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. Most processors will remove the membrane before packaging, but it costs extra.
What Do Pork Ribs Taste Like?
Some describe pork as similar to beef except more tender and milder, but the taste of pork ribs depends entirely on the preparation. They tend to take on the flavor of whatever sauce they are prepared with.
Varieties of Pork Ribs
Several different types of ribs are available, depending on the section of 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 3 and 6 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 6 to 8 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 5 to 6 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).
Pork Ribs Recipes
Whether prepared in an oven, grill, or smoker, pork ribs are a mouth-watering and satisfying meal for any occasion.
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
Properly wrapped, pork ribs will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. You can also freeze ribs for up to six months; before you do, remove them from the original packaging or butcher's paper (which are not suitable for freezing) and place them in airtight, moisture-proof plastic freezer bags or heavy-duty freezer wrap. Separate layers with freezer paper, and be sure to write the storage date on a piece of freezer tape on the package.
Nutrition and Benefits of Pork Ribs
Before you add barbecue sauce, a 3-ounce serving of roasted baby back ribs has 248 calories, 18 grams of fat (6.6 grams of which is saturated fat), and 71 milligrams of cholesterol. However, that same serving of ribs also offers one-third of your daily vitamin B-12 needs, and 7 percent of the vitamin D you need each day. Pork baby back ribs also provide 39 percent of your daily value of selenium and 17 percent of the daily value for zinc; both minerals support immune system function.