Whether for the big game or a summer barbecue, tender, meaty ribs always satisfy. And what likely comes to mind is pork ribs, the kind you pick up with your hands to eat and happily wipe sauce off your face in between bites. Because while beef ribs are delicious (mmmm. . . braised short ribs) and lamb riblets might be fun to nibble on (when you can find them), pork reigns supreme when it comes to BBQ ribs.
Now that we have that established, however, there is something else to consider. Exactly which type of pork ribs will you cook? Will it be spare ribs? St. Louis style? Baby backs? Is there any difference? And what the heck are country ribs anyway?
Read on for help picking out the right types of pork ribs for you.
THREE MAIN TYPES OF PORK RIBS
Let’s start with spare ribs. What makes them different and special? Most people consider spare ribs the best in terms of meatiness and porky flavor. That assessment makes sense as they come from the same area as bacon, namely the belly. Spare ribs are the meat-covered bones left behind after the bacon has been removed. Cooked low and slow, the rib meat becomes meltingly tender thanks to the good amount of fat within. A slab (also called a rack) of spareribs will have 13 bones and weigh between 2 to 3 pounds.
At the supermarket or butcher counter, you may find spare ribs that are trimmed and untrimmed. Untrimmed spare ribs have excess meat extending past the top of the ribs and sometimes include the hard breastplate. It's best to cut this bone away (no one wants it), but whether you trim the meat off is up to you. The ribs can be a bit unwieldy to eat if left on, but the meat itself is delicious. To trim a full rack yourself, just find the tops of the bones and cut the meat away in a straight line. Be sure to cook that meat along with the ribs.
BABY BACK RIBS
Despite the name, baby back ribs are not from baby pigs. (The name comes from the fact that they are smaller than spare ribs.) Instead, picture a bone-in pork loin chop. Baby back ribs (sometimes called loin ribs) are basically what’s left when you cut that round of meat away to make a boneless chop. Like pork chops, baby back ribs are lean and can be quite tender. Because they are so lean, they may cook more quickly than spareribs, but like pork chops, they can get a bit tough if overcooked.
COUNTRY STYLE RIBS
Country-style ribs are not really ribs at all. They are cut from the shoulder blade end of the loin. (They can include part of the upper rib bones, which is why ribs are misleadingly part of their name.) Thicker and meatier than both baby backs and spare ribs, this cut is not cooked or eaten in the same way as the other ribs. As opposed to the dry heat of the grill, it takes best to moist cooking methods like braising and is best eaten with a knife and fork.
HOW TO COOK DIFFERENT TYPES OF PORK RIBS
Most Traeger rib recipes feature spare ribs because these ribs taste best when cooked low and slow, preferably smoked. As the rib cooks, what started out as a tough cut transforms into tender, often fall-off-the-bone meat. Most recipes suggest cooking the racks at around 225°F until the meat has pulled away from the rib bones and is tender when pierced with a knife, usually in 4 to 5 hours. Indeed, these Competition Style Spare Ribs start out at 180°F for a couple of hours for optimal smoke penetration before finishing at a slightly higher heat.
Learn how to make delicious spare ribs with these recipes:
Baby backs cook a bit quicker and can take a higher heat. Though you can smoke baby backs low and slow, they can also be grilled more quickly, like a pork chop. In the aptly named Hot & Fast Smoked Baby Back Ribs, the baby backs cook at 300°F and are done in just 2½ hours.
Learn how to make more delicious baby back ribs by checking out these recipes:
Country-style ribs are best suited to braising. Though we don’t really think of them as ribs in the same way as spare ribs and baby backs, country-style ribs can be delicious when braised as in this recipe featuring apple and kale.
HOW TO PREPARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF RIBS FOR COOKING
For the sake of this section, we’re going to keep with spare ribs and baby backs because although they have their differences, their prepping and flavoring are similar.
Trim the ribs of excess fat and meat. There won’t be much to trim on the baby backs, but you can clean them up by removing any dangling bits of meat or fat. The same is true if you bought St. Louis-style ribs as they come mostly trimmed. If there is a piece of meat running diagonally along the back side (called a skirt), you may want to trim that off as it can dry out during cooking. If you have a full slab of spare ribs, do cut away that breast bone, then decide whether you want to keep the extra meat that exceeds the top of the ribs on or off. Either way, do cook that meat the same way you’re cooking the ribs as it’s delicious.
Remove the membrane—or not. It’s long been a practice among pitmasters to remove the thin membrane that coats the bone side of the rack. Some say it cooks up tough and lessens the eating experience and others say it prevents the penetration of both spices and smoke. To remove it, use a knife to loosen up a corner of the membrane. Then use a paper towel to hold onto it and peel it off. You may not get it all off in one shot; if not, just repeat the step. It’s also not crucial to remove every last bit.
Some say this peeling step is not necessary at all and some go so far as to say they like the bit of char on the ribs that comes from leaving the membrane intact. Another option is to score the membrane so that it cooks up less tough.
HOW TO FLAVOR DIFFERENT TYPES OF RIBS
A rub. There are many ways to flavor ribs and you can use them in tandem. At the very least, they need a good coating of salt and pepper, but a flavorful spice rub, such as Traeger’s Perfect Pork Rub is even better.
A sauce. Plenty of people (mainly BBQ purists) will say a rub is enough with maybe some barbecue sauce on the side. To give your ribs that classic BBQ finish, however, you’ll want to brush that sauce on during the last bit of cooking so it reduces some and becomes pleasantly sticky as is done in this recipe featuring our Texas Spicy BBQ Sauce.
A soak. You can also pretreat your ribs with brine, a salty solution that tenderizes as well as flavors meats. This is especially helpful when cooking up baby backs, which have the chew of a pork chop. In these Buffalo-Style Baby Back Ribs, the ribs soak in a savory brine before getting cooked and finished with a spicy sauce.
TYPES OF RIBS FAQ
Can I substitute one kind of pork rib for another? You can definitely use St. Louis style or untrimmed spare ribs for any recipe calling for either. The smaller St. Louis may just cook a bit quicker. If subbing baby back to spare ribs, keep in mind that they can dry out if overcooked so check on them earlier than you would the spare ribs, which have a larger margin of error.
It’s trickier to sub spare ribs in for baby backs, especially if the recipe calls for grilling hot and fast. The spare ribs need time to break down and become tender. You can go with the same flavors, but turn the heat down and increase the time.
How many racks per person? How many ribs you cook depends on both the kind and the appetites of those you are feeding. A larger rack of spare ribs can easily feed two people, and maybe three. The smaller slab of baby backs may be better suited to one person or cook three racks to divide among two people. These tinier ribs also work well as appetizers.
How do I know when they are done? The meat is cooked through and tender (a distinction as the meat itself would be safe to eat at a lower temperature) between 190°F and 203°F. And though we are huge fans of meat thermometers, the thin meat can be hard to temp. One classic way to test for doneness is to pick up the rack of ribs with a pair of tongs near the center. The rack should bend and the meat start to crack on the surface.
Where can I get more information about pork ribs? For more information on how to buy, trim, and cook pork ribs, look here. You’ll also find our top rib recipes as well as ideas for what to serve on the side.