Knowing your pork ribs will save you a ton of time deciding which cut is best for the recipe at hand. But most importantly, the better you get at it, you become more able to cook each rib correctly for amazing results.
The pig anatomy is arguably one of the easiest to understand, however, a handful of consumers still lurk in murky waters when it comes to differentiating rib types. To help you get a clear picture of what you’re dealing with, here is a handy guide that breaks down the various kinds, individual characteristics and finally how best to cook each rib.
Let’s dive in.
The 4 Types of Pork Ribs
First things first, pork ribs will vary depending on the region from which they have been cut. The rib cage of an animal accumulates a significantly wide surface area, so not all ribs are sourced from the exact same section. Also, the primal cuts may further subdivide depending on how the rib has been trimmed.
For you to master all the different kinds that exist, you must understand the pig anatomy. A pig chart for instance that outlines the sections of the animal is a good start.
All the same, typically, there are 4 types of pork ribs, and here are some definitive facts about each one.
- Baby back ribs
- St. Louis cut ribs
- Rib tips
1. Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs are drawn from the highest part of the ribcage, where the ribs actually meet with the spine. This means they are closest to the back of the pig.
The name itself is coined from this trait since “baby” implies that they are smaller than spare ribs while “back” refers to the fact that they are directly connected to the backbone of the animal.
Do not confuse baby back ribs for piglets because they are not remotely related. What you may hear sometimes is the ribs being referred to as, “loin back ribs” which is just another synonym for the same cut.
- They are smaller than spare ribs both in size and weight dimensions.
- They come up to about 3-6 inches in length and between 1-3 inches wide.
- Because of where they have been cut, their form takes to somewhat a bend especially at the point where the ribs intercept the backbone.
How to Prepare Baby Back Pork Ribs
The secret to preparing tasty baby back pork ribs is to buy some good quality and prepare them beforehand. This involves some butchering because ribs typically come covered in silver skin that you do not want on your plate.
So have a sharp knife at hand, and poke a hole underneath the membrane. Use some paper towel to peel it off until you notice a clear rack of bones. In case you need help with trimming membrane from ribs, find some handy tips in this guide.
It’s now time to smear your favorite rubs onto the slab on both sides before throwing it on your cooker. Loin back ribs are excellent for BBQ, so you may want to try this approach before serving with delicious sauces.
2. Spare Ribs
Spare ribs have remained to be the traditional cut since time immemorial. They are more popular and this is the cut most people go for when looking for pork ribs.
Unlike baby back ribs, these are found further down the sides of the pig reaching close to the breastplate. In layman’s terms, they are referred to as “spares” or “side ribs”.
- They are naturally bigger compared to other rib cuts.
- They are flatter and straighter compared to the shape of baby back ribs. This helps with cooking since they can sit more evenly on the grates.
- The front end from which they are separated from the baby back ribs features bone marrows.
- The rear end is characterized by a thick flap of flesh that contains cartilage and gristle.
- Spare ribs contain higher fat amounts and marbling in between connective tissues.
How to Prepare Pork Spare Ribs
Again, a barbeque of pork spare ribs will always be a crowd-pleaser. The only difference is that it takes longer to cook compared to baby back ribs. About 5-6 hours in the cooker is enough time while the latter takes roughly 4 hours.
Throwing in flavored hardwood helps to bring out a rich taste which is elevated by the fat juices in the meat. The smoke does a great job of not only elevating the color but the overall tenderness and moisture. For the choice of wood, consider hickory with an infusion of fruitwood.
3. St Louis Cut Ribs
This is where trimming comes into the picture.
St Louis ribs are typically spare ribs, only reduced to a compact size that is equally shapelier. If you happen to have a smaller grill or smoker, then these would be perfect to fit in.
To find a St. Louis cut you would have to do a deeper search in specialty butchers rather than your local vendor. The good news though is you can learn how to trim the ribs yourself with a bit of guidance.
- They have a square almost rectangle kind of outline because of the trimming.
- They are shorter than whole spare ribs but longer than baby back ribs.
- Are aesthetically neater to look at.
How to Prepare St. Louis Ribs
If you are trimming these from a rack of whole side ribs, here’s how to go about it:
- Begin by chopping off the pointy end from the rack, (referred to as squaring the ribs).
- Flip the rib’s bone side facing up and remove the upper membrane.
- Along the way, trim off any excess fat deposits.
- To slice a Louis cut, use your fingers to feel where the bones end and mark that point.
- Follow your knife through the marked perimeter and cut horizontally up to the last rib.
- You should have an even-looking rack of sizeable ribs.
As for the cooking bit, indirect heat is preferred. This allows the ribs to slowly come up to the desired internal temperature while still achieving that crispy bark on the outside.
There are many ways to go about it but we have found this recipe to render scrumptious fall-off-the-bone ribs.
As usual, a dry rub should precede the ribs going into the smoker pit, but a slight touch of apple juice is the absolute game-changer. Ensure you wrap up the ribs in foil to conserve the juices before finally basting some Texas BBQ sauce 30 minutes before pulling them off the cooker.
Once the internal temperature reaches 145F and the meat appears to have pulled slightly back off the bone, you know they are ready.
4. Rib tips
The thick flap of flesh and cartilage that’s leftover after slicing the St. Louis cut is what is referred to as rib tips.
They feature tiny bones and are very chewy owing to a large amount of cartilage in them. Other times you will hear this cut referred to as the “brisket of pork”. But do not mistake it for riblets as that’s a whole different part altogether.
- Vertically rib tips measure between 8-12 inches, and about 1-3 inches wide.
- They are chewy but when cooked well they are delicious.
How to Prepare Rib Tips
Rib tips make great course starters or a good snack for kids to chew on. They feature a lot in Asian-style recipes such as Chinese Rib tips.
Country Style Ribs
Unlike the name, these are actually pork chops and not ribs. They are sourced from the shoulder butt which is close to where the baby’s back ribs end. And contrary to ribs, they have a lot of meat to sink your teeth in.
- Have fewer bones maybe one or two.
- They carry thick meat compared to ribs.
Being a meaty cut, marinating the pork overnight is good for infusing deeper flavors. How you choose to cook your chops will depend on what recipe you’re preparing, but a reverse sear is great when you do not want to lose too much moisture.
Other types of pork ribs
Now that the major cuts are out of the way, let’s venture into less popular types that are worth knowing. The names given are according to the United States Department of Agriculture and may vary depending on your region or otherwise.
- Kansas city-style ribs– they are similar to St. Louis cut except that the gristle and cartilage portion is maintained.
- Riblets– are developed from cutting a full-size slab or ribs halfway such that they are shorter.
- Button ribs– thin strips of meat and bone cut from the side of a pig’s backbone.
- Back ribs/loin ribs– both are interchanged from the baby’s back ribs.
Related: How Many Ribs In A Rack + a Griller’s Guide To Serving Sizes
Selecting Good Quality Pork Ribs
Buying premium quality pork ribs is essential to achieving a tasty outcome. No matter how skilled you are at BBQ, a whack quality will water down the cook.
It can be hard to separate the good from bad now that pork ribs are not graded like their beef counterparts. However, there’s a way to eliminate the guessing, and that is by the color.
When shopping, look for pink- reddish meat, or purple-reddish coupled with a good amount of marbling. Not anything wild but just a sufficient amount. Again, a thickness of about 1 inch across the ribs is also a valuable indicator.
Hopefully, the next time you’re out canvassing for pork ribs, you have the armor of knowledge to guide you through. Look out for those unique characteristics and tell them apart like a pro! But why master only your pork ribs when you could learn the same with beef ribs right here.