Types of Pork Ribs
Go to your local butcher shop and you won't just see one standard pile of pork ribs. You'll be standing in front of a case of baby back ribs, spare ribs, country-style ribs, rib tips, rib roast, and the list can go on.
Always wanted to have a better knowledge of this delicious category of pig meat? You're in the right place. After you finish reading this article, you'll have a basic understanding of the different types of pork ribs and where they come from on the animal. Each section will include some cooking tips for the type of rib as well. You'll be on your way to becoming a pork rib expert.
When I first started getting into grilling, I had no clue what to do. Most of the time I would go to the butcher shop and just ask for the freshest cut of meat. Then I would go home and hope I could find a good video tutorial on how to cook it. The meals turned out alright, but I knew they could be better.
One summer I bought a char smoker and took it upon myself to learn everything I could about grilling. I checked out every book at the library about it, took a few classes at the community center, and watched every grill cooking show I could find online. A few months later, I was making finger-lickin' barbecue so good that my neighbors started paying me to make extra portions. It's become a lifelong love of mine and I hope you make it yours, too!
Here is an overview of the different rib types you'll learn about in this article:
- Spare ribs
- Back ribs
- Country style ribs
- Rib Tips
- Rib Roast
1. Spare Ribs
The spare rib is located just under the belly of the pig. These are the bones you take off before you get to cutting up the bacon underneath.
You can tell a spare rib from a back rib by it's shape. Whereas back ribs are curved, spare ribs are a flat bunch. Comparing the two, spare ribs have considerably more bone and less meat. However, this doesn't mean that it is inferior in any way to the back rib. The spare rib's meat has a considerably higher fat content than the back ribs.
Some grill masters argue that the spare rib is their preferred type because it tends to have more flavor than the back rib. If you want to do a traditional barbecue style---season the ribs and skip the sauce--the spare ribs are a better way to go. The fatty meat on the spare rib is so good at soaking in all the flavors and smoke. By the time your spare ribs are done cooking, they are so packed with good juicy taste that putting sauce on them would be blasphemy.
Cooking Tip: Trim Your Excess Fat
If you want to get a perfectly cooked rack of spare ribs, be sure to make the fat even. Trim parts that are excess so that you have a nice even distribution of meat on each bone. It should end up looking like a perfect rectangle of meat. This helps not only improve your presentation, but it ensures that each rib cooks at the same rate as the others. A trimmed rack of spare ribs is called St.Louis-style or Kansas City style.
2. Back Ribs
Also named 'loin ribs' or 'baby back ribs', you can probably guess where this rib meat comes from...the pig's back! Situated right under the loin muscle, they are the meatier of the two rib racks.
Baby back ribs are no different than any rack of back ribs (and they're definitely not ribs from a baby pig.) The name comes from their smaller size in comparison to the larger spare ribs on the animal. The bones on the back ribs usually don't get any longer than 3 to 6 inches.
A good rack of back ribs will have about a half inch of meat on the top of the bone with more 'finger meat' in between and underneath the bones. It's a good choice if you want to serve smaller portions of ribs. The meat on a back rib is leaner (less fat) than the meat on spare ribs. Even though there is more meat content on the bones, back ribs will cook faster than your spare ribs because of their much smaller size.
Cooking Tip: Getting That Fall-Off-The-Bone Tenderness Every Time
If you want your back rib meat to be nice and tender, start by pulling off that thin membrane on the back of the ribs. Then pat your ribs all over with salt and pepper. Let it sit for at least half an hour this way. This is an essential step in making your ribs as tender as they can be so definitely never skip it!
3. Country Style Ribs
These ribs are cut from the end of the pork loin or sirloin area near the back ribs. Depending on where you are from, they might be cut from the pork shoulder. The ones cut closer to the pork loin are going to be a little more lean than the ones cut from the shoulder (butt area). Country-style ribs from the loin area are really more like a pork chop.
Country-style ribs are a very meaty cut and occasionally they won't even contain bones. If your country-style ribs lack bones it probably means they are cut from the pork shoulder. Some grocery stores will sell them as racks, but more often they are sold individually.
Two or three country-style ribs will fully satisfy a guest. They are more meaty than a back rib, but also contain a lot more fat content. What's nice about this is your ribs are guaranteed to be juicy and tender because the fat helps soften the leaner meat.
Cooking tip: Cook them low and slow.
The best way to cook these ribs up is on a low temperature for a long time. You want the internal temperature to reach 170F. The connective tissues and fat content takes a long time to break down, but it's worth the wait.
4. Rib Tips
Rib tips, also known as riblets, is just a rack of ribs cut in half. You have to use a band saw to cut them and they end up being about 2 to 4 inches in length (depending on if you're cutting the spare or back ribs). This is usually done to baby back ribs. It creates two racks of flatter ribs rather than one curved back ribs rack. You can do this to make your grilling task easier and ensure that the ribs cook evenly. Back ribs can get a bit annoying to deal with since they are a curved shape and require more moving around.
To some grillers, rib tips are actually the meaty tips of spare ribs. It's technically cartilage and often gets thrown away. Since they are harder, they take some extra effort to make. If you have a crockpot and some time, I recommend throwing them in and letting them simmer and soften. Though a little tougher to eat, they have a nice, rich flavor.
Cooking Tip: Rib Tips on the Grill
You can also grill rib tips, just expect them to take 3 to 4 hours to cook. To grill properly, maintain a temperature of 225F to 250F. Baste them with sauce for the last half hour of cooking for some extra tasty tips.
5. Rib Roast
If you're wanting to really impress some guests, pull out a rib roast. This cut is the loin muscle with the back ribs still attached. Butcher shops will sell the entire roast, but you can also have it cut up into smaller sections. You can get real fancy and have the butcher bend the cut into a circle and tie it into an eye-catching crown roast.
The reason for leaving the ribs in a loin muscle is because the bones will give it a huge boost of juicy flavors. The important thing to remember about cooking a rib roast is that you won't be cooking it to the same temperature as your rack of ribs. Take your rib roast off the grill or out of the oven when it reaches a nice 140F. Once it cools down (give it about 15 minutes for the juices to settle), you can cut your roast into beautiful servings of pork chops.
Cooking Tip: Don't Poke Your Roast
This may seem a little silly, but it's absolutely true. If you're turning your roast, don't use a sharp utensil that pierces the meat or else those precious juices are going to leak right out. The roast is mainly a lean meat and needs all the fatty juices it can get to stay flavorful. Poke your roast too much while cooking and you'll end up with a dry roast. I use a spatula to move my roast around.
I hope this rundown has helped you become more familiar with pork ribs! Once you start to understand all of the differences between the various cuts, you can feel more confident choosing the cut you need for a particular occasion. Keep building your knowledge of grilling pork and you'll soon be on your way to grill master status. The more you know about the anatomy of the pig, the more fun it will become to walk into the butcher's shop and strike up a conversation about cooking techniques.
Was this list helpful to you? Let me know in the comments below and share your own knowledge! If you liked it, be sure to share the article and spread the word about pork ribs. Happy grilling, friends!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are the Best Type of Pork Ribs?
The best type of pork ribs is in the eye of the beholder. You might prefer the meatiness of baby back ribs (which are cut from the loins). If you like fatty ribs, tender spare ribs would be your favorite (from the belly section like bacon). If you like easy cooking, you should go for St. Louis style spare ribs (which are spareribs that have been trimmed). And then there are rib tips, which are trimmed away from the St. Louis cut, which are also very easy to cook.
Can You Marinate Pork Ribs?
You can marinate pork ribs for as long as 5 days, so long as they do not pass the pork’s sell-by date. Dry rub marinades benefit from such a long period of time, but wet marinades with acidic ingredients should only marinate overnight (or as long as 24 hours).
How Long Should You Smoke Ribs?
Ribs can smoke for a very long period of time at a low temperature. This breaks down the rib meat so it is very tender. The rule of thumb is to cook the ribs until the bones rotate clockwise and move freely inside the meat, about 5 to 6 hours. They should reach 175 degrees F in the thickest part of the rib meat.
Which Pork Ribs Have the Most Meat?
If you want the meatiest ribs, you should choose the baby back ribs. They come from the loin section of the pig (where pork chops come from). They are short and curved and there is a lot of meat in between the ribs, as well as on top of the bones.
What is Silver Skin?
Silver skin is a thin layer of connective tissue. It is commonly found over top of the ribs. If you do not remove it, you will have very tough, chewy ribs because it doesn’t break down during cooking. You can ask your butcher to remove the silver skin, but it is very easy to peel off at home using a paring knife.