There are two common types of pork ribs—spareribs and loin back ribs. Country-style ribs are either split pork chops from the blade end of the loin, or they're cut from the shoulder closest to the loin. Good eating, but not true ribs to most people.
Spareribs come from the belly of the hog, where bacon comes from. They are large in size (2-4 pounds or more), are very meaty, and are somewhat less tender than loin back ribs. Spareribs tend to have more fat, more flavor, and cost less per pound than loin back ribs.
Loin back ribs come from the loin of the hog, where pork chops come from. You'll sometimes see them called baby back ribs or loin ribs in the grocery store. They are small in size (1-1/4 to 2-1/4 pounds or more) and are less meaty, less fatty, and more tender than spareribs. Because of their smaller size, loin back ribs cook faster than spareribs. They are one of the most expensive cuts of meat from the hog due to high consumer demand.
People often use the terms "baby back ribs" and "back ribs" interchangeably. However, some in the pork industry suggest that only loin back ribs weighing less than 1-3/4 pounds per slab should be called "baby back".
Figure 1 shows a side view of a hog and the relationship between these two types of ribs. Figure 2 shows a cross-section of the ribcage and the locations of the ribs, backbone, and sternum. Note that the dashed lines indicate where the bones are cut to produce each type of rib.
Photo 1 shows two slabs of whole, untrimmed spareribs. The top slab is facing meat-side up, the bottom slab bone-side up. Photo 2 shows two slabs of loin back ribs. The left slab is facing bone-side up, the right slab meat-side up.
There are not multiple "styles" of loin back ribs. They're usually just sold in whole or half slabs.
Spareribs are marketed in two common styles: whole and St. Louis Style. A whole slab of spareribs will have part of the sternum (breast bone) still attached with a strip of meat and costal (rib) cartilage along the edge of the slab, plus a flap of meat attached to the bone side of the slab, known as the skirt. This is how you will often find spareribs sold at wholesale warehouse stores or butcher shops.
Figure 3 shows how these parts of the sparerib relate to one another, as viewed from the meat side of the slab. Note that the skirt is not visible in this view, since it's on the other side of the slab.
If you cut away the sternum, cartilage, and skirt, you have a St. Louis Style sparerib. The result is a slab of ribs similar in appearance to loin back ribs. The meat that's trimmed away in the process—sometimes called "rib tips" or "brisket"—can be cooked separately for a tasty snack.
Photo 3 shows two slabs of St. Louis style spareribs. The top slab is facing meat-side up, the bottom slab bone-side up.
It's easy to buy whole spareribs and trim them St. Louis style yourself. You'll find a detailed description of how to do this in Pork Sparerib Preparation.
Pork ribs are sold in slabs. The number of bones in a whole slab will vary depending upon how the ribs were processed and trimmed. For both spareribs and loin back ribs, you should expect 11-14 bones in a whole slab.
The size and weight of a slab is based on several factors, including the age and size of the hog (larger, heavier slabs tend to come from older hogs) and how the slabs were processed (for example, a supplier may offer loin back ribs in 3-3/4" and 5-1/2" widths).
You may hear terms like "1-1/4 to 1-1/2" or "3-1/2 and down" used to describe ribs. This is industry jargon for the weight ranges in which slabs are commonly sold. The term "1-1/4 to 1-1/2" refers to slabs of loin back ribs weighing 1-1/4 pounds to 1-1/2 pounds. "3-1/2 and down" refers to slabs of spareribs weighing 3-1/2 pounds or less.
Common ranges for spare ribs are "3-1/2 and down", "3 to 5", and "5 and up"; for loin back ribs, "1-1/4 to 1-1/2", "1-3/4 and down", "1-3/4 to 2-1/4", and "2-1/4 and up". While these terms are commonly used by meat suppliers at the wholesale level, you won't hear them used in retail stores.
Sometimes slabs are cut in half at the supermarket for packaging convenience or to allow shoppers to buy smaller quantities. I like to buy and cook whole slabs whenever possible. I find that it's easier to prep and cook a small number of large pieces than a large number of small pieces. I also find that the end pieces can dry out, and you have fewer end pieces if you're cooking whole slabs.
Choose slabs with good meat coverage over the bones and no large areas of surface fat. Avoid "shiners"—slabs where the meat has been cut too close to the bone. These exposed bones may fall out during cooking.
For best quality, avoid buying ribs that are frozen or have been previously frozen, if you can. This is not always possible, and sometimes it's impossible to know if ribs have been previously frozen. In fact, some people feel there's not much difference in quality in the finished product, whether using fresh or frozen ribs. However, if you have a choice, I think fresh is best.
Cryovac packages containing 1-3 slabs of ribs have usually not been frozen, but there are exceptions and they do sometimes turn up frozen in grocery stores. Ribs sold in loose slabs by the case (not in Cryovac) are commonly sold frozen.
In any event, reject ribs that are discolored or that have dried-out edges, an indication of freezer burn.
You may notice a slight odor
when opening the Cryovac packaging. This odor is normal and should dissipate
after a few minutes. If the odor is a strong, putrid smell that lingers even
after rinsing the meat under cold running water, this is a sign that the meat is spoiled,
and it should be returned to the store for a refund.
In terms of size and weight of slabs, experiment to find out what you like. I like to buy smaller slabs, around 2 pounds each, believing that there's a higher ratio of meat to bone in smaller slabs. Some people like larger slabs. Try different sizes and make your own judgment. But remember, every slab is unique. You can line up several slabs of similar size and weight, cook them all the same way, and find each one different in terms of tenderness. That's part of the fun of barbecue!
More and more often, the fresh pork products sold by supermarket chains and discount retailers have been "enhanced" with a solution of water, sodium phosphate, and flavorings. The pork industry believes that consumers like enhanced pork products because they are juicier and more tender even when overcooked.
Some people describe the taste of enhanced ribs as artificial or hammy. Some unsuspecting buyers apply a typical salt-laden rub to these ribs and then wonder why they ended up tasting so salty—not realizing that the ribs had already been pumped full of salt and other flavorings.
The point is simple: Make sure you know what you're buying. See Enhanced Meat for more information on this trend and how you can identify enhanced pork products in the supermarket.
I prefer to use non-enhanced ribs so I can season them the way I like. If you use enhanced ribs, make sure to cut back on the salt in the rub you apply.
On average, you will get 2-4 servings per slab of spareribs and 1-2 servings per slab of loin back ribs. A lot depends on whether you're serving another barbecue meat along with the ribs, how many side dishes you're offering, how hungry your guests are, and how you present the ribs to your guests.
If you want to discourage guests from loading up on too many ribs at once, cut them into individual bones and place them at the end of the buffet line. This allows people to take only the number of ribs they want, and they'll tend to take fewer since they've already loaded up their plate with side dishes before getting to the ribs.
You can find pork ribs in most supermarkets, butcher shops, and wholesale warehouse stores. In the supermarket you may find brand-name ribs neatly trimmed and individually packaged in Cryovac, or no-name ribs cut in half and packaged on Styrofoam trays. It can be difficult to tell exactly what you're getting when ribs are packaged using these two methods.
At high-end grocery stores and butcher shops, you'll find ribs unpackaged in the display case. This makes it easy for you to select the best looking slabs. Of course, you'll pay a higher price for this privilege.
The advantages of buying ribs at a wholesale warehouse store are low prices and more meat left on the bone compared to slabs you'll find in supermarkets and butcher shops. If you like large, meaty slabs of "dinosaur ribs", you'll find them here. The disadvantages are that you can't normally buy individual slabs of ribs, you can't get a good look at them through the Cryovac, and you may find large areas of surface fat and some scrappy looking bits at the end of the slabs. However, you can easily remove the surface fat and scrappy bits when preparing the ribs before cooking.
If you need a large quantity of ribs, you can buy them by the case from a local meat supplier. This is where your knowledge of terms like "1-1/4 to 1-1/2" and "3-1/2 and down" will come in handy, because that's how you'll order your ribs. A meat supplier will offer a variety of sizes, weights, and brands of ribs. You usually have to place your order a few days in advance. You will find wholesale meat suppliers listed in the Yellow Pages, and most will sell to retail customers like you and me.
To give you an idea of what you can expect if you buy a case of ribs...I purchased a case of "1-1/4 to 1-1/2" loin back ribs from a meat supplier and cooked them on four WSMs (see Barbecuing With Friends). That case weighed about 35 pounds and contained 21 slabs of ribs.
Finally, don't assume that you'll get a higher quality slab of ribs at a high-end supermarket or butcher shop. Ribs from well-known national brands, like IBP and Swift, as well as ribs from small regional producers, are found in supermarkets, high-end grocery stores, butcher shops, and wholesale warehouse stores alike.
Most stores don't advertise the brand of ribs they sell, and they tend to change brands frequently depending upon fluctuations in price and availability. Often, it's best to just shop for ribs by price. For example, during the Fourth of July holiday in 2000, I noticed the Cryovaced loin back ribs being sold at a high-end grocery store were the exact same brand and size of ribs being sold at the wholesale warehouse store—but they cost $2 per pound more at the grocery store.
If you want to make the best barbecued ribs, there are a few simple steps you should take to prep the ribs. It won't take a lot of time or effort, and you will notice the difference in the final product.
Prepping ribs consists of four steps:
See the Related Articles at the top of this page for detailed descriptions and photos of preparing loin back ribs and spareribs.
Removing the membrane from the bone-side of the slab is one of the secrets of tender ribs. Smoke and seasonings will not penetrate the tough membrane, and leaving it intact makes for tough eating. The membrane is thickest toward the backbone of the hog and gets very thin toward the belly. This means that loin back ribs will have a thicker, tougher membrane than spareribs. The density of the membrane is also influenced by the age and size of the hog.
Sometimes you will see recipes that call for rinsing ribs under running water and/or white vinegar before cooking. Do you think barbecue restaurants rinse the thousands of slabs they cook each year? No, and you don't need to, either.
The best way to tell whether your ribs are cooked to perfection is to use the "tear test". Take hold of two adjacent bones toward the middle of the slab and give them a pull. If the meat offers a bit of resistance but then tears easily, you know the ribs are done just right.
Other indicators of doneness, such as how far the meat has pulled down the bone or whether a toothpick passes easily through the meat, are not as reliable as the tear test.
Here are two techniques that allow you to cook more ribs in your Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.
Photographs of sample loin back ribs, spareribs, and trimmed spareribs: 2003 by National Pork Board.