Overcooked ribs are a crime against BBQ—but they can be forgiven if you can fix it.
Accidents can happen. You get grilling with a few friends, start talking and crack open a beer, and before you know it, you’ve lost track of how long those ribs were on the grill.
And what’s the end result? Overcooked ribs. Perhaps something you didn’t even know was a thing.
But please, please don’t throw them out immediately!
They might not look appealing, but it’s not the end of the world, and throwing away meat is a worse crime than overcooking them in the first place!
In this post, we’ll show you how to identify overcooked ribs and how you can salvage them into something worth sharing.
How to Tell if Ribs Are Overcooked?
The most obvious sign you’ve overcooked ribs is that the meat is dry because the juices have all evaporated.
This’ll likely mean that the meat is very chewy. You may even tire your jaw out chewing through it. You may get quite thirsty.
The meat of overcooked ribs will have a texture more similar to a dry washcloth, not succulent meat. It may remind you of dry, overcooked chicken breast.
The meat may also lack a meaty flavor—the juices and fats take that with them when they disappear.
It’ll be an underwhelming dining experience that might require a lot of work to eat. And if you cooked for guests, they may pretend that it’s great, even though you’re 100% they’re not.
However, don’t immediately think that tough meat means your ribs are overcooked, undercooked ribs can also be very tough.
When perfectly cooked, the meat will slide nicely off the bone—when over or undercooked, it’ll be tougher to remove. “It’s a balancing act,” a lot of people say.
So, if you’ve cooked those ribs for a fairly long time, and the meat is hard to remove from the bone, you’ve likely got overcooked ribs. (Sorry!)
But not all overcooked ribs end up super dry. Alternatively, the meat can end up mushy and literally fall off the bone.
Some actually prefer this super soft meat. It might be the desired result you were looking for. (I honestly won’t mind it so much.)
However, many maintain that it takes away from the experience of eating ribs. Most of us expect some texture to the meat.
What Do Overcooked Ribs Look Like?
The most apparent visual clue that your ribs are overcooked is a lack of moisture inside and outside. Cutting into the meat, you’ll see it’s dry (as mentioned above).
Aside from that, cutting into the meat, the insides might look similar to if they had been boiled—a white, grayish-pale color. There will be no shades of pinkiness or other colors.
Lastly, the exterior could be burned and not have that nice shiny brown glaze. Of course, some black is to be expected, but when it covers the entire meat, that’s not good.
What Happens When Ribs Are Overcooked?
BBQ Host says that when ribs are cooked over 203°F (95°C) they begin “to dry out and resemble sawdust more than anything else.”
But it can also come down to how big or thick the ribs are and if they are covered or uncovered.
Jennifer Anderson of Martha Stewart says, “no higher than 300 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit [148°C to 162°C] for about 1 hour if uncovered.”
Or “If wrapped in foil, you can push the oven temp as high as 375 [190°C] degrees and cook for upwards of 1.5 hours.”
It’s also worth noting for future ribs that before the meat becomes overcooked, you will notice the ribs will turn brown.
And if you’re watching the temperature with a thermometer, the meat closest to the bones will be hotter than the meat further away.
So, next time you grill some ribs—and you’re paying close attention—look out for the color change before taking them off the grill and check the temperature regularly.
You can also make sure that you properly coat the outside of the ribs with herbs and spices.
In Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking, McGee says that an indirect result of this is that it “insulates the meat itself from the direct high heat of oven or grill.”
This then reduces the chance of overcooking your ribs and keeps them moister.
But that’s not the whole story. Interestingly, some vehemently argue that you should cook ribs past ‘done.’
The grilling website Napoleon says that 225°F (107°C) should be the ideal temperature for cooking ribs.
While this is a lower temperature than what Anderson suggested above, Napoleon believes ribs should be cooked for longer.
They advise slow cooking or smoking for three hours, then wrapping the ribs in foil with sauce and cook for a further two hours.
But that’s not all. After that, they then say to unwrap the ribs and cook for another hour!
They also explain that the tough collagen in the meat that surrounds the bones needs to reach 165°F (73°C) to transform into gelatin—which is what makes the meat soft and tender.
How to Salvage Overcooked Ribs?
The quickest way to salvage overcooked ribs would be to add some extra sauce, but this is by no means a perfect solution.
If your ribs are very dry, more sauce won’t reach the meat on the inside, and it won’t hide the dryness of the meat if it’s particularly thick.
But if you’re massively disappointed with your overcooked ribs, it might be worth thinking about taking ribs off the menu and reusing the meat in another way.
To do this, the first thing you’ll need to do is separate the meat from the bones and slice it up.
Cutting the meat up into smaller pieces will make its dry texture less noticeable, particularly if you have some sauce to add. Some believe shredding is even better.
In McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking, he says “Shred dry, overcooked meat instead of cutting it, and moisten the fibers with a sauce made intentionally thin and juicelike.”
Dr. Stuart Farrimond in his book The Science of Cooking agrees and suggests mixing the shredded meat “with a gravy made from meat stock, fats or butter, and silky gelatin.”
This shredded meat could make a good filling for something like tacos, a wrap, a sandwich, or pies, or add to pasta or transform into a meat sauce.
Wherever your imagination takes you.
What about pork ribs?
You might be a bit luckier at fixing overcooked pork ribs (baby back ribs, spareribs, and St. Louis-style ribs) than prime ribs because they can be better at retaining moisture.
How Do You Reheat Overcooked Ribs?
Ideally, you’ll want to find a way to reverse the impacts of overcooking without furthering the effects.
The best and perhaps only proper way to reheat overcooked ribs (and restore some moisture) isn’t on the grill, but by braising them.
To do this, you’ll need to simmer the ribs in a broth or, more appropriately, BBQ sauce. Do this until the moisture penetrates the meat and it tenderizes.
Now, your ribs will probably not end up as perfect as the grilled ribs you wanted at the very beginning of this unfortunate journey, but it’s better than throwing them out and starting over.
You should also be cautious with temperature—too high and much of that newly added moisture will just evaporate again.
Braising requires a lot of time though, so if you’re not that patient, this might not be a very practical option.
But if time is on your side and you’re totally cool with waiting another day to get those ribs just right, you could marinade them in the fridge for an evening and reheat them tomorrow.
And, of course, you’ll also have to accept the risk that none of this will work!
How Do You Salvage Burnt Ribs?
It all depends on how burnt we’re talking. If you’ve accidentally managed to burn them through to the bone, unfortunately, you’ll have to throw them out. That’s just inedible.
But if under the charred exterior there is some edible meat, there are plenty of things you can do.
The most obvious is to scrape off the burnt areas or simply cut them off if they’re large and see if you can use the rest as it as it is.
If they are only slightly burnt, adding some extra sauce might be a good idea to overcome any bitterness.
If you can do that, great, your ribs can still be ribs, but if you can’t just as you might do with overcooked ribs, you might want to consider repurposing the meat for something else.
In the end, it comes down to how creative you are. Miss Vickie recommends using the remaining usable meat to make soup.