Know Your Pork Ribs

Sliced pork ribs
Sliced pork ribs

“My family loves ribs. 
I want to try them on my own but I don’t know what to buy.  Spare ribs? Baby back ribs?  Country ribs? St Louis style/cut ribs? 

What’s the different?”

Ribs are one of the marquee pork dishes that are a favorite at backyard barbeques, family reunions or anyplace else that people gather over food. Because there are various rib choices, consumers have questions about which rib for what. To begin to answer the question, we need to take a brief look at the source of ribs within the anatomy of the pig.  

Outline of a pig with diagram of the location of various cuts or meat pointed out
Know Your Pork Ribs. Outline of a pig with diagram of the location of various cuts of meat–specifically pointed out are the rib sections. Photo: mrgeiger

As shown in the picture, ribs are derived from the lower sides of the pig, specifically the belly and breastbone, behind the shoulder and picnic are 14 long bones attached to the spine.  There is a covering of meat on top of and between those bones.  From this area, we get four basic cuts: Baby Back Ribs, Spareribs, St Louis (Style/Cut) Ribs, and Rib Tips. Each rib type has its own distinct characteristics and refers to the section of the rib cage from which it has been cut and how it is trimmed.  Sometimes these same cuts have different names based on a local way of cutting and trimming. 

Baby Back Ribs.  Also called loin ribs or riblets, baby back ribs come from the highest part of the rib section and are connected to the backbone, right beneath the loin muscle.  They are curved and called ‘baby’ because they are short or small and have a small amount of meat on them.  Ranging in length from 3-6 inches (short end to long end), baby back ribs are the most tender, lean, and expensive of the four types.  Each rack is about 2 pounds in weight with approximately half of the weight in bone.

Spareribs.  Spareribs are the most plentiful of rib types and generally what are known as ‘ribs.’  They are found below the baby back ribs, have flatter, straighter bones and are meatier.  Generally they have more marbling and more flavor.   A rack typically has 11-13 bones and ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 pounds with about half being bone and cartilage.  Spareribs may require some trimming.

St Louis (Style/Cut) Ribs.  St Louis style/cut ribs are simply spareribs spiffed up.  They are cut from the area of the rib cage that is closest to the breastbone. As a result of their location, these spareribs have a lot of tough cartilage. However, once the hard breastbone, chewy cartilage and gristle is removed, St. Louis ribs are a uniform, rectangular shape making them competition champions as the meat is neat and tidy for presentation and easy to eat. Because they are thinner and flatter, they also brown more evenly.  (Kansas City style ribs are St Louis style/cut ribs with more bones removed.)

Regardless of rib type, any of these three types are prepared and cooked the same. If you can’t find the type of rib that the recipe calls for, don’t fret.  Any of the three fore-mentioned varieties of pork ribs will work great. To prepare ribs, follow these easy steps:

Step 1: Remove the Membrane or Silverskin. The silverskin covers the bone side of each rack.  If left on, it cooks leathery-crisp and keeps seasonings, rubs, and smoke from penetrating the meat.  You can do this by hand. Scrape a corner with your thumbnail to get it started and pull the rest free from the ribs. 

Step 2: Season. Season ribs as desired – pick your favorite rub or marinade and apply liberally. Many recipes will recommend seasoning at least four hours in advance of cooking for best flavor and aiding in tenderizing. 

Step 3: Cook. Ribs are best cooked long and slow whether it be the oven, grill, slow cooker, or electric programmable pressure cooker. According to the USDA, ribs are done when they reach 145⁰F.  At this temperature, however, they will still be tough so taking them up to 190 to 200⁰F allows the collagen and fats to melt and make the meat more tender and juicy.  Find a favorite recipe and follow guidelines.  Baby back ribs will cook more quickly.

Now what about those ‘other ribs’ – rib tips and country-style ribs? 

Rib tips are derived from the triangular, cartilage-dotted slab of meat attached to the lower end of the sparerib. When preparing St. Louis cut ribs, this section of meat is removed in order to square up the slab of ribs. They are not usually readily available as they are often ground for sausage.  However, when cut into bite-sized pieces they make a great snack, appetizer, or even main course. Fans suggest the ultimate rib tip experience is derived by navigating and nibbling your way around the small pieces of cartilage and bone! 

Country-style ribs are not ribs at all.  They come from the shoulder area of the pig. They are meatier than ribs and may have one or two bones embedded in their meat. When country-style ribs have a bone in them, it is not rib bone but the scapula or shoulder blade.  They can be prepared in much the same way as true ribs but can also be sliced thin and cooked in a stir-fry.

Regardless of the rib style, be prepared. Eat those ribs with your hands and enjoy every bite!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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