How to Tell When Ribs are Done: Methods Explained

By Dylan Clay
Last Updated 
June 28, 2022

There are two main ways to tell when ribs are done. They are, in order of most importance:

  • Probe tenderness
  • Internal temperature

Regardless of the type of rib you're smoking, these factors are universal.

How to Tell When Ribs are Done

While there are certainly other methods that can be used to determine if ribs are "done," they are not nearly as reliable as being probe tender and within a specified temperature range.

Probe Tenderness

In my opinion, probe tenderness is the best way to know if ribs are considered done.

The term "probe tender" refers to using a temperature probe to poke between the bones in order to feel how the probe penetrates the meat.

If the probe feels like it's sliding through soft butter, the meat is considered tender. If there is any sort of resistance, the ribs need more time on the smoker.

Keep in mind, this method assumes you're using an instant read thermometer, hence probe. You can easily use a tooth-pick or similar tool to poke into the meat and test tenderness.

Note: The instant read thermometer/probe I use is the ThermoWorks Thermapen ONE.

Internal Temperature

ribs internal temperature

The internal temperature of meat can give you a general idea of doneness. Meaning, we know that the meat has been cooked to both a food safe temperature and is tender.

The USDA outlines specific temperatures where-in meat is considered safe to eat:

Meat USDA Safe Temperature (F)
Pork 145
Fresh Beef 145

While at these temperatures meat is considered safe to eat, it does not mean that the meat is tender.

At 160F collagen starts to dissolve (connective tissues) and at 180F they're fully dissolved. While there is less moisture than meat below 140F, the rendering of collagen creates gelatin which adds succulence. Meaning you get tender, succulent meat.

At around 195 - 205 F, the collagens and fat have rendered and the meat is tender. However, internal temperature should not be solely relied upon to qualify if ribs are done.

If you were to temperature probe the ribs and they said 198, but they didn't feel probe tender, they are not done. You need to continue smoking until the meat feels done.

Other Visual/Physical Queues of Rib Doneness?

As with any topic in barbecue, there are a number of opinions and methodologies. However, there are issues with these approaches that I'll outline below.


Note: The wetness above is simply from Meat Juices, the rub has fully adhered to the ribs.

Color can be a good indicator for various stages of smoking. For instance, on pork ribs I use color as a way of telling me when to wrap. After I see that the dry rub has adhered to the meat and upon touching it - if it no longer sticks to my fingers - I know it's time to wrap.

Color is also a sign of the maillard reaction of sugars as well as smoke. For instance, cherry wood gives pork and beef a nice ruddy mahogany color; The maillard reaction of sugars results in browning.

Visually, you can also see char form and develop. In this case, color is useful as it gives you an action plan for how to prevent meat from burning.

For example, in some cases a brisket flat may finish before the point. By turning the brisket away from the direct heat, or even wrapping the flat, you can deflect heat and slow down the cooking process.

With all that being said, color doesn't really give you much other than these indicators. Meaning, color alone won't tell if you if your ribs are done.

Pull-back from the Bone

The the phrase "visual pull-back from the bone" is super common - it describes the protrusion of the bones as the meat "pulls-back."

The pull-back occurs because the meat is physically shrinking as it's being smoked. When meat is smoked, the fibers are being contracted and juices are forced out.

While pull-back is a good visual indicator that the meat is cooking properly, it still does not tell you if the meat is done.

The above image is a good example of why it's not an indicator of "doneness." The ribs above have different thicknesses of intercostal meat (between the bones) meaning, one side is going to finish before the other. If we were to solely use "pull-back" as an indicator of doneness, some parts of the rib may not even be tender.

Some people even equate the pull-back to be similar to that of Pop-up Timer that's used for turkeys. However, this doesn't make any sense as the pull-back/shrinkage on ribs can occur at various temperatures. Where-as the Pop-up Timer is an engineered product that uses metal that melts at 165 F indicating doneness.

Bend or Twist Test

A common test that experienced Pitmasters and enthusiasts use is the bend and/or twist test.

The bend test involves picking the ribs up at one end with tongs at the center and allowing gravity to physically pull the meat downwards. If the ribs are ready you'll visually see cracks occur at the bend; The bend should be close to breaking but not break.

The twist test is similar to the bend test. A rib bone at the center is twisted in such a way that when you twist you can feel the bone break free from the meat.

While I also use these tests, unless you're experienced you may not know what to look for. I personally messed this up the first time I smoked ribs. I assumed the small crack at the bend was enough, only to find out it could of gone further.


I hate this concept so much that I wrote an entire article on it: The 3-2-1 Rib Method and Why You Shouldn't Use it.

Put simply, a number of people like to use time as a means to estimate when ribs are done. However, this doesn't account for the size of the meat, the smoker being used, type of rib, ambient temperature - Granted it does assume you're smoking at 225F.

A huge issue with this method is that you could end up with overcooked ribs. Truth be told, ribs shouldn't entirely fall off the bone. Ribs should be smoked to the point that they pull cleanly off the bone when you bite into them.

Keep in mind though, I'm not you; What I may like, you may not.

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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  1. Thanks for the explanation of what goes on with the ribs while cooking. I also felt the 3-2-1 time method left a lot to be desired. I do have a question regarding temperature and "doneness." A few times I've had ribs that were at or above temperature (say 207-212F) but they weren't exactly probe tender. At that point I was afraid they were possibly over cooked and pulled them. Is it correct to assume that even if they are reaching temps above the target, that leaving them longer would still make them more tender, or would it have the opposite effect?

    1. Hey Victor!

      So typical finish temperatures are usually around 195 - 205F. However, it's like I said above, " If you were to temperature probe the ribs and they said 198, but they didn't feel probe tender, they are not done." The issue with higher finishing temperatures is that you're also pushing tons of moisture out of the meat; Something like ribs have way less intramuscular fat than something like brisket. Baby backs are also way leaner than spares and will finish much faster.

      Just to confirm a few things, what type of ribs were they? I'm assuming a full rack of spare ribs at those temperatures; Where were you probing the meat to confirm tenderness? The meat between the bones or cartilage/sternum above the meat? What temperature probe do you use and is it accurate (confirmed via a ice water bath and boiling water)? When you pulled the meat and ate the ribs, did you feel like they weren't tender to your liking still?

      Just to note, 207+ isn't unheard of for ribs. My advice is still the above though - you should always go based off of probe tenderness. A probe inserted in the meat between the bones should glide through effortlessly - the common adage is "like going through soft butter."

      1. Thanks for the reply. The ribs were St Louis cut. On a pellet smoker at 275 until they reached 165f (a little over 2 hrs). Wrapped them in heavy duty foil with some butter, brown sugar, and honey. After about 1 1/2 hrs, they were temping around 207-212f depending on the spot.

        When I probed them for temp (in between the bones), they had a little resistance to them. More like probing cold butter rather than warm butter. I used a quick read thermometer. An off-brand from Amazon but I did verify the accuracy with boiling and ice water.

        I ended up saucing them and leaving them on for another 15 minutes for the sauce to set. I didn't notice any difference in tenderness when probing them once the sauce was set.

        They weren't bad by any means. But I knew they could be a bit more tender and was curious if there were any missteps and/or if leaving them longer would have helped or hindered the tenderness.

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