There are many types of ribs. We have pork, lamb, and beef. Not to mention wild game ribs. However, pork is the most popular among them all. And within it, there are many types of pork ribs.
So today, we’re going to learn the difference between them, what to look for when buying pork ribs, and a quick tutorial on how to cook them.
Let’s get right into it. It’s going to be fun and educational.
Pork Ribs General Anatomy
On a pig, the rib cage is between the spine and the belly. Depending on the type of breed, a pig can have from 14 to 16 ribs on either side of its body. The further down from the spine to the belly, the straighter and larger the rib bones. There is also more meat and marbling as the gap between the bones gets wider.
The entire rib cage consists of three cuts – the baby backs, the spares, and the rib tips.
- Starting from the top near the spine, we have the baby back ribs.
- Next, a little further down along the rib cage, it is the spare ribs (St. Louis cut is actually spare ribs. More on this later).
- Then, at the bottom of the spare ribs, there is the rib tips, which are connected to the belly of the pig.
The amazing Jess Pryles of Hardcore Carnivore will make it easy for you to understand everything in her Pork Ribs 101 video.
4 Main Pork Rib Cuts Explained
Now that we know where the different cuts of pork ribs are, let’s dig a bit deeper in each of them, starting with the baby backs.
(A) Baby Backs
The baby back ribs start at the chine bone, which is part of the spine. The ribs are also close together, therefore most of the meat is on top of them.
The reason why people call them baby backs is because they’re smaller than spare ribs. It has nothing to do with a baby pig. However, in the past, any rack of ribs that was less than 1.5lbs, people would actually call it “baby” back ribs. These days, that doesn’t apply anymore.
That said, their technical term in the meat industry is back ribs. The North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) labels them as #422. They’re too named loin or back loin ribs because they’re the closest to the loin meat along the spine.
Baby backs are more curved than spare ribs. A typical rack would have from 11 to 13 ribs that are 3” to 6” in length, from side to side. They also have more tender and leaner meat than the rest of the rib cage.
The spare ribs begin where the baby backs end and continue all the way down to the underside of the pig. The bones are wider apart with a lot more meat and fat in between them. They’re also flatter and bigger than the baby back ribs.
Also known as side ribs, the spares are the most popular cut. The NAMP labels them as #416 and they weigh around 3lbs, with bone making up at least half of it.
It’s easy to tell the spares apart from the baby backs. They’re always larger and have an additional slab of meat on one end of it. You’ll also find some cartilage there, which is where some of the bones meet the sternum. Another way to distinguish the spare ribs is the extra skirt meat on the bone side of them.
(C) St. Louis Style Ribs
As mentioned earlier, the St. Louis style ribs are actually spare ribs. By removing the rib tips (more in the next section), you turn a rack of spares into St. Louis style. They still have all the features as the spares.
However, St. Louis style ribs instead have a neat rectangular shape, which makes them uniform and easier to work with. Not to mention that there is no messy gristle or breastbone since the rib tips are gone. In terms of size, the St. Louis cut is right in the middle, bigger than the baby backs yet, obviously, smaller than the spares.
Now, this cut got its name because that was how meatpackers prepared pork ribs in St. Louis back in the mid 20th century. It’s also known as Kansas city cut, breastbone-off spare ribs, or center cut ribs. According to NAMP, the St. Louis style is labelled as #416A.
Also keep in mind that this cut is used a lot in BBQ competitions. In fact, you won’t find it in your typical grocery store. However, you can always ask your butcher or buy spare ribs and trim them into St. Louis style yourself.
(D) Rib Tips
The rib tips are the last portion of the rib cage. They’re located at the bottom of the spare ribs, which are attached to the belly of the pig (hint: bacon). As a result, they have a good amount of fat marbling. However, they’re also chewy because of the breastbone.
That said, if done right, they’re one hell of a snack. They’re actually what Chicago BBQ joints are famous for. Once you’re finished cooking, simply chop them into 1” to 3” wide pieces then serve with your favorite sauce.
After trimming, the rib tips are about 8” to 12” lengthwise with 1” to 3” widthwise. They’re also called the rib ends. Some people even consider them the “brisket of the pork”.
Other Types Of Pork Ribs
Say, you have a full rack of baby back ribs. Cut it into half along its length and you have riblets. Because of its smaller size (about 2” to 3” bones), riblets are a perfect appetizer. That’s why they’re also called cocktail ribs or the chicken wings of the pork world.
Country Style Ribs
Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat. Country style ribs aren’t really ribs. They’re cut from the rib end of the loin meat near the shoulder or the front of the baby backs. They have about 4 to 5 bones with a lot more meat compared to typical ribs.
Because of that, they lean more towards pork chops. So just grill them as you normally would.
How Do You Buy Pork Ribs?
As mentioned earlier, you rarely find St. Louis cuts in your local supermarket. What you often find is baby backs and spares. If you have some decent knife skills, you can try to trim a slab of spare ribs into St. Louis style. I embedded a video that shows you how to do it from Smoke Reb BBQ below.
Now, back to the matter at hand. When buying pork ribs, pay attention to the color of the meat. Look for a reddish pink color. Stay away from ribs that are pale and/or have dry edges.
Also don’t forget the fat marbling. It’s those white spots in between the meat. More fat means more flavor. Avoid yellow fat.
Finally, always buy ribs that are meaty and thick. 1” is usually the norm.
How Do You Cook Pork Ribs?
The most beginner-friendly way to cook ribs is the 3 2 1 technique. Obviously, as you gain more experience, you will develop your own way of doing things. But if you’re just starting out and want a reliable way not to mess up your ribs, it is the one.
Keep in mind that the four main types of pork ribs are cooked the same way. That’s why don’t worry if you don’t have a specific type that a recipe requires. The only thing you need to adjust is the cook time as different cuts of ribs have different amounts of meat and connective tissues.
A good rule of thumb is the bigger the ribs, the longer the cook time. So we would have something like this.
Spares > St. Louis > Baby backs
Now, let’s quickly go through the process of the 3 2 1 method. It’s essentially smoking ribs for 3 hours, wrapping in liquid for the next 2 hours, and finishing off naked (with the optional BBQ sauce) for the last hour. If you want a more detailed version, we do have an article about it.
In short, the method follows a series of step outlined below:
- Step 1 – Trim off any excess meat and/or fat from your ribs. This is to prevent it from burning away quickly during the cook. Then proceed to remove the membrane (or pleura) from the bone side. The membrane will inhibit smoke penetration and get unchewably tough after cooking (You don’t have to remove the membrane from the rib tips since there isn’t any).
- Step 2 – Set up an indirect heat cooking configuration on your grill. Get the grill to the low and slow temperature range of 225F to 250F (107C to 121C). Then cook the ribs for 3 hours, with some wood smoke going on. About 2.5 hours for baby backs, however.
- Step 3 – Wrap the ribs in foil with some liquid and continue cooking it for another 2 hours. The liquid is usually apple juice. By the way, the wrapping is referred to as the Texas Crutch. It’s used to speed up the cooking process and soften the meat.
- Step 4 – For the last hour, remove the wrapping. And put the ribs back to the cooker to firm up the bark. Here, you can add some BBQ sauce for extra flavor. If you do, add it during the last 20 minutes. It’s to prevent the sugar in the sauce from burning.
There you have it. Pretty much everything you need to know about different types of pork ribs. So, what is your favorite cut then? Do you have any side dish recipe for ribs that you want to share with everybody? Let us know.