There are four types of pork ribs: baby back ribs, spare ribs, St. Louis-cut, and rib tips. The four slabs of ribs vary in size, toughness, cost, and other factors, all of which I’ll cover in this article. Country style ribs are not actually ribs – they’re pork chops.
Ribs are my absolute favorite meat to cook on my smoker. They’re budget-friendly and widely available. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve smoked more ribs than I can count. The cocktail of rich spices and deliciously tender pork, infused with the elegant flavor of hardwood smoke, is something every pitmaster dreams of.
If you’re looking for the types of pork ribs explained, look no further. I’ll cover all the various names for the various cuts, teach you how to trim them and give you a quick peek at the best way to prepare each cut of rib. Fire up that smoker. Let’s cook, baby.
When Americans think about pork ribs, they’re probably thinking about the baby back. They’re called baby backs because they are the shortest rib on the hog, not because they come from baby pigs.
Baby back ribs are connected to the pig’s backbone, just under the loin. They come from the top of the pig, and where the expression “eating high off the hog” comes from.
Baby back ribs are the most tender, succulent, and richly marbled type of rib. They are also the most expensive. They weigh 2 to 2 ½ pounds per rack; one rack is typically enough to feed two people.
If you buy a full slab, you’ll get anywhere from 11-13 bones. One end of the slab tapers – the bones are around 3” long, while the bones in the longer section are around 6” long.
Some baby backs can have additional loin meat on top of the bones, depending on how they’re trimmed.
When shopping for baby back ribs, beware of “shiners.” That’s a BBQ term for when a rib bone is visible through the top layer of meat. Shiners rob you of extra meat. You want a rack of baby back ribs with a thick layer of meat over the bones.
Baby back ribs are also called loin ribs, back ribs, baby backs, loin back ribs, top loin ribs, and Canadian back ribs.
Spare ribs are the second most popular cut of pork rib after baby backs. Thanks to their generous marbling and abundant connective tissue, they are packed with flavor and richer than baby backs.
Spare ribs run from the ends of baby back ribs down to the breastbone of the pig.
When I’m smoking ribs, more often than not, it’s spare ribs. They’re the preferred cut of hog on the competition circuit.
One rack of spare ribs weighs around 3 pounds and should easily feed two people. They’re cheaper than baby backs, partly because they contain more bone per pound.
And if you’re looking for more meat, spare ribs are perfect for you – spare ribs tend to be quite meaty.
It’s crucial to cook spare ribs low and slow because of all the fat and connective tissue.
Spare ribs also go by spares or side ribs, depending on your region and butcher. Types of pork ribs and names of cuts can get confusing. When in doubt, ask your butcher.
St Louis ribs are trimmed spare ribs. They are a handsome, rectangular rack. It also removes the least desirable hunks of pork from the rib.
To turn your spare ribs into St. Louis Cut, remove the rib tips, skirt, and brisket flap (or point) removed.
If you’re thinking, isn’t brisket from a cow? You are correct. It is the name of a muscle, and pigs also have the brisket muscle
You can ask your butcher to trim the spare ribs into St. Louis ribs for you or do it yourself. Cook the point and the tips separately, and use them for stock or in beans.
The rib tips are considered a delicacy in some regions.
If I’ve got guests coming for ribs, this is my go-to cut. The rectangular appearance has an elegant “wow” factor.
At 2 pounds per rack, one rack of St. Louis cut ribs should feed two people. I promise these pork ribs will be reduced to a pile of rib bones when your guests finish feasting.
Depending on your region, these are also called center-cut ribs, SLC, barbecue cut, or Kansas City cut.
Rib tips are thin, narrow strips trimmed from the base of spare ribs when making St. Louis-Cut ribs. Depending on the pig, they are anywhere from 8 to 12 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide.
These types of pork ribs are a delicacy in some regions and bird food in others. They are chewier than other types of pork ribs thanks to all the crisscrossing cartilage in them. This means they have less meat than other types of ribs.
This pork rib is hacked into 2″ chunks with a cleaver and bathed in BBQ sauce when served. Figure serving 1 pound of rib tips per person.
People refer to them as brisket, costal cartilages, break, or brisket bone as well.
You may also see a cut at the grocery store or your butcher labeled as “country style ribs or country ribs.” Don’t let the name fool you.
Country style or country ribs are not actually ribs. They are pork chops that are cut from the upper pork shoulder or blade end of the pork loin. Country style ribs contain 3-6 bones, but they are usually deboned before they’re sold.
If you get your hands on country style ribs, figure on 2 “ribs” per person.
Before you can throw those delicious slabs of ribs on your cooker, there are a few steps you need to take. I’ll cover a few tricks to follow once they’re on your smoker, as well.
Baby back ribs are usually trimmed when you purchase them. But, if you notice any large hunks of fat or sinew, remove them with a sharp knife.
Spare ribs often have large white chunks of fat that you should remove. Take your time to trim spare ribs of any visible fat. If you’re transforming your spares into St. Louis-Cut ribs, do so now and remove the rib tips and triangular point (the small, sinewy triangle on the loin end).
Almost all ribs will have a silver-white, papery membrane on the bone side. You want to remove it. I find the membrane gives ribs a chewy, unpleasant texture.
Grab a paring knife, slide it between the bone and the membrane, and use it to loosen it. Once loosened, pinch it between your thumb and index finger, and peel away the membrane.
It’s a notoriously slippery task. Have some paper towels on your hands to dry your fingers or to help grab the slick membrane.
It’s up to you what type of seasoning you’d like to apply to your ribs. Some purists stick with only salt and pepper and let the richness of the pork shine through. Others blast the pork with a dozen different spices for explosively flavored ribs.
Aim for around ¼ cup per 2 pounds of ribs when seasoning.
Some pitmasters like to squirt mustard on their ribs and spread it around with a basting brush before applying a rub. I’m in the pro-mustard camp. It helps the rub cling to the meat, and the mustard flavor doesn’t come through once the ribs finish cooking.
If you choose to marinade your ribs, mix the ribs and marinade in a baggie and stick them in the fridge. Let the ribs soak for at least 4 hours or overnight. Plan on 2 ½ cups of marinade per 5 pounds of ribs.
If you’re looking for ultra-tender, deliciously juicy ribs, give the 3-2-1 method a try. The bark may lose a bit of bite, but you’ll wind up with fall-off-the-bone ribs. Use this method for baby backs, spare ribs, or the St. Louis cuts – don’t use it for rib tips.
Prepare your pellet grill, grill, or smoker for indirect cooking. Preheat the cooker to 225°F. Smoke the ribs for three hours, then remove the ribs from the heat and wrap them tightly in foil.
If desired, add some liquid (beer, juice, cider) or butter to the foil – this will braise and soften the meat.
Continue to cook the wrapped ribs for 2 more hours. Then, remove the ribs from the smoker, unwrap them, and cook for another hour.
There are purists who don’t sauce their ribs. I’ll admit, I’m something of a BBQ purist and only sauce about half the time.
If you choose not to baste your ribs with BBQ (or other) sauce, serve the ribs with sauce on the side for guests who want to dip their ribs.
If you choose to sauce your ribs, glaze them with a light coat 30 minutes or so before they finish cooking. You can serve additional sauce on the side, as well.
Most folks I know like their ribs to be meltingly soft. If you’re cooking ribs for a BBQ competition, they should have a little tug on them. Here’s what I look for in perfectly cooked ribs:
I’m a grill guy, so I’d tell you that smoking ribs over low and slow heat is the best way to cook them. This is true for all four types of ribs. In fact, St.Louis-Cut, spareribs, or rib tips should always be cooked low and slow.
You can get away with cooking baby backs hot and fast, but I love what happens when this rich cut of pork is cooked slowly over wood. Fire up your backyard barbecue and smoke that pork!
Barbecue ribs are something every pitmaster should know how to cook to perfection. Set up your grill, pellet grill, or smoker for indirect cooking at 225°F. Put the ribs on and give the smoke and heat plenty of time to work their magic, and soon, you’ll be feasting like royalty.
There you have it, everything you need to know about pork ribs. Not all pork ribs are the same – there are four types of pork rib cuts. Loin ribs to St Louis style ribs, this guide has all the info to help you tell the cuts apart and get grilling.
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