Ribs are a popular barbecue food, enjoyed by many for their rich, meaty flavor. They consist of a bone surrounded by meat, with a thin membrane covering the back of the rack of ribs. Some people prefer to remove this membrane before cooking, while others leave it on. So which is better – ribs with or without membrane?
What is the membrane on ribs?
The membrane covering ribs is called the peritoneum or pleural membrane. It’s a thin, tough, fibrous tissue that encloses the rib section. In pigs, it separates the ribs from the belly. In beef ribs, it separates the ribs from the chuck section.
The purpose of this membrane on the animal was to hold the ribs together and protect the bones and meat. It’s made up of fat, collagen, elastin fibers, and some muscle tissue. It can be rubbery in texture and tightly grips the ribs.
Why do some people remove the membrane?
There are a few reasons why some pitmasters and barbecue enthusiasts remove the membrane from ribs before cooking:
- The membrane shrinks when cooked, causing ribs to curl up. Removing it helps ribs lay flatter on the grill or smoker.
- Membranes don’t readily absorb smoke or spice rubs. So removing it exposes more surface area of meat.
- The texture of membrane is unappealing to some after cooking. It can be rubbery and tough.
- It’s considered easier to bite clean through ribs without membrane.
- There’s a belief that removing membrane allows sauce and moisture to penetrate meat better.
So in summary, removing membrane prior to cooking ribs makes the ribs easier to manage, absorb more flavor, and provides better texture.
Why do some people leave the membrane on?
While many remove the membrane, others prefer to leave it in place when cooking ribs for these reasons:
- The membrane helps hold ribs together on the grill or when slicing. Ribs can fall apart more easily without it.
- It protects the bone and meat from higher heat if overcooked or charring.
- Collagen in membrane breaks down into gelatin when cooked, keeping ribs moist.
- Cooking ribs low and slow allows membrane to become tender and edible.
- Intact membrane may better seal in juices and flavor.
- Removing membrane can make ribs dry out faster.
So for those who leave it on, the membrane helps ribs hold together better during cooking while also keeping them moist and tender when cooked properly.
How to remove membrane
If you want to remove the membrane prior to cooking, here is a simple process:
- Lay ribs meat-side down on a work surface.
- Locate the thick, opaque membrane covering the bone side.
- Slide a butter knife under one corner of membrane to loosen it.
- Grab ahold of the freed membrane and peel it off slowly while holding ribs down.
- Use paper towels to grip and pull off remaining membrane portions.
- Scrape any remaining bits of membrane off with a knife or scrub brush.
- Rinse ribs if needed and pat dry before applying rub.
It takes some practice to remove the membrane smoothly in one piece. Try grasping it with a paper towel for better grip. Work slowly and be patient to remove it completely.
Pro tips for prepping ribs
Here are some additional tips for preparing ribs whether you remove the membrane or not:
- Trim off any excess hard fat to prevent burning.
- Pull silver skin membrane from bone ends for tenderness.
- Rinse ribs and pat extremely dry before seasoning for best rub adhesion.
- Apply rub generously over all surfaces, membrane too if left on.
- Let ribs sit at least 30 minutes after seasoning for flavors to penetrate.
- Leave membrane on for braising or pressure cooking which keeps them intact.
- Cut racks in halves or 2-3 bone sections if needed to fit cooker.
How to cook ribs with or without membrane
Ribs can be cooked low and slow or hot and fast whether you leave the membrane on or take it off. Here are tips for both methods:
Low and slow cooking
Ideal for smoking, barbecue, and tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs.
- Cook between 225-275°F for best control over rib doneness.
- Leave membrane on if cooking up to 6 hours for moisture retention.
- Remove membrane for maximum smoke absorption over longer cooks.
- Spritz or mop ribs every 1-2 hours with juice, vinegar, or broth to keep moist.
- Wrap ribs in foil at stall point around 160°F internal temp if desired.
- Cook ribs to at least 195°F internal temperature.
- Rest ribs 10-20 minutes before cutting for juiciness.
Hot and fast cooking
Ideal for grilling or oven roasting succulent ribs in less time.
- Cook between 350-425°F oven temp or medium-high grill heat.
- Leave membrane on to hold ribs together on grill.
- Remove membrane and cut ribs into individual bones for oven roasting.
- Cook 45 minutes up to 1.5 hours until tender.
- Baste ribs every 10-15 minutes with sauce glaze.
- Check for doneness using bend or toothpick test.
- Do not overcook ribs or they will dry out.
How do ribs turn out with and without membrane?
Now that we’ve covered the purpose of the membrane and how to cook ribs both ways, how do the final results differ?
Here’s a comparison of ribs with and without membrane when cooked:
|Ribs||With Membrane||Without Membrane|
|Flavor||Slightly less seasoned flavor permeation||Deeper flavor penetration into meat|
|Texture||Tender, chewy membrane when cooked low and slow||More tender, pull-off-the-bone meat|
|Moisture||Better moisture retention||Can dry out quicker|
|Smoke Ring||Less distinct smoke ring||More defined pink smoke ring|
|Appearance||Membrane shrinks giving rippled look||Smoother surface, meat pulls off cleaner|
|Overall||More intact, slightly chewy||More tender, meatier texture|
As you can see, ribs turn out slightly moister and more whole with membrane left on, but have deeper flavor and pull-off-the-bone texture when membrane is removed.
At the end of the day, whether or not to remove rib membrane comes down to personal preference. If you value flavor and tenderness above all, removing membrane is recommended. But leaving it on isn’t detrimental, as long as ribs are cooked properly.
For the juiciest, most flavorful ribs, it’s best to remove membrane when smoking low and slow or grilling hot and fast. But for braised, pressure cooked, or baked ribs, leaving membrane on can help hold them together and retain moisture.
If you do remove membrane, be sure to compensate by mopping or spraying ribs more during cooking and not overcooking. Proper preparation like trimming fat and drying also helps prevent dry ribs.
While membrane itself may not be enjoyable to eat, remnants of it can still provide some gelatinous texture on finished ribs. The most important thing is seasoning ribs well and cooking them carefully to bring out their best qualities.
So experiment to see if you savor that membrane or not. You might find you prefer fall-off-the-bone ribs without, or you may not mind chewy membrane amid finger-licking barbecue flavor. Either way, ribs can be mouthwatering with or without their protective coating!