Pork ribs are fatty, messy, hard to cook, hard to eat, and altogether wonderful. When cooked properly, the fat and cartilage around and between the ribs breaks down and softens, making the ribs incredibly tender and succulent.
What Are Pork Ribs?
Pork ribs refer to a cut of pork from the ribcage of a pig. Meat and bones together are cut into usable pieces and prepared by grilling, baking, or smoking, usually with barbecue or another type of sauce.
How to Cook Pork Ribs
Pork ribs need to be cooked slowly over very low heat, which can be tricky if you're doing them on the grill—but grilling is the best way to cook ribs. You can also cook them in the oven or a slow-cooker, which is easier.
When you cook ribs slowly like this, the cartilage breaks down, the fat melts away and coats the muscle fibers, and the connective tissue surrounding the muscle bundles itself, giving the ribs a moist, meaty, juicy feel in your mouth.
The meat itself is extremely flavorful, which tends to be the case with the muscles that get more exercise. These muscles are also tougher, but when cooked slowly, the result is fall-off-the-bone tender.
Note that both back ribs and spare ribs have a tough membrane on the inner side of the rack which needs to be removed before cooking, as it is tough and chewy and won't break down under heat the way other types of connective tissue will.
The best way to remove it is to lift up a corner of it with a knife and then peel it away. And since it's slippery, holding it with a paper towel will help you get a good grip on it.
What Do Pork Ribs Taste Like?
Pork meat has a distinctive porky taste with a meaty, fatty mouth feel. Apart from the uniquely porky flavor of the meat, the flavor of pork ribs depends on the preparation. They tend to take on the flavor of whatever sauce or spice rub they are prepared with.
Spare Ribs Vs. Baby Back Ribs
The most common types of pork ribs are spare ribs and baby back ribs, and although they look similar, there are differences. The main difference is that baby back ribs come from the upper area of the ribs where they join the backbone, whereas spareribs come from the lower part of the ribs, down towards the belly. In general, baby back ribs are leaner, and they're also more narrow than spare ribs. Here's more about the different types of pork ribs.
Varieties of Pork Ribs
Several different types of ribs are available, depending on the section of the rib cage from which they are cut. Each cut varies in thickness of the meat and bone, as well as fat content, which affects the flavor and texture of the cooked ribs.
- Baby back ribs: The ribs you usually hear described as baby back ribs come from high up on the back of the hog, where they wrap around the loin. They're actually the same ribs that are found in bone-in pork rib chops, without the loin muscle attached. Technically, baby back ribs are ribs from a younger animal. Baby back ribs have a slight curvature to them to match the curvature of the loin. They're leaner, meatier, and a bit more tender than spareribs, and they contain less cartilage. Back ribs are usually between three and six inches wide, and they taper toward the front. A rack of back ribs will consist of between eight and 13 ribs.
- Pork Spare Ribs: Spare ribs come from the belly of the hog, the lower section of ribs, extending all the way to the front of the animal and including parts of the sternum and brisket bones. Because they come from the belly, spare ribs have a bit more fat on them, and they're a little tougher since the muscles around the rib cage expand and contract quite a lot. But long slow cooking, whether in a smoker, a barbecue or even in the oven, will ensure that the meat falls off the bone. Spare ribs are straighter than back ribs, and maybe six to eight inches wide. A full rack will consist of 11 to 13 ribs.
- St. Louis Cut Ribs: St. Louis ribs simply refers to a specific cut of ribs. Basically, the St. Louis cut is spare ribs that have been trimmed to remove the brisket bones, sternum, and the flap of meat that hangs over the last rib. St. Louis ribs are squared off and flat, uniformly five to six inches wide all the way up and down. The diaphragm or skirt steak is also removed from the inside of the ribcage.
- Country-Style Ribs: True country-style ribs are basically pork rib chops from the shoulder end of the loin. They're made by splitting the loin down the middle, leaving a narrow portion of rib bone with meat attached, and a narrow portion of feather bone with meat attached. Boneless country-style ribs are long strips of loin muscle along with the intercostal meat (i.e. the meat in between the rib bones).
Watch Now: How to Make Perfectly Smoked Pork Ribs
Pork Ribs Recipes
- Oven-Braised Country-Style Pork Ribs
- Grilled Pork Ribs: Costillas de Cerdo a la Parilla
- Kansas City Baby Back Ribs
Where to Buy Pork Ribs
You can find ribs anywhere you buy meat, from small butcher shops to warehouse retailers. Prices vary, but racks of untrimmed spare ribs are usually less expensive than trimmed ribs. Supermarkets also carry pre-packaged, marinated ribs that are ready to go from wrapper to oven or grill.
Storing Pork Ribs
Assuming they remain in the original vacuum-sealed packaging that you bought them in, pork ribs will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. You can also freeze ribs in these packages for up to six months. But if you buy them in some other form of packaging, like loosely wrapped in butcher paper, you should plan to cook them within a day of getting them home.