Pork Ribs: A Beginner's Guide

Baby Back Ribs, Spare Ribs, Country-Style Ribs, St. Louis Cut Ribs and More

BBQ pork ribs
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Pork ribs are meaty, fatty, messy, hard to cook, hard to eat, and altogether wonderful.

The reason they're so wonderful is that there is a lot of fat and cartilage around and between the ribs. When cooked properly, that cartilage breaks down and softens, making the ribs incredibly tender and succulent.

And the reason they're hard to cook is that they need to be cooked slowly, over very low heat, which is mainly only tricky if you're doing it on the grill.

Which honestly is the best way to cook ribs. But you can also do it in the oven or even a slow-cooker, in which case it's not that hard at all.

When you cook ribs slowly like this, not only does the cartilage break down, but the fat also melts away and coats the muscle fibers, and so does the connective tissue surrounding the muscle bundles themselves, which gives the ribs a moist, meaty, juicy feel in your mouth.

The meat itself is extremely flavorful, which tends to be the case with the muscles that get more exercise. These muscles are also tougher, but when cooked slowly the result is fall-off-the-bone tender.

Baby Back Ribs

The ribs you usually hear described as baby back ribs come from high up on the back of the hog, where they wrap around the loin. They're actually the same ribs that are found in bone-in pork rib chops, but they don't have the loin muscle attached.

In other words, if you want baby back ribs, you're going to be left with a boneless loin or boneless pork chops.

 

Technically, baby back ribs are ribs from a younger animal. The generic term for ribs taken from the loin is either back ribs, loin ribs or loin back ribs. But if you call them baby back ribs, your butcher will know exactly what you're talking about.

Baby back ribs have a slight curvature to them to match the curvature of the loin.

They're leaner, meatier and a bit more tender than spareribs, and they contain less cartilage. 

Back ribs are usually between 3 and 6 inches wide, and they taper toward the front. A rack of back ribs will consist of between 8 and 13 ribs.

Here's a great recipe for baby back ribs you can prepare in a slow-cooker.

Pork Spare Ribs

Spare ribs come from the belly of the hog, so they're the lower section of ribs, extending all the way to the front of the animal so that they include parts of the sternum and brisket bones, which are just the ends of the rib bones where they curve around the bottom of the belly. 

Because they come from the belly, spare ribs have a bit more fat on them, and they're a little tougher since the muscles around the rib cage expand and contract quite a lot. But long slow cooking, whether in a smoker, a barbecue or even in the oven, will ensure that the meat falls off the bone. 

Spare ribs are straighter than back ribs, and maybe 6 to 8 inches wide. A full rack will consist of 11 to 13 ribs.

 

Here's a recipe for spare ribs you can cook on the grill.

Rib Membrane (Skin)

Note that both back ribs and spare ribs have a tough membrane on the inner side of the rack which needs to be removed before cooking as it is tough and chewy and won't break down under heat the way other types of connective tissue will.

The best way to remove it is to lift up a corner of it with a knife and then peel it away. And since it's slippery, holding it with a paper towel will help you get a good grip on it. (Here's what it looks like.)

Some restaurants won't bother peeling off the membrane, especially if they do a very large volume of ribs, simply because it's too much work. Most processors will remove the membrane before packaging, but it costs extra. The membrane is thickest toward the spine, so it's more of an issue for back ribs than for spare ribs.

St. Louis Cut Ribs

You might think that St. Louis ribs are a special preparation or barbecuing technique unique to St. Louis. But actually St. Louis ribs simply refers to a specific cut of ribs. Basically the St. Louis cut is spare ribs that have been trimmed to remove the brisket bones, sternum and the flap of meat that hangs over the last rib. 

St. Louis ribs are squared off and flat, uniformly 5 to 6 inches wide all the way up and down. The diaphragm or skirt steak is also removed from the inside of the ribcage.

Brisket Bones (Rib Tips)

Removing the brisket bones to produce the St. Louis ribs leaves a long narrow strip of meat and bone called the brisket bones, which consists of the ends of the ribs and the sternum. Commonly called rib tips or rib ends, they are meaty and have a lot of cartilage. 

Pork Riblets

Riblets aren't actually ribs, but rather the so-called transverse processes, commonly known as the paddle or finger bones from the lower part of the backbone (lumbar vertebrae). This is basically the rear part of a bone-in pork loin in the region where the tenderloin is situated. Having said that, it's possible for a riblet to actually contain one or two rib bones, depending on how it's been fabricated, but it should have no fewer than four of the finger or paddle bones.

You'll sometimes hear the word riblet used to describe back ribs that are sawed in half lengthwise, but those are just back ribs that have been sawed in half.

Country-Style Ribs

The term country-style ribs is also used to described a number of different things. But true country-style ribs are basically pork rib chops from the shoulder end of the loin. They're made by splitting the loin down the middle, leaving a narrow portion of rib bone with meat attached, and a narrow portion of feather bone with meat attached.

If they're taken from further forward, in what is really the Boston butt rather than the loin, country-style ribs can be made with cross-sections of the blade bone. You'll also sometimes see cuts taken from the sirloin end of the loin described as country-style ribs. Boneless country-style ribs are long strips of loin muscle along with the intercostal meat (i.e. the meat in between the rib bones).

Here's a recipe for oven-braised country-style pork ribs.