Not all pork ribs are created equal. Many people don’t realize that there are several different types of pork rib cuts. To truly elevate your barbecue game and master the art of cooking ribs, it is important to understand the different types of pork ribs and how the cuts vary.
Some pork ribs have more meat on the bone than others while some are more uniform in shape. Some pork rib cuts are better suited for smoking and cooking low and slow than others. Each rib cut has some unique characteristics and variations.
In this article, we’ll break down the different pork rib cuts and what to look for when buying your ribs. Let’s take a look:
A pig has a total of 14 ribs attached to the center section of the spine. Each type of rib cut comes from a different section of the ribs. Where the ribs are cut from on the pig matters a lot when it comes to how much meat is on the bone, the length, and even the taste.
There are 5 popular types of pork ribs:
One of the most popular types of pork rib cuts, baby back ribs come from the upper loin area of the pig near the spine. These ribs are also sometimes referred to as loin back ribs. In the name baby back ribs, the term “baby” does not mean they come from piglets but refers to the size of these ribs being smaller compared to spareribs.
Baby back ribs tend to be between 3 and 6 inches in length and have a distinct bend in the bone where the rib meets the spine. Even though they usually have more meat on the bones, this rib cut is leaner in the amount of fat in the meat compared to spareribs so they don’t take as long to cook. Baby back ribs usually take 3 to 4 hours to properly cook.
Arguably the most popular type of pork ribs, spareribs are cut from further down the side of the pig near the belly, reaching down toward the breastbone. You may also hear these referred to simply as spares.
Spareribs are longer and flatter in comparison to baby back ribs, allowing them to brown more evenly. On one end of the spareribs, where they have been cut away from the baby back ribs, you’ll see the marrow of the bones. The other end, towards the chest of the pig, will be more tapered. At this tapered end will be a larger chunk of meat, cartilage, and gristle.
One of the biggest differences is that spareribs have significantly fattier meat with more marbling along the top and between the bones. This is why these ribs take longer to cook and are often the better choice for smoking. Spareribs usually take 5 to 6 hours to cook.
Source: Serious Eats
Another popular variation of ribs, St. Louis ribs are simply spareribs that have just been trimmed up more. These have had both the cartilage and gristle-filled area and the tapered end of the ribs cut off. This results in a more rectangular, uniform look to the rack of ribs. Because of this, many competition pitmasters prefer to use St. Louis style ribs. Both for their clean appearance and the amount of meat on the bones.
The name of this rib cut came from the meatpackers in St. Louis who started cutting their ribs this way in the mid-20th century. Because of the way they are trimmed, St. Louis ribs are longer than baby back ribs but shorter than standard spareribs.
You won’t often find this type of rib cut in your local big-box grocery store. Unless you trim the spareribs yourself into St. Louis style, your local butcher will be your best source for these types of pork ribs.
Kansas City ribs are very similar to St. Louis ribs but are not trimmed as closely. With St. Louis style ribs, the cartilage section is removed, while Kansas City ribs have the cartilage section still included.
Finally, rib tips are the small bones and cartilage that connect the lower breast bone to the front ribs. These are cut from the lower ends of spareribs when cutting them into St. Louis ribs. This cut used to be considered butcher scraps but actually makes a great appetizer. Rib tips are usually 8 to 12 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. Then, when they are ready to be served, they are usually cut into 2-inch chunks.
Because of the high amount of cartilage, rib tips do tend to be chewier compared to other types of pork rib cuts but can still be delicious when cooked properly.
You may have heard of country-style ribs as well. But, for clarification, these are actually not ribs at all. These are basically a bone-in pork chop that is cut near the shoulder from the front of the baby back ribs.
Depending on the overall size of the pig, country-style ribs may be served with either a one bone or two bone thickness with a significant amount of pork loin meat attached.
The quality of your pork is just as important as the type of rib cut and cooking technique when it comes to great-tasting pork ribs. Pork doesn’t have the same kind of grading specifications as beef, which goes by the level of fat marbling. But, there are still ways you can determine good quality pork ribs.
When it comes to pork, you want to look for dark reddish-pink to purplish-red with some good marbling. Remember, the fat helps add tenderness and flavor. But, try and avoid large chunks of fat on top. You also want to look for an even thickness across the ribs. Ideally, you want to get ribs that are around an inch thick.
Source: Pork Checkoff
Your local butcher is going to be your best source of high-quality pork with the largest selection of the various types of pork ribs. Plus, if the rib cut you want is not in the case and ready to buy, just ask and they’ll gladly cut it for you.
Now, with this article on pork rib cuts explained, you should have a clearer picture of what differentiates different types of ribs and also what to look for when you are buying your pork ribs. Set up a two-zone grill and don’t be afraid to experiment with cooking and smoking different types of ribs to determine your favorites and achieve the results you are looking for.
If you are a rib fan, make sure to check out our article on the different types of beef rib cuts as well. Taking the time to understand the different types of meat cuts and further expand your outdoor cooking knowledge will help you quickly step your barbecue game up.
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