It would seem like buying ribs for your next cookout would be a simple process, until you're sitting at the butcher's counter trying to choose between spare ribs and baby back ribs. Which one is better? What's different about cooking baby back ribs over any other type of ribs? Today, we'll show you the differences and give you some tips for preparing the different cuts. It's all about the ribs baby!
What are Baby Back Ribs?
Baby back ribs are cut from high on the ribs near the spine of a hog. This cut is meaty, juicy, and tender when slow cooked. The baby back ribs name originates from Chicago-area butchers sometime around the late 1950's or early 1960's, but there is some debate about the reason for the name. Some people claim the term "baby" is used because of the tenderness of the cut, while others state it is due to the shorter size of the ribs in relation to spare ribs. Another possible explanation is that baby back ribs are cut from market weight hogs, not sows.
No matter what version of the truth you choose, one thing is for sure – you really can't go wrong grilling, smoking, or even baking a rack of baby back ribs. In fact, many people will tell you that baby backs are the best rib pork meat you can get. We don't disagree.
What makes Spare Ribs Different?
Spare rib cuts are from the lower portion of the ribs, where the bones and meat reach around to the sternum and the belly of the pig. Spare ribs may be fattier than baby back ribs, but are also tougher and contain more connective tissue. Spare ribs are flatter than baby back ribs and are usually a rectangular cut. Spare ribs are often sold as St. Louis style or Kansas City style ribs because those cities popularized the cut. When a butcher cuts St. Louis style ribs, they remove the sternum, cartlidge, and rib tips. This gives you the classic rectangular shape. St. Louis style ribs are typically heavily sauced with a tomato-based, sweet barbecue sauce.
How to Cook Spare Ribs, St. Louis Style
You've probably seen lots of recipes telling you to boil your spare ribs before grilling. Please don't do this. It's the fastest way to end up with dry, tasteless pork ribs. The trick with cooking ribs to perfection is to go low and slow. We love smoking our spare ribs over oak or hickory to create a smoky flavor that pairs perfectly with one of our favorite things in the whole world – Bearded Butchers Blend Barbecue Sauce. If you haven't tried it yet, pick up a bottle from our webstore. Trust us, you'll just throw all the other barbecue sauces in your refrigerator away. It's simply awesome sauce. We like to smoke our ribs for several hours, then smother them in sauce and smoke for another hour or two until internal temperatures hit about 195 to 205 degrees. That's the point where the meat slides right off the bone and you get the ideal St. Louis style flavor. Smoked St. Louis pork ribs are just about the best thing you can make on a smoker.
Baby Back Rib Cooking Tips
Oven baking can give you a really delicate, fall-off-the-bone baby back rack, and it's one of the best ways to cook ribs. The back ribs contain less fat than spare ribs, but are more tender because the muscle group is used less by the hog. Back ribs will be meatier than spare ribs. One thing we love doing is grilling a baby back rib rack on our Big Green Egg at low temperature for several hours, then increasing the temps to reverse sear the back ribs. You should try one of our Bearded Butchers Blend Seasonings as a dry rub the next time you are grilling or smoking baby backs.
What's a Pork Button?
This funny sounding and kind of rare style is actually the small medallions of pork on the ends of the spine just before the hips and behind the rib. Our favorite pork buttons recipe is really simple: loads of our barbecue sauce in a crock pot to slow simmer for hours. You get tender little morsels of melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness with practically no hassle at all.
Picking the Best Ribs
If you are confronted with the choice to pick between spare ribs and baby backs, you can use these tips to select the best. Always look for thick, meaty ribs. Baby back ribs should taper from larger to smaller, and should be relatively thick on the spine side. Spare ribs will usually be a similar thickness all the way across and have between 10 and 13 bones. Pork ribs should have a consistent pink to red color. Avoid packages with liquid or blood, as these are not fresh.
It may seem like there isn't a lot of difference between the two type of pork ribs. The real difference is in the type of muscle group, but either one can be tender, moist, and delicious if cooked the right way. It is always the case with any type of rib meat that low and slow is the way to go. Too high of temperature just dries the meat out and leaves you with tough, flavorless rib meat.
Don't be afraid to experiment with different ingredients to flavor your ribs. A classic is to coat ribs with brown sugar, molasses, and black pepper which gives a sweet, delicious flavor. Honey is also a great ingredient to use on ribs. Try a dry rub with our Bearded Butchers Blend Hot Seasoning for a kicked-up take on the traditional rib rack recipe.