Types of Pork Ribs Explained
Depending on where you are from, different dishes and cuts of meat are the top dogs in barbecue. However, one of the most iconic BBQ meats is pork ribs. However, you might encounter four major types of ribs when you’re looking in the pork section at your grocery store. You’ll likely find baby backs, spares, St Louis-style, and country-style ribs. You…
Depending on where you are from, different dishes and cuts of meat are the top dogs in barbecue. However, one of the most iconic BBQ meats is pork ribs. However, you might encounter four major types of ribs when you’re looking in the pork section at your grocery store. You’ll likely find baby backs, spares, St Louis-style, and country-style ribs. You might even find bone-in and boneless versions of country-style ribs.
So what are the differences between these pork ribs? Can you cook them all the same way? Let’s attack this like a rack of ribs fresh off the smoker!
What Are The Different Types Of Pork Ribs?
If you go to a BBQ restaurant and look for pork ribs, you’re likely to find two major types of ribs: baby backs and St Louis-style spare ribs. However, if you want to enjoy ribs at home, you’ve likely encountered more than these two styles of ribs at the grocery store. So how do you know which of these different types of ribs you should grab for your smoker? Let’s break down some of the main characteristics of each of these pork rib types.
Baby Back Ribs
These might be not only an iconic type of pork ribs, but baby back ribs just might be one of the most iconic cuts of meat in the world. Chances are you’ve heard the ubiquitous jingle from a certain restaurant based on wanting a rack of these ribs.
Baby back ribs come from the portion of a hog’s ribcage where the ribs meet the backbone. If you’ve ever wondered if baby back ribs come from young hogs, you don’t need to worry. These ribs get the name baby back due to both the proximity to the spine and their smaller stature thanks in large part because of the rib bones themselves.
The rib bones start thinner and smaller near the backbone before getting larger as they curl around toward the hog’s belly. A rack of baby backs also has a distinctive curl to it due to the curved nature of the bones.
Compared to the other pork rib types, baby back ribs are leaner, so if you or someone you’re cooking for wants a lower-fat option, you’ll want to look closely at these. You might also find them labeled as simply back ribs or even loin ribs.
While baby back ribs connect to the backbone of the pig, spare ribs are the section of ribs from the baby back ribs to the front of the ribcage. You can see where the rack of spare ribs was cut from the back back ribs by the exposed bone along one edge of the rack. Spare ribs look more like a big slab of bones and meat than baby back ribs.
If you purchase a rack of spare ribs, you’ll get the bones along with extra meat and small bones along the end of the ribs and a strip of meat, cartilage, and bone from the breastbone area along the opposite edge of the exposed rib bones. The combination of meat, cartilage, and bone is also known as rib tips and can be cut into bite-sized pieces before being smoked for a treat. You’ll also get plenty of meat that is marbled with intramuscular fat in between each rib bone that will create a moist, flavorful bite when cooked low and slow.
St Louis-Style Ribs
So St Louis-style ribs (or St Louis-cut ribs as some will refer to them) are actually spareribs. These are racks of spare ribs that have the extra meat along the sides, the flap of meat on the underside of the ribs, and the breast bone area cut away. Try our spare rib recipe which was inspired by Aaron Franklin.
Otherwise, the meat between the bones is still the same quality. You’ll get a meaty, well-marbled rib from St Louis ribs without needing to trim them or deal with the extra bones yourself.
While country-style ribs may look like extra-meaty versions of spare ribs, they technically aren’t ribs at all. This cut of meat comes from the area where the pork loin muscle meets the pork shoulder. It comes in bone-in and boneless versions. If you’re getting a bone-in country-style rib, you’re getting the meat cut from part of the pork shoulder, similar to a Boston butt. The boneless version is simply cut from the area further from the shoulder blade.
Country-style ribs have plenty of meat and marbling, so when they are smoked low and slow or cooked using other forms of slow cooking, you’ll have an extremely tender and juicy bite of pork. It’s richer than pretty much any other version of pork rib you can find.
What Are The Key Differences Between The Types Of Ribs?
Baby back ribs are thinner, smaller, leaner, and have less meat than spare ribs. Therefore they cook faster even when smoking at 225-250°F. Spare ribs, whether standard or trimmed as a St Louis-style spare rib, have more meat and fat, and therefore they take longer to cook. We have a full breakdown on baby backs vs spare ribs, so check it out for even more detail.
As detailed above, spare ribs and St Louis-style ribs are from the same exact cut of ribs with the St Louis-style ribs simply a trimming preparation rather than a difference in the meat itself.
Then there’s the country-style ribs that want to crash the party. While these aren’t technically from the ribs of the hog at all, they are still delicious and enjoyable.
How Do You Cook The Different Cuts Of Pork Ribs?
Thankfully, despite the differences between baby back ribs and spare ribs, the basic cooking method is the same. You’ll preheat your smoker to 225-250°F based on your personal preference, and while it’s preheating, you’ll coat your ribs in your preferred dry rub.
You could follow the traditional 3-2-1 method of three hours in the smoke, two hours wrapped in aluminum foil or butcher paper, then one hour covered in BBQ sauce and unwrapped. However, you’d be overcooking your ribs. For a better method, check out Michael Haas’ foolproof method for tender ribs that you still get to bite into. Don’t forget to start bone side down when smoking.
As for the country-style ribs, the idea is still the same: you want to cook these ribs low and slow until they are tender and the fat and connective tissue has rendered properly. This will take longer than baby back or spare ribs at the same temperature, so be prepared. Slather them in your favorite barbecue sauce and you will still get a delicious bite of pork BBQ when you’re done, though.
For a slightly different cooking experience, grilling is an option for country-style ribs. You’ll get a bit more of a charred taste when you grill them over direct heat. You can also throw them in the oven at a low temperature if you can’t throw them on the smoker.
What Is The Best Of The Different Types Of Pork Ribs?
This comes down to personal preference, just like so many debates in barbecue. There are staunch supporters of baby back ribs and those who swear by spare ribs. Heck, people even change their minds and fluctuate back and forth between the two types of ribs. If you’re into a meaty, more marbled cut of meat, you’re likely more into spare ribs.
If you like a shorter cooking time, meat on top of the bones, and you don’t like gristle in your meat, you’re probably a fan of baby back ribs.
In this debate, most people exclude country-style ribs. That’s understandable, but if you haven’t had them before or it’s been a long time, run down to the grocery store and grab a package to throw on the smoker. You’ll enjoy it.
Mike Haas’ Favorite Rib Type
Mike Haas here. When I was young, ribs were typically made it the oven and my mom always made baby back ribs. Then when I got into BBQ and started smoking ribs, my preference quickly went to St. Louis-Style ribs. Because of the fat and extra meat, they create a more pleasurable flavor experience than baby back ribs. They are also cut in a more uniform shape vs. spare ribs. They are my go to. Don’t forget about beef ribs, as they are a great option when smoking ribs.
Wrapping It Up
Now that we’ve covered the differences between the types of pork ribs, you’ll know what to look for when you head to the supermarket before your next smoking session. When you do so, make sure you know how long you’ll be able to keep those ribs safe in the fridge. You don’t want to serve spoiled food or throw money into the garbage.
If you do end up cooking more ribs than needed, you’ll also want to know how to properly reheat them so you can experience your barbecue efforts even a couple of days after the ribs come off the smoker.
What’s your favorite type of pork ribs? Have you smoked country-style pork ribs before? Let us know in the comments!
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