Just as a great artist needs to prep the canvas before they can create a masterpiece and a great general preps the battlefield before taking up arms, anyone hoping to prepare a great rack of ribs needs to prepare them properly.
However, that’s easier said than done. There’s a lot more to great ribs than simply slapping them on the grill, slathering them with sauce, and calling it a day.
One of the most important steps to take in rib preparation is removing the membrane. That said, if you’re new to cooking ribs, or are used to cooking samples that have already been pre-prepped, you may not be able to recognize the membrane at first.
If that’s the case, you need to heed an even more preliminary step in figuring out what the membrane looks like and if it’s on your rack of ribs.
From overview to identification to removal, this guide to membranes and ribs can help ensure you’re prepped and ready for barbeque greatness.
What Is the Membrane and Why Should You Care?
Even if you haven’t heard of a membrane on ribs before, you’ve probably heard the phrase before. Cast your mind back to high school biology and you’ll remember that a cell’s membrane is a tough but elastic semi-permeable barrier that allows select things to pass in and out of the cell.
A rib’s membrane can be thought of the same way. If you look at a raw slab of ribs, you should see a whitish opaque stringy skin strung along the underside – and once you do, congratulations, because that’s the membrane. It is also known as peritoneum, or caul fat.
You can find it on most meat, not just pork ribs. With other meats, however, it doesn’t pose the problems it does for pork ribs, but before we can get into that, we first have to get a better idea of what it does in the first place.
Caul fat is there to hold internal organs in place, which is why you’ll find so much of it lining pork ribs where, when the pig is alive, it obviously has a heavy task of keeping the heart and lungs in place.
Now that the pig is pork, however, this thick lining is useless. What’s more, while in other cuts of meat for other animals it may be present but just hang off to the side, the membrane can sometimes web the ribs together or otherwise block and make them harder to cook properly.
Even if you don’t have a problem cooking them with the membrane attached, however, there’s really no point.
While caul fat can be beneficial for foods such as sausages, where it is used as the external “wrapping” in which the meatier part of the sausage is filled, for pork ribs it isn’t that tasty. It’s tough, stringy, chewy, and ruins the tender texture of a good slab of ribs.
Besides which, does eating a thick slab of whitish stringy skin sound appetizing? Does it seem like something particularly appealing to look at? From both a taste and aesthetic standpoint, leaving the membrane on is just a bad idea.
When Should You Remove the Membrane?
You might wonder whether you need to remove the membrane before you start cooking, or if you can cook it and just remove it afterward if you want.
Technically, you can leave the membrane on while cooking it and then cut it off afterward. However, doing this in most cases won’t make your ribs taste any better, and it’ll just be more of a hassle to cut off once it has been cooked and is even tougher and harder.
For that reason, it’s recommended that you remove the membrane before cooking.
How to Remove the Membrane
Now let’s get down to the actual process of removing the membrane from pork ribs.
First, you need to actually find where the membrane is on your particular slab of meat, which means flipping it over so that they curve toward you. Once you have done this, you should be able to locate a long, thin, whitish layer of tissue, which is the membrane.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when removing a membrane is that you want to get as clean a tear as possible.
The last thing you want to do is tear it into little pieces, or even worse, tear away some membrane while accidentally leaving bits of it embedded in the pork. This will create a tough, stringy, uneven taste that might be even worse than simply leaving the whole thing on.
As such, once you have located the membrane and are getting ready to remove it, you’ll want to make sure you undertake each subsequent step in a smooth motion.
For example, once you locate the membrane, you’ll want to pull up one of the corners so they stick up. That said, there’s a big difference between pulling this bit of fat up gently and ripping it violently so it tears apart.
Once you have pulled up this bit of the membrane, you’ll want to slide in a knife or go to work with your fingers. The knife may be easier and smoother, while fingers may give you greater control. Either way, the membrane should separate relatively easily from the ribs.
Once you have done this at one end, you should be able to simply peel off the membrane in one piece and dispose of it.
A Word About St. Louis Ribs
If you have been lucky enough to have St. Louis-style ribs, you may be wondering if you need to follow these steps at all. That’s because St. Louis ribs have their skin removed in such a way as to divide the ribs into two distinct parts, spareribs and loin-back ribs, with the visual difference being striking.
Underscoring that is the fact that some who cook St. Louis ribs don’t think that it’s necessary to remove the membrane for this cooking style, and that they’ll come out nice and juicy even with them on.
That being said, that says more about the succulence and resilience of St. Louis-style ribs than it does about membranes. It isn’t as though the membrane is adding anything in this scenario, but rather that St. Louis ribs are so tasty that they’ll be great “despite” an attached membrane.
To enjoy the ribs at their best and save yourself trouble, it’s still best to remove the membrane.
While pigs are alive, the membranes around their ribs perform a vital function. Once that pig becomes pork ribs, however, the membrane is by far the most extraneous when it comes to cooking, and should be removed as soon as possible.
The longer you leave it on, the more annoying it will be when you have to remove it, which you’ll likely want to do given that since, unlike other kinds of meat such as sausage, it adds nothing but unnecessary toughness and stringiness.
Thankfully, this is easy enough to do. Simply lift, pull, cut, and peel it away, all in a smooth, careful motion.
By doing this, you can instantly make your pork ribs tender, tasty, well-prepared culinary masterpieces.