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What makes spare ribs tender?

Spare ribs can be a delicious barbecue staple when cooked properly. The key to tender, fall-off-the-bone spare ribs is understanding what makes them tough in the first place and how to break down the connective tissues. With the right techniques, you can transform tough ribs into fork-tender perfection.

What cut of meat are spare ribs?

Spare ribs come from the belly side of the pig near the bacon. They contain a lot of fat marbling and connective tissue which requires long, slow cooking to break down. The term “spare ribs” refers to the fact that they are not part of the primary rib cuts like baby back ribs. Due to their high fat content, spare ribs can be tougher than other rib cuts if not cooked properly.

Why are spare ribs tough?

There are two main factors that contribute to the potential toughness of spare ribs:

  • Connective tissue – Spare ribs contain collagen and elastin fibers which make the meat tough. These fibers need to be broken down through moist cooking methods.
  • Lack of marbling – While spare ribs contain fat, it is separated by the connective tissues rather than dispersed throughout like with well-marbled cuts of meat. Fat marbling helps keep the meat tender and juicy.

Because spare ribs have abundant connective tissue without much marbling, they can become extremely tough and chewy if cooked incorrectly or too quickly. Luckily, there are ways to guarantee tender spare ribs every time.

How to make tender spare ribs

Here are the key techniques to transform tough spare ribs into finger-licking tender:

Cook low and slow

The number one rule for tender ribs is low and slow cooking. You need temperatures between 225-275°F for at least 4-6 hours. This gives the collagen time to break down into gelatin and the fat time to render.

Use moist heat

Braising, steaming, and barbecuing are the best cooking methods. Dry heat like grilling can toughen spare ribs. Moist cooking environments allow the connective tissues to break down properly.

Remove the membrane

There is a tough membrane on the bone side of the rack that should be removed before cooking. Use a knife to loosen it and then pull it off with a paper towel.

Apply a rub

A salt and sugar-based rib rub will help season the meat while also breaking down muscle fibers to make the ribs more tender.

Sear before braising

Browning the ribs before braising will intensify flavor and create fond on the bottom of the pan for making gravy.

Use an acidic braising liquid

Tomatoes, vinegar, wine, and fruit juices all help tenderize ribs through the process of denaturation.

Let them rest

Allow the ribs to rest for 10-15 minutes after cooking. This lets juices redistribute through the meat for a juicier and more tender bite.

Best methods for tender spare ribs

While most moist, low heat cooking methods will produce tender ribs, these are some of the top techniques:

Oven braising

Braising uses both moist heat and time to break down connective tissues. Brown the ribs first, then braise with liquid like barbecue sauce, stock, beer, etc in a 300°F oven for 3-4 hours.

Slow cooker

A slow cooker braises ribs low and slow without needing to watch the oven. Cook 6-8 hours on low or 4-6 hours on high until fork tender.

Grill with indirect heat

Use a 2-zone fire and keep the ribs over indirect heat. Add soaked wood chips for smoke flavor. Grill at 250-275°F for 5-7 hours.


True barbecue flavor comes from smoking. Use a charcoal or electric smoker at 225-250°F for 6-8 hours with wood chips or chunks.

Tips for maximum tenderness

Follow these tips for the most tender, fall-off-the-bone spare ribs every time:

  • Remove silver skin membrane before cooking
  • Coat with a salt and sugar rub
  • Let ribs sit at room temp for 30 mins before cooking
  • Cook low and slow at 225-275°F
  • Maintain moist cooking environment
  • Flip and rotate ribs halfway through
  • Use apple juice, beer, cola, or stock in braising liquid
  • Always let ribs rest before eating

How to know when they’re done

It can be tricky to know when ribs are finished cooking, but here are some ways to test doneness:

  • Meat has visibly shrunk back from the bones
  • Bones wiggle easily when rack is picked up
  • Meat tears easily when twisted with tongs
  • Internal temp of 195-205°F
  • Toothpick slides in and out of meat smoothly

The ribs are ready when they are tender enough to pull clean off the bone. Use multiple doneness tests for best results.

Common mistakes

It’s easy to end up with tough spare ribs if you make any of these common mistakes:

  • Not removing membrane
  • Cooking at too high of heat
  • Not allowing to rest before cutting
  • Lack of moisture when cooking
  • Skipping rub or marinade
  • Cutting ribs before serving
  • Forgetting to flip and rotate
  • Saucing too early
  • Not cooking long enough

Always cook low and slow, keep them moist, and rest the ribs before eating for the most tender results.

How to use leftovers

Leftover ribs should be stored properly for food safety, but also to preserve moisture and tenderness. Here are the best ways to use up leftovers:

  • Refrigerate in air-tight container up to 4 days
  • Slice or chop ribs for salads, nachos, pizza, sandwiches
  • Make rib hash with potatoes, onions, peppers
  • Toss with bbq sauce, broth and reheat in oven
  • Make rib soup beans, veggies and stock
  • Reheat gently in simmering sauce to serve again

Avoid microwaving leftovers which can make the ribs rubbery. Use moist heat to reheat for tender textures.


Achieving tender, fall-off-the-bone spare ribs requires paying attention to a few key factors. Allowing ample time for low, moist cooking will properly break down tough connective tissues. Remove membranes, rub generously with salt and sugar, and braise or smoke the ribs using indirect heat around 250°F for 5-8 hours. Test doneness in multiple ways and always let ribs rest before cutting or eating for maximum juicy tenderness. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be rewarded with succulent, finger-licking spare ribs every time.