When people talk about smoking ribs, they often refer to different types of pork ribs. But there is also lamb, venison, and, more importantly, beef ribs.
Now, beef ribs are a little tricky though. That’s because there are no general guidelines on where and how they should be cut. Some butchers will cut them shorter than the others. Some will trim away the fat while some just leave it there.
For a novice outdoor cook, this can be overwhelming. That’s why this article can certainly help. We’ll start with the distinctions between beef and pork ribs. Then move on to the different types of beef ribs. Finally, we’ll end the article with how to buy and cook them.
And with that, It’s time to beef up your knowledge.
What’s The Differences Between Pork And Beef Ribs?
First of all, the main difference is the overall size. Beef ribs are bigger than pork ribs simply because a cow is much larger than a pig.
The second difference is the amount of fat and connective tissues. Beef ribs have more marbling (fat within the muscle). They also have more collagen. That means beef ribs take longer to cook. But once they’re done, the meat is much tender and packed with more wonderful flavors.
Another distinction is the type of seasoning you can use. Pork ribs go well with sweet sauce and rubs. Beef ribs, on the other hand, are fine with just simple salt and pepper, with a hint of garlic powder here and there.
Lastly, with their flavor, texture, and appearance, beef ribs make you feel raw and primitive, especially if cooked over live fire. Something that is innate to all of us homo sapiens since the dawn of time.
Beef Ribs General Anatomy
On a steer, there are forequarter and hindquarter. All the different types of beef ribs are located in the forequarter. Understand that a steer has 13 rib bones. When separating the two quarters, butchers usually cut between the 12th and 13th bone.
Starting from the top near the spine, we have the prime rib (A) where all the amazing ribeyes go. Inside the prime rib and underneath the ribeyes, it is our first kind of beef ribs – the back ribs.
Moving further down closer to the belly, we have the short plate (B). This is the location of the second type, which is the plate short ribs. Keep in mind there is another muscle below the short plate. It’s the navel (C), which is an extension of the brisket (D).
Speaking of brisket, we have the chuck (E) above it. And inside the chuck, that is the third type of beef ribs – the chuck short ribs.
In terms of the size and amount of meat, the plate short ribs are the biggest and meatiest, followed by the chuck and back ribs.
So those are our 3 main kinds of beef ribs. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Beef Back Ribs
Also known as finger ribs, the beef back ribs have 7 bones. They’re curved with about 6” – 8” in length. They usually have very little meat on top. In fact, all the meats are in between the bones hence the name finger ribs.
Now, there is an economic reason for that. Since back ribs are attached to the prime rib roast and ribeye steaks, butchers are better off making more money by leaving the meat in those cuts. As a result, most of the meat on the back ribs has already been trimmed away so what you’ve left is intercostal muscle and bones.
That said, beef back ribs are very popular for BBQ. They’re the equivalent of the baby backs on a hog, except that the baby backs have about 14 rib bones.
Plate Short Ribs
The plate short ribs are your quintessential short ribs. They’re called that because they come from the short plate. It has nothing to do with being short.
The bones of the short ribs are straighter and bigger than the back ribs since they’re close to the belly. The plate short ribs also have more meat. And most of it is on top of the bones.
Now, the whole short plate has about 8 ribs (#5 to #12). Understand that meat changes throughout different sections of the steer. The short plate is no exception.
Because of that, there is more fat on the dorsal or upper end of the short plate, from rib #9 to #12. There isn’t any good meat in them. So, the cut is good for that extra fat when grinding your own meat.
Same location (#9 to #12) but on the ventral or lower end near the stomach, there is a flavorful cut that has less fat and more meat. If you cut along the bones, you have what is traditionally known as the English cut short ribs. They’re about 4” long, 2” wide, and 1” – 2” thick.
If you cut across the bones instead, you have the flanken cut short ribs. Cut even thinner, you end up with Kalbi or the typical Korean short ribs. Keep in mind that all these cuts taste the same – tender and beefy.
Moving on to rib #5 to #8. This whole cut is pretty consistent in terms of fat and meat across the board. In fact, this is the best beef ribs cut. They’re also called the Dinosaur/Monster ribs because of their size. The North American Meat Processors label them as 123A.
The Dinosaur cut is comparable to the pork spare ribs. You will find them in all of the best Texas BBQ joints. One single bone can weigh around 1 to 2lbs. If you decide to either cut with or across the bones, those are still called English and flanken cuts.
Still confused? We include a handy and easy-to-understand video for your convenience.
Chuck Short Ribs
The chuck short ribs are similar to the plate short ribs. However, the only distinction is that their bones are smaller. That’s because they’re near the chuck, which is close to the head and under the shoulder of the animal.
They’re usually 3” in length and consist of rib #1 to #4. Similar to the plate short ribs, you can crosscut to make flanken cuts or cut with the bones to make English cuts.
How Do You Pick Beef Ribs?
Similar to pork ribs, you can buy beef ribs in large racks. Or in individual portions, like English, flanken, and Kalbi cuts.
That said, the two types of beef ribs you can often find at your local supermarket are the back ribs and chuck short ribs.
The plate short ribs, on the other hand, are only available in commercial meatpackers or specialty butcher shops.
Keep in mind that there are also different ratings of beef. They’re determined by the marbling or intramuscular fat in the meat.
In the US, we have Select, Choice, and Prime, with Prime being the highest and Select being the lowest. For my Canadian peeps, the ratings are listed as follows, in increasing quality and price: A, AA, AAA, and Canada Prime.
How Do You Cook Beef Ribs?
With the 3 main types of beef ribs, you can cook them all the same with indirect heat low and slow. In terms of the cook time, plate short ribs obviously take the longest, followed by chuck and back ribs.
And unlike pork ribs, you don’t have to remove any membrane for beef ribs. Of course, it will get tough after cooking but you need it there to hold everything together. Otherwise, the meat will fall off the bone as it’s cooked.
As mentioned earlier, all you need for beef ribs are the simple salt and pepper or “dalmatian” rub. A good ratio is usually 1 part salt to 3 parts pepper. You can go 50/50 but I find that sometimes can be salty. I also like to add a bit of garlic powder into the mix.
By now, you probably have a good understanding of different types of beef ribs. Armed with this information, your next trip to the butcher shop will be easier.
Keep in mind that different butchers have different standards and variations. But the general knowledge is still the same. So, don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what you want. A good butcher knows their stuff and they will eventually figure it out.
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