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How to Remove the Membrane from Ribs: Guide and Purpose Explained

Almost all beginners are told to remove the "membrane" from the back of ribs before smoking/cooking them, however they all fail to qualify the "why."

These sources will primarily state that the main reason for removing the membrane from the back of ribs is to allow for better penetration of smoke and dry rub (sugars, salts, etc), implying that it's an impermeable layer; This is categorically untrue. It is to a lesser degree but not one that most people would notice.

Others even describe it as a "moisture" barrier that functions like a Texas crutch to lock in moisture; For the same reasons above, this isn't true.

An almost tertiary reason - though it shouldn't be - is the the mouth-feel or eating experience. The membrane is a protein layer of elastin that does not render when smoked and results in a chewy mouth-feel.

Depending on the types of ribs and how you smoke them, the membrane can also work to keep the ribs together/on the bone.

What is the Rib Membrane?

The "membrane" on ribs or peritoneum is a serous membrane that lines the abdominal cavity. The purpose of this membrane in mammals is to support and protect the organs of the abdomen; It also functions as a conduit for the passage of nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatics.

Silver-Skin?

The silver skin is a thin membrane that works to separate and support muscles. When wet this membrane appears shiny and is often referred to as "silver-skin." The silver skin is a thin membrane of elastin. This layer is essentially inedible; Unlike connective tissues (collagen) and fats (renders into gelatin), it does not render/melt nor become tender.

Elastin is a protein. Think about what happens to the meat/protein when you smoke it. Does the beef/protein render? No.

The collagen denatures and dissolves, the fat renders into a gelatin, and the protein remains. However, the meat shrinks as the meat fibers are squeezed and juices are pushed out. The same thing occurs with the membrane/protein elastin.

How to Remove the Membrane from Ribs

Regardless of the species or animal and the type of rib you're working with, removal of the membrane follows the same steps.

A big problem I have with how most resources is that they sort of recommend the same tool: a butter knife.

While I agree a butter knife is wonderful for lifting the membrane, I've had so many instances where I cut through the membrane and it becomes even more difficult to remove.

Pick a better tool!

What you need:

  • Butter knife/dull blade
  • Tablespoon/teaspoon/regular spoon
  • Paper towel
The shiny backing on the ribs is the membrane

1. The first thing I always do is pat-dry the ribs with a paper towel. This makes the surface less slippery and easier to work with.

2. Start by lifting the membrane with your butter knife. The goal here isn't to entirely get from one end to the other. Your goal is to lift the membrane just enough so that you can fit the teaspoon and your fingers under the lip you've created. Then, using your fingers and the teaspoon to smoothly lift the membrane.

3. While having a smooth removal is ideal and satisfying, it won't always happen. Truth be told, a piece of paper-towel will do most of the work. Paper-towel allows you to actually grip the membrane as using you're fingers to do so is significantly harder; Granted, it's still doable.

4. With the membrane slightly lifted, use your paper towel to further lift and remove the membrane. The membrane may tear which is entirely okay, you're not eating it anyway.

5. Discard the membrane in the trash.

That's all there is to it. Now you can continue with the rest of your rib preparation; Adding a binder like mustard or just simply dry brining with your mixture of salts, sugars, and spices.

If you're more of a visual learner, my video below goes over the exact process outlined above. It takes me less than a minute to remove the membrane from beef back ribs.

Pork vs Beef Membrane

There is no difference in the membrane removal procedure outlined above for pork and beef ribs.

However, beef ribs membrane (pictured above and also in the video) is much thicker and slightly more difficult to remove. However, not by much; Again, I removed the membrane in less than a minute.

Pork's rib membrane is much less substantial and is much easier to remove.

Can You Leave the Membrane on?

Yes.

As I always say, barbecue is a centered experience and what I like, you may not. I personally don't care for the membrane as it affects the mouth-feel or "chewiness."

The goal for most people is to smoke ribs until they're probe tender (around 195 -205 F) - therefore lacking chewiness. Meaning, you're going to get probe tender meat and then a layer of chewy-ish elastin.

Smoking Ribs with the Membrane on

People that opt to leave the membrane on will tend to modify it by making cross-hatch cuts into the membrane. Again, since elastin is a protein, it will shrink, meaning the membrane will shrink too. These cross-hatches will be more pronounced at the end and you can usually remove them if necessary.

However, this is sort of the argument for leaving the membrane on. Beef ribs tend to shrink a lot - You'll hear people use phrases like "visible pull-back" from the bone. There could be instances where the meat even entirely falls off the bone. Since the membrane is connected to the back of the bones and meat it will physically prevent the meat from entirely falling off the bone.

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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