Pork ribs are one of the most beloved bites in barbecue, but how do you decide on baby back ribs vs spare (side) ribs? It helps to understand the differences between the types of ribs, like where they come from on the pig and leanness. And yes, spare ribs and side ribs are the same thing.
If you’re firing up your grill or smoker for your family and friends, you want to know if there’s any difference in smoking spare ribs vs baby back ribs. The last thing you want is to spend your hard-earned money on a rack of ribs and have them turn out terrible.
We’re going to explain where baby back ribs and spare ribs come from, their key features, and what makes them different. Read on!
What are Baby Back Ribs?
Baby back ribs do not come from baby pigs, so don’t get worried. They are the smaller rib cut from pork which is how they get their name. Baby back ribs are from the pork loin primal. They are the section of ribs near the backbone and the loin that runs down both sides of the pig’s spine.
This gives the baby back ribs their distinctive curved shape. The rack is curved rather than straight, and the ribs themselves are curved.
Baby back ribs are a leaner cut of ribs but are still tender. Due to their size and leanness, they have a shorter cooking time, so you need to be careful. You can dry out and overcook baby back ribs more easily than other types of ribs, so adjust your temperature and cooking time accordingly.
What are Spare Ribs?
Spare ribs are lower on the pig’s body. They come from the pork belly primal. So yes, despite both baby backs and spares being ribs, they are from different primal areas. You can see on one side of the ribs where they are separated from the baby back ribs. They are near the pig’s belly, which leads to much more marbling. They are a larger rack of ribs with flatter bones.
Spare ribs get their name from the German term “Rippenspeer” for ribs cooked on a spit or a spear over a fire. The term was translated into the term spear ribs which was eventually shortened to spare ribs.
What is the difference between Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs?
Both cuts of ribs come from the pig and are even right next to each other on the rib cage. They can’t be all that different, right? So why do we distinguish between baby back ribs vs spare ribs?
The two cuts of ribs have quite a few differences, actually. They differ in the amount of meat, their shape and size, and tenderness. They look different, too. So what sets them apart?
Spare Ribs vs Back Ribs Comparison Table
|Baby Back Ribs||Side / Spare Ribs|
|Time To Cook||5-6 hrs||6-8 hrs|
|Weight||2 lbs. (AVG)||3 lbs. (AVG)|
|Availability||Very Easy. Most Grocers.||Not As Available. Go to Butcher Shops|
|Pit Masters Preference||Sorta||Absolutely|
How much meat is on Baby Back Ribs vs Spare Ribs?
If you’ve ever looked at a rack of baby back ribs next to a rack of spare ribs, you can see some differences in the meat. Baby back ribs have more meat on the surface or top of the rib. Spare ribs have more meat in between the ribs themselves.
Shape and Size
The most striking difference between baby back ribs and spare ribs is the size and shape of the racks. A rack of baby back ribs is smaller and curved. It weighs on average around two pounds. The bones themselves are also shorter and curved.
If you get a rack of spare ribs, you’re getting a big cut of meat that weighs around three pounds. It lays flat with longer and straighter bones. You will also find spare ribs with the “rib tips” still on them, extra cartilage, meat, and bones.
If you’re trying to figure out how many racks of ribs you need to buy for your next party, there’s a rough approximation for each type of rib. An average rack of baby back ribs will feed one typical adults. An average rack of spare ribs will feed two adults.
Really, though, we know that there are many of us who will power through more than that. Just make sure you have plenty of sides for your guests and you should be fine with that approximation.
Baby back ribs contain less fat but are still tender due to coming from near the pig’s loins. Spare ribs are a bit tougher with more cartilage that needs to break down, but they also have plenty of marbling because of their proximity to the pig’s belly.
Where to Buy Back or Spare Ribs
As we mentioned, back ribs are typically available at any local grocer, but side ribs can be a little harder to find. Your local butcher will typically have both on hand at all times due to their popularity these days. If you want to try some of the best pork ribs on the market, there are a couple online pork retailers that are worth looking at.
Kurobuta / Berkshire Ribs
The Kurobuta aka Berkshire breed of hog is know to produce some of the best tasting pork in the world. Snake River farms sells Kurobuta pork ribs in back and side cuts. If you want to take your ribs to the next level, try this out.
Baby Back and Spare Ribs FAQS:
- Question: What is cheaper between Baby Back Ribs vs Spare Ribs?
Answer: Baby back ribs have seen a recent surge in popularity and routinely are more expensive at the grocery store. If you’re budget-conscious, spare ribs are a great way to enjoy ribs without necessarily breaking the bank.
- Question: What are St Louis-style Ribs?
Answer: St Louis ribs are simply a trimmed version of spare ribs. The extra rib tips and meat are cut off from the one side while any irregular bones at the ends are also cut off. It gives the rack a fairly uniform rectangular shape. It makes the rack look cleaner and better while allowing the ribs to cook more evenly.
It’s also easier to eat a St Louis rib rather than a standard spare rib. All the extra bits that run along the long side aren’t there. You can just enjoy beautiful smoked ribs.
- Question: Is the 3-2-1 method the best way to cook Ribs?
Answer: The 3-2-1 method for smoking ribs was developed to ensure repeatable results of tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs. You smoke the ribs for three hours, then wrap them in butcher paper or aluminum foil for two hours, then remove them from the wrap and smoke for one more hour. If you prefer sauced, or wet, ribs, you apply the sauce during the final hour of smoking.
While this method has proved quite popular amongst the backyard smoking crowd, our very own Michael Haas would tell you that this is the wrong way to prepare ribs.
Per him (and many others,) ribs that are fall-off-the-bone tender are overcooked. You should be able to take a bite of your ribs and pull the meat off, not have the meat dropping off the bones via gravity. Check out Michael’s preferred smoked rib recipe here.
The beauty of pork ribs is that you can make them delicious and as tender as you want. They take flavor well, so you can have as much fun as possible coming up with flavor combinations. If you like sweet and spicy, you can use habanero or jalapeno peppers or cayenne powder to add heat to your ribs.
While they have their differences including which primal they come from on the pig, the most important information to remember is that baby back ribs will cook faster than spare ribs. Their size and their leanness make them prone to overcooking and drying out, so you need to keep your eyes on baby back ribs more than spare ribs.
The other important factor coming from size is how many people are you serving? If you’re serving ribs for a lot of people, spare ribs are a more economical option. They’re cheaper and serve more people per rack.
Angry BBQ Teams Favorite Type of Ribs
Mike’s Favorite: Back Ribs
Jeremy’s Favorite: Back Ribs
Eric’s Favorite: Side Ribs