We’re often asked about the best way to smoke various cuts of meat for backyard BBQ. Cooking methods matter, of course, but often the key to making a great meal lies in your preparation. If you want to make a tender rack of beef or pork ribs, you need to know how to remove the membrane from the ribs first.
Many novice pitmasters avoid the rib membrane removal because they think it is too hard or not worth the bother. Is this true? Does removing the membrane change the flavor or texture of your ribs, and is it difficult to do?
Here is everything you need to know about removing the rib membrane from a rack of ribs!
- 1 What is the Rib Membrane?
- 2 How to Tell if Membrane is on Ribs?
- 3 What Happens if You Don’t Remove the Membrane?
- 4 How to Remove the Membrane
- 5 What Happens if You Can’t Remove the Membrane from Ribs?
- 6 Can You Remove the Membrane After Cooking?
What is the Rib Membrane?
If you’ve only eaten them at restaurants, you may not even realize there’s anything you should remove from a rack of ribs before you cook them. You’re not alone.
I had no idea I needed to do anything special, preparation-wise, the first time I grilled a rack of ribs as a kid. I just slathered on a rub and tossed the rack on our grill.
The ribs were good but really tough, and I noticed there was an almost-inedible, plastic-like layer on the underside of the ribs. I could peel it away in a solid sheet. I tried eating it, but it had no flavor and wasn’t very fun to chew.
That unpleasant layer I discovered on my beef back ribs is the rib membrane.
This membrane is more properly termed the parietal peritoneum. In mammals, the peritoneum lines the abdominal cavity and helps anchor muscles and internal organs to the bones in your spine, pelvis and rib cage.
Some folks refer to this layer as the silverskin, because it has a shiny, silver-like appearance in raw meat.
How to Tell if Membrane is on Ribs?
Do all racks of ribs come with the membrane attached?
It depends, but usually, if you are buying a complete rack of ribs in a grocery store, that rack is gonna have a membrane. A butcher might remove it for you if you ask them nicely. But it’s likely that your prepackaged or cryovaced rack still has the rib membrane attached to it.
It should be pretty easy to tell if your rack of ribs still has the membrane in place. Just flip your rack so the meaty side is down, and take a look at the underside of the ribs. If you’ve positioned it right, the rib bones should curve up from the cutting board as you look down on it.
If the membrane is in place, you should see a thin, silvery-white sheet on top of the fat, meat and rib bones. It almost looks like a thin piece of parchment or paper. In some cuts, the membrane is very thin and almost-but-not-quite invisible.
If you’re not completely sure if your ribs have a membrane to remove, take a close look at the fat and meat on the underside of your rack.
If you can see knife marks in the fat or muscle along the bones, then the membrane has been removed. Instead of looking smooth, the fat and muscle will have a rough appearance and there may be strands of connective tissue or fat clinging to them.
If the underside is smooth in appearance, and the fat and muscle look like they blend into a layer, then the membrane is likely still in place.
Not all ribs require the removal of a membrane before cooking. If you often buy beef short ribs, Korean-style or flanken ribs, or country-style pork ribs then you have no worries. The membrane’s already been removed during the butchering process.
What Happens if You Don’t Remove the Membrane?
Prepping a rack of ribs for your grill or smoker by removing the membrane seems like an optional step, so what happens if you don’t remove it?
The rib membrane prevents smoke, marinades, spice rubs and sauces from penetrating your meat and leaves you with a tough and chewy mouthful. The underside of your ribs may taste less flavorful and be harder to bite through if you don’t remove the membrane.
Unlike other types of connective tissue, the rib membrane won’t soften or gelatinize as you grill or smoke your rack. Even using the Texas Crutch method of cooking won’t eliminate the membrane. The rib membrane actually dries out and shrinks a bit as it cooks, developing a plastic-like texture.
On the other hand, that membrane also reduces the amount of fat that renders from your ribs during the cooking process. When you leave it in place, your ribs might be a bit juicier because more of the moisture stays with your meat.
Some people prefer eating a natural rack of ribs to one with the membrane removed. They enjoy the extra snap and chew and think other styles of preparation are too time-consuming. While preferences vary, most professional and competitive BBQ pitmasters remove the membrane as a matter of course.
I’ve noticed a big difference in results depending on the type of meat and the cut as well. Some racks of ribs have a thicker and more noticeable membrane than others.
Beef Back Ribs
Extremely popular in Texas and the Southwest, beef ribs are hearty and flavorful. Personally, I love to gnaw on a dinosaur-sized beef rib after a day of meat smoking. It’s also easy to judge how much meat you need per person when you serve a big rack of beef ribs.
Beef back ribs come from the front part of the cow’s backbone, near the spine. Often trimmed very closely to remove the rib-eye roast, beef ribs have a generous amount of fat and collagen. They are an ideal cut for cooking methods like smoking, braising and pressure cookers.
The membrane on a rack of beef ribs is fairly thick, especially if your ribs are large. I definitely recommend removing the membrane from beef ribs before you cook them.
The rib membrane is going to be very noticeable to your guests otherwise. There are a couple of downsides to leaving the membrane in place on a rack of beef ribs.
Since the membrane shrinks as it cooks, your rack may curl up in the smoker. You might have to cut through the membrane between each rib mid-smoke to get it to lie flat and cook evenly. This will lead to more moisture loss from your meat and a drier final result.
The membrane on beef ribs is also very tough and hard to chew. Most of the time, your guests will peel it off themselves as they eat their ribs. This will remove the spices or sauce clinging to the membrane and may leave your ribs under-seasoned.
Baby Back Ribs
One of the most popular styles of pork ribs in the US is the baby back cut. Baby back ribs come from the top of the pig’s rib cage near the spine and just below the loin muscle. These ribs are meaty, flavorful and cook-up faster than spareribs.
Similar to beef back ribs, baby back ribs have a thick and noticeable rib membrane. It isn’t quite as obvious as the membrane on beef ribs, but can still be unpleasant to chew through.
I usually remove the membrane from racks of baby back ribs prior to cooking them. The rib membrane removal doesn’t take very long and helps the smoke, seasonings, and sauce absorb into the meat.
Spareribs come from the bottom or belly-side of the pig’s rib cage, above the sternum. They have longer, flatter bones and less meat than baby back ribs. Spareribs also have more connective tissue and fat than other cuts.
Spareribs are usually juicier and more tender than baby back ribs due to this extra connective tissue. Many pitmasters prefer the rich flavor of spareribs over the baby back cut.
Since these ribs come from the front of the pig, the rib membrane is thinner and much less noticeable than on a rack of baby back ribs.
If you leave the membrane on while cooking, your ribs will be chewier than if you remove it. But your ribs won’t have that plastic-like mouthfeel you get from chewing on the membrane from a beef rib.
St. Louis-Style Spareribs
If you trim a rack of spareribs by removing the rib tips, sternum, and extra cartilage, you’ll have a St. Louis-style rack of ribs.
St. Louis-style spareribs have a rectangular shape which makes them especially attractive and easy to prepare. They cook-up evenly on your smoker and you can slice each rib into the perfect size for eating with your fingers.
This cut has a bit less moisture and flavor than a full rack of untrimmed spareribs but is nearly identical otherwise. The rib membrane isn’t very thick, so leaving it on while you cook is certainly an option.
I often skip removing the rib membrane from spareribs and St. Louis-style ribs. I prefer my spareribs to have a bit more chew anyway. The difference between removing vs not removing the membrane is minimal, in my experience.
How to Remove the Membrane
There are a few methods for removing the membrane from a rack of ribs. The introductory steps are the same no matter which method you end up using.
- First, unwrap your rack and dry it with a paper towel so it’s not too slippery to handle.
- Place your rack on a large cutting board with the meat-side down. The ends of the rib bones should curl away from the cutting board if you’ve positioned it correctly.
- Choose one of the methods listed below to lift the membrane and separate it from the meat, fat, and bones on your rack.
Method 1: Use a Knife
If you’re making a rack of spareribs or St. Louis-style ribs, you may prefer to use a knife for removing the rib membrane. Since the membrane tends to be thinner in these cuts, it can be harder to separate using other methods.
The best knife for removing the rib membrane is either your boning knife or a butter knife. You’re not trying to cut through the area between the membrane and the ribs, however. Instead, you use the knife to pry the membrane away from the rest of the rack.
To remove the membrane from a rack of ribs using a knife, prepare your rack as I described above. Then continue with the removal process:
- Starting in the center of the rack, hold your knife sideways, so the flat part of the blade lies against a rib bone. Gently slide your knife under the membrane right over the rib bone.
- Use the tip of the knife to pull up on the membrane as you slide it along the bone with a side-to-side motion. Keep pushing and prying until the tip of the knife has loosened the membrane along the entire rib and the tip of the knife clears the far side of the membrane.
- Leaving the knife in place under the membrane, twist the knife 90°. The spine of the blade should rest against the membrane with the cutting edge down. This makes a “tent” in the rib membrane. Pull up so the membrane separates further from the rack. Be sure the edge of the knife doesn’t cut into your membrane or your rib meat.
- Turn the knife flat again and move the spine so it is against the next section you need to separate. Twist the knife and use the spine to pry the membrane from the next rib.
- Continue to slide, twist and pry with your knife until the membrane is free from your rack of ribs.
Method 2: Use Your Fingers
Sometimes the best kitchen utensils are the ones you are born with.
If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, using your fingers to remove the rib membrane might be your best bet. I find this method works well with the thicker membranes on beef or baby back ribs.
To remove the membrane with your fingers, follow the introductory steps and then:
- Starting at one end of the rack, use a knife to separate the edge of the membrane from the rack until you have enough of it loose to get a good grip on it. If the membrane is thick enough, like on a rack of beef ribs, you may be able to pry it up with your fingers.
- Grab the edge of the membrane and gently pull it away from the rack. If your fingers slip you can use a paper towel to get a better grip.
- Keep pulling until the membrane peels away from the rack of ribs. Often it will come off as a single sheet. If the membrane rips, you may need to pry up another section and repeat the process.
Method 3: Use Both a Knife and Fingers
I’ll be honest. Most of the time, I use a knife AND my fingers to remove the rib membrane from a rack of ribs. Sometimes the stubborn membrane doesn’t want to come off easily. This method is suitable for any style of ribs.
If you’re struggling to remove the membrane from your rack of ribs, try this hybrid method:
- Starting in the center of the rack, use a boning knife to slide under the membrane along a rib, just as with Method 1.
- Once the tip of your knife has cleared the membrane from that rib, twist the knife 90° to make a tent in the membrane. Be sure to use the spine to form the tent and not the cutting edge of the knife.
- Use your knife’s spine to pry up on the membrane until you have enough room to get your fingers underneath it.
- Put your knife down and grab the membrane in one hand. You should be able to get a good grip since your fingers can lock around the membrane. Use the other hand to keep the rack on your cutting board.
- Pull up on the membrane until it comes loose. You can also use your hand to work the membrane loose from the meat and bones as you pull.
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What Happens if You Can’t Remove the Membrane from Ribs?
Sometimes, despite all the finger and knife work, you just can’t get the membrane free from your rack of ribs.
This is especially true when the membrane is thin or fragile. What will your ribs be like if the membrane tears while you are removing it? What do you do if the rib membrane won’t come off at all?
Beef ribs are noticeably chewier and harder to eat with the membrane in place.
If you can’t remove the membrane, or just don’t want to bother with removing it, there is a compromise. Try making a shallow slit along the underside of each rib, just cutting through the membrane next to each bone. Then rub your seasonings into the openings and as far under the membrane as possible.
This way, the meat has a chance to absorb the flavor from your wood smoke, spice rubs or sauce even if folks still peel the membrane away while they eat them. The membrane will also shrink as it cooks and allows your meat to pick up flavor from your smoker or grill.
The membrane on pork ribs isn’t quite as noticeable as on a rack of beef ribs. If you can’t get it off, or decide to skip removing it, you won’t be committing a culinary crime.
Your baby back ribs will be a bit chewier than a rack without the membrane, but should still taste pretty good. The rib membrane is thin enough that you can bite through it without a fight.
As I’ve already mentioned, I usually skip removing the membrane from spareribs. Honestly, sometimes the membrane on spareribs is so thin it can be hard to remove without a time-consuming struggle. My side-by-side tests indicate that the differences between removing vs not removing the membrane on spareribs are really minor.
Since St. Louis-style ribs are just a trimmed version of spareribs, leaving the rib membrane on isn’t a huge deal for this cut either.
You can certainly try to remove the membrane from your spareribs, but if you can’t get it off you shouldn’t stress over it. Just cook ‘em up and they will likely taste just fine!
Can You Remove the Membrane After Cooking?
It is definitely a lot easier to remove the membrane after your ribs have finished cooking. But should you remove it then?
My answer is usually a hard “No” but it really depends on your cooking method.
When you peel the rib membrane from your cooked rack of ribs, you take all the smoke flavor, spice rubs and sauce with it. Your ribs may end up very bland, albeit very tender as well.
Some chefs recommend braising or boiling a rack of ribs before finishing it on your grill or smoker. In this case, removing the membrane during the cooking process may make sense.
Once the meat’s done braising you can peel the membrane off carefully (it’s hot, after all). If you slather a sauce or spice rub on the rack before you finish it on your grill the results should be very tasty. Your meat will be quite tender and still have a lot of flavor.
Other than that, I usually don’t recommend trying to remove the membrane after cooking your ribs. You lose too much of your hard-won flavor and the results are not worth the hassle.