Pork Rib Basics
Pork Ribs are my go-to for BBQ when people are coming over for a backyard event, but before cooking, you need to know how to find them and what makes them different. Pork ribs come with their own handle, are individually portioned and everyone loves a sticky, lip smacking meat on a bone! Yum!
Let’s start with where these ribs come from. We’re talking about pork ribs. All the other animals have ribs too, but any references to ribs typically refer to pork.
Yes, the names for ribs do convey a different parts of the ribs on the pig. The ribs come from the midsection of the pig – from the loin and the belly. But the different names of ribs are specific to different cuts of ribs.
Back Ribs / Baby Back Ribs / Loin Ribs
Back Ribs come from the “Loin” from the diagram above. Because the ribs are from higher up part of the pig, there is often loin meat attached and less collagen to make them tough. At a grocery store, you may find the ribs individually sliced with the loin as bone-in pork rib chops.
How to Recognize Back Ribs: Curved rack of ribs The curvature is similar to the exterior outline when you cup your hand. While they appear to be a smaller rack of ribs, there’s lots of good meat on the bones!
How Back Ribs Sell: Grocery stores often individually wrap these or better yet, in Canada, you can often find a double cryovac pack by Maple Leaf
Approximate Weight of a Rack: 1.5lbs or 680g
Number of bones on a purchased rack: 10-13
Length of bone: 3-5 inches or 7-12cm
Recommended Skill Level: Great for BBQ beginners because of the meatiness of ribs without being tough
Fun Fact: Less likely to find back ribs with shiners (bone exposed due to meat removed) as back ribs sell more per lb or per kg than loin meat does. So economics say, cut the back ribs meatier!
Spare Ribs / Side Ribs (with sternum)
Spare Ribs or Side Ribs come from the “Belly” from the diagram above. This set of ribs shares its outer layer with pork belly or bacon! Yes, you read that right, in pork anatomy, the bacon sits on the outside (top of the bones) of the Spare Ribs. Spare Ribs are actually include the “St. Louis Cut or Center Cut” of the ribs AND the sternum or tips of the ribs where are much smaller and have a lot of cartilage.
How to Recognize Spare or Side Ribs: These ribs lay flat and look like a lot of meat, because there is a lot of meat!
How Spare or Side Ribs Sell: In the USA, it is common for spare or side ribs to be packaged into a giant cryovac bag. However in Canada, I often see a rack, plastic wrapped on styrofoam with the St Louis cut showing and the rib tips tucked underneath.
Approximate Weight of a Rack: 3-4 lbs or 1.8-2.8kg
Number of bones on a purchased rack: ~13
Length of bone: 6-9 inches or 15-23cm
Recommended Skill Level: Intermediate – there are two cuts to consider – the center cut and riblets are different thicknesses (which cooks to different timeframes) with a great amount of collagen (risks being tough). Slicing individual side ribs can be tricky, as the rib tips are laid in all directions as compared to the bones. So, don’t expect a straight cut without a heavy handed push through the cartilage.
Fun Fact: In Canada… we really like bacon. With ribs as the underside of pork belly or bacon, butchers trim the meat off the ribs in favor of bacon. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see bones come through the meat on a rack of Canadian ribs (also called “shiners”).
For rib lovers, you will notice that BBQ restaurant chains like Tony Romas or Montana’s serve meaty ribs – why the difference? Many restaurant chains originate or source from the US where bacon is less valuable and ribs are more valuable; so butchers will favor more meat to the ribs.
St. Louis Cut or Style Ribs / Center Cut Ribs
St. Louis Ribs are the trimmed and squared off portion of the Spare or Side Rib (rib tips removed). St Louis Style Ribs come from the middle of the pig, in the “belly” area. The bones on these ribs line up and glisten with sauce; they are sure to earn some oohs and aahs at your next backyard event. These showstopper ribs are especially great to make an impression!
How to Recognize St. Louis Ribs: These ribs lay flat and are rectangular with generally straight looking bones
How St Louis Ribs Sell: In the USA, it is common to see St Louis Style Ribs in a cryovac bag. In Canada, I often see a rack plastic wrapped on styrofoam with the smaller end tucked underneath.
Approximate Weight of a Rack: 2-3 lbs or 0.9-1.8kg
Number of bones on a purchased rack: ~12-13
Length of bone: 4-6 inches or 10-25cm
Recommended Skill Level: Intermediate, as there is substantial collagen in St Louis ribs that needs to tenderize. Despite the fat content, tenderness can be a challenge
Fun Fact: Origin of the name St Louis Style Ribs came from the ~1950s when St Louis meat packers wanted to differentiate themselves from national meat packers and began to serve center strips of ribs as a premium product. For an interesting history of BBQ pork ribs, click on this link for a fascinating summary.
Rib Tips / Riblets / Sweet & Sour Ribs / (Pork) Brisket
How to Recognize Rib Tips or Riblets: These ribs are not uniform in size and at a restaurant or pub, are often served as an appetizer
How Rib Tips or Riblets Sell: In Canada, often these are plastic wrapped on a styrofoam tray without presentation. Most often sold as Side or Spare Ribs (tucked underneath the St Louis Style cut).
Approximate Weight of a Rack: 0.75-1 lb or 0.3-0.5kg
Number of bones on a purchased rack: ~10-13
Length of bone: 3/4-2 inches or 2-5cm
Recommended Skill Level: Intermediate – there is lots of meat, however, the high collagen and cartilage content makes this cut chewy and dry.
Fun Fact: Rib tips are very affordable as they are often considered scrap. Asian cuisine often braises this cut, for moisture content.
Country Style Ribs
How to Recognize Country Style Ribs: Country Style Ribs typically have a y shaped or oval bone across the middle. There’s a lot of meat because these are closer to a chop than a rib
How Country Style Ribs Sell: This cut seems to be more prevalent in the USA, as strips of Country Style Ribs will be packaged together
Recommended Skill Level: Beginner – cook these up as pork chops, because they are!
Country Style Ribs are NOT ribs. This cut often comes from the shoulder or blade portion of the loin (see the Shoulder area of the diagram above).