Instead, for delicious, toothsome ribs, let your ribs cook to an internal temperature of between 190-203 degrees. This is enough time for the collagen to fully render, resulting in tender meat that can easily be pulled off the bone. In other terms, ready to eat.

Why “Fall Off the Bone” Isn’t Always a Good Thing?

‘Fall off the bone ribs’ is a direct reference to how the meat behaves when it cooks too long. The meat is left to cook until it is too soft to hold onto the bone. Fall-off-the-bone ribs will be mushy and with very soft and moist bark. Additionally, it will have a less intense flavor much like steamed and boiled meat.

Some people prefer this so if that’s the case, go to town and cook your ribs longer. However, contrary to this popular method, the meat should not fall off the bone. Instead, it should only get tender enough to easily peel off the bone when tagged on with teeth or fingers. That’s the gold standard of pork barbecue!

How Long Does It Take to Cook Ribs?

How long you should cook your pork ribs largely depends on the type of pork ribs you are working with and the cooking temperature among other factors. If you are grilling in the oven, between 225-250 degrees, here are the ballpark figures to work with:

  • Spare ribs – 5-6 hours
  • Baby back ribs – about 4 hours
  • St Louis Ribs – 6-7 hours
  • Riblets – 4-5 hours

Factors That Impact How Long You Should Cook Your Ribs

Generalized cooking durations aside, some factors directly impact how long you should let your ribs cook. They include:

How Thick is Your Slab of Ribs?

As I mentioned earlier, there are different types of pork ribs. Some are longer and meatier than others while some are smaller and fattier. Thicker slabs of ribs might take longer to cook through. This is because a thicker slab means more connective tissues, more fat, and more meat thus a longer cooking time.

It is therefore important to be mindful of this fact when cooking ribs of varying thicknesses. When in doubt, you can always let them cook a little while longer.

What is the Cooking Temperature?

The cooking temperature also dictates the cooking time. The higher the cooking temperature the shorter the cooking duration. That said, don’t go crazy and smoke your ribs at 500 degrees. Granted they will take shorter to cook but they will definitely dry out and possibly overcook.

I recommend a low cooking temperature of 225 degrees. This allows the heat to slowly break down connective tissue into gelatin that will consequently flavor your ribs as it renders.

Smoked Pork Ribs with Coriander Leaves on the Plate

Are Your Ribs Wrapped or Unwrapped?

Another consideration is whether you intend to cook your ribs wrapped or unwrapped. Ribs cooked unwrapped will have a brown crispy bark that is to die for. However, you run the risk of drying it out if you do not use other techniques to keep them moist. Such techniques include slow cooking, basting, and marinating.

Wrapping ribs in aluminum foil seals in moisture and heat which helps reduce the cooking time while keeping your ribs juicy. The downside of cooking pork ribs while wrapped is that it messes with bark formation and inhibits smoke absorption. However, there are ways around these disadvantages.

For starters, if you want that badass smoke ring, cook your ribs unwrapped for the first 1 hour of smoking. This allows the smoke to penetrate the meat fibers.

Secondly, for that coveted crispy bark, unwrap your ribs and let them cook uncovered at 350 degrees towards the last hour and a half of grilling. That way, you get the best of both worlds: a crispy bark, a badass smoke ring, and juicy pieces of well-cooked pork ribs. Now that’s the stuff!


What Do Undercooked Ribs Look Like?

Texture speaks volumes when it comes to meat so the best way to test if your pork ribs are undercooked is to focus on the texture. Undercooked ribs will be tough to pull apart. The tougher it is, the longer it needs to cook. Perfectly cooked pork ribs feature tender meat that stays on the bone until you tag on it.

Are Ribs Done When They Fall Apart?

Fall-of-the-bone ribs are mushier in texture than pull-apart rib meat. If the meat falls off the bone, it is overcooked whereas pull-apart ribs are just a chef’s kiss.

The Cliff Notes Version

It is easy to tell if ribs are done using the bend test, the toothpick test, the twist test, and the time test. With that in mind, I recommend employing 2 or 3 tests hand in hand just to be thorough. They are all straightforward, require a little effort, and most importantly take less than a minute of your time so, why not?