When it comes to prepping ribs, the consensus seems to be: take it off! Referring of course to the membrane, that layer that most consider an obstacle to tender, flavorful ribs.
Picturing a slab of ribs, there are two sides: the top meaty part and the concave bony part. For barbecue competition purposes, it’s pretty much a given that the membrane must be removed, and at barbecue restaurants, you’ll risk looking lazy if you don’t remove it.
While it’s a debatable point, many pitmasters swear that the membrane won’t allow seasonings to get through to the meat. Also, your clientele will let you know: some rare customers like the crunchy texture the membrane can add, but more often than not, it’s a no-go.
“Whether I am doing beef or pork, loin back or spare, I remove the membrane. The main reason is that the membrane won’t render, so I want it gone,” says barbecue book author, blogger and competitive pitmaster Chris Grove of Knoxville, TN. Grove, whose personal motto is “trial, fire and error,” shared with us his best tips for getting that membrane out of your life forever.
- “It is possible to get ribs with the membrane already removed. Chris Prieto of Prime BBQ in Wendell, NC, told me that you can see the small, white horizontal marbling between the bones, and that’s a quick way to tell if the membrane is already gone,” Grove says.
- “Use the right tool,” Grove continues. “I usually just use a plain, blunt table knife to work between the white membrane and the rib meat.” Some like to use a shrimp deveiner, oyster shucker knife or a catfish skinner.
- Whichever knife you choose, get it under the skin and work from one side to the other. Then get a grip with a paper towel—the universal grabber of choice for membrane removal. “Get a grip,” Grove says. “Once you get a good section of the membrane freed, grab it with the paper towel up and over towards the opposite end of the ribs. If you’re lucky, it’ll all come up in one piece. If not, just do it piece by piece.”
- Different membrane removal methods for different ribs: For beef and pork spare ribs, Grove starts separating the membrane at one of the corners. But for pork loin backs (baby backs), he works a knife in starting at the middle edge of the ribs (top or bottom edge), works a knife, then a finger underneath the membrane all the way to the opposite edge, and just lifts it straight off.
“I think removing the membrane is like Japanese kaiseki. In Japan, haute cuisine is called kaiseki. When guests come over you cook the same food as you do every day, but you take special care to make a sign of respect for your honored guests. I think removing the skin is like that. An extra step of respect for guests.”
– Meathead Goldwyn
Author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling
“Having it off lets the seasoning on the bottom of the ribs penetrate more than if the membrane was still on.”
– Chris Grove
Author of The Kamodo Smoker and Grill Cookbook