How to Defrost Ribs: 3 Best Ways to Thaw

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
September 15, 2022

When working with frozen meat like ribs it's best to be as safe as possible. That means defrosting and thawing in a controlled manner to avoid the potential for food-borne illness.

How to Defrost Ribs

There are two main ways I defrost ribs - in the refrigerator or in a bowl of cold water. Most folks also have a microwave and most microwaves have a defrost function.

Of these three options, I will almost always defrost ribs in the refrigerator overnight.

Note: The recommendations in this article are based on the current best practices outlined on the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) website.

The USDA does not recommend thawing frozen food on the counter or with hot water.

1. Defrosting Ribs in the Refrigerator

defrosted ribs in refrigerator

Smoking ribs is a somewhat involved process. Typical smoke times are roughly 4-6 hours for pork ribs and an upwards of 6-9 hours for beef ribs.

The reason I say the above is that most people tend to have forethought when it comes to smoking meat and will take the ribs out to defrost a day or two in advance.

Defrosting ribs in the refrigerator is as simple as placing the frozen package in your refrigerator.

Note: Your refrigerator's temperature should be somewhere between 35 - 40F.

For this article I actually thawed the pictured baby back ribs in the refrigerator and the process took 24 hours. This length of time also lines up with the estimations by the USDA.

Ribs that are thawed in the refrigerator will remain safe for roughly 3-5 days.

It's important to note that food that is thawed in the refrigerator can be refrozen without cooking. However, there is bound to be a loss in quality of the meat.

When food is frozen the water in the cells of the food freezes and turns into ice crystals. These ice crystals have the potential to disrupt the cell walls. When thawed the now punctured cells will release moisture.

At the bottom of the package you'll likely see a red hued liquid - in the food space this is called the "purge." This isn't actually blood, it's a mixture of water and meat proteins like myoglobin (responsible for the red color).

2. Thawing in a Bowl of Cold Water

defrosted ribs in cold water

If you are pressed for time and need to thaw the ribs the same day, thawing in a bowl of cold water is your best option.

In most cases, ribs come in a vacuum sealed packaging - however if yours aren't, place them in a Ziploc bag or similar leak-proof package.

Your goal is to essentially minimize the interaction between the raw meat and the external environment. You also don't want the raw meat to absorb water.

Place the packaged ribs in the cold water and completely submerge them.

Every 30 minutes, change the water so that it remains as cold as possible.

  • Baby back ribs weight anywhere from 1.25 - 3 lbs.
  • Spare ribs weigh anywhere from 3 - 5 lbs.

Using the USDA's estimates based on weight tells us that small packages of about a pound thaw in an hour or less.

Larger packages of 3-to-4 ponds may take 2-3 hours.

So in terms of ribs, it's roughly 1-3 hours to thaw in cold water.

Note: If thawing with the cold water method, the ribs should be cooked immediately. Similarly, ribs thawed with the cold water method should not be refrozen.

3. Defrosting in the Microwave

I almost never defrost foods in the microwave. I've definitely been in a pinch though (has never happened with ribs) and have had to use the microwave.

Before defrosting, take the ribs out of the vacuum packaging and place in a microwave safe container - like a glass container.

ribs microwave
Don't defrost in plastic packaging

Every microwave is different.

On my microwave, I have a "Turbo defrost" feature that allows me to input the weight of the meat.

So in my case, I pressed "Turbo Defrost", then entered "2.6 lbs" which is the weight of my baby backs.

The timer is then set for 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

defrosted ribs in microwave

If you don't have this feature, most microwaves have the ability to adjust their power settings. When defrosting, you want to use roughly 20-30% of the power and defrost for 8-10 minutes per pound.

When defrosting with your microwave, the food should be cooked as soon as possible.

Meat that is defrosted in the microwave cannot be refrozen.

Do You Need to Thaw the Ribs Before Smoking?

Technically, it's entirely possible to cook food from a frozen state. A major purported downside is that they'll take much longer to cook.

With ribs specifically, you'd be somewhat hard pressed to have dry rub stick to the meat when frozen. A schmear like mustard may be necessary.

I know some folks even opt to apply dry rub to the surface of the frozen ribs while they're smoking. However, this means there will be less penetration of these spices.

Technically though, frozen meat will attract more smoke due to the moisture from thawing - this is the main reason most of the smoke flavor on food is during the first couple of hours of a smoke as water attracts smoke.

You also have the added benefit of the increased smoke time - meaning more time interacting with the smoke.

I've personally never smoked ribs from a frozen-state but I know some old-heads in the Barbecue world do rave about it.

Dylan Clay
I've grilled and smoked meat for roughly half my life. While i'm not a professional Pitmaster, I've worked with nearly every cut of meat. Not everyone has a hands on guide to teach them BBQ. It's my hope that Barbecue FAQ can be that helping hand.

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