Whether you're cooking them on the grill, in a smoker, or even in a crockpot, ribs are among the most satisfying and succulent of all the cuts of meat.
Pork ribs are certainly the most popular, although beef ribs also have their fair share of enthusiasts. One thing they have in common is that since both pork and beef ribs contain so much connective tissue, they require long, slow cooking.
That can be accomplished using either dry- or moist-heat cooking methods. Grilling and smoking are examples of dry while braising would be moist. In either case, though, the keys to success are low temperatures and long (as in several hours, minimum) cooking times.
There are a number of different regional variations in terms of preparation, seasoning, the use of dry rubs versus wet sauces, and so on. We'll talk about the 5 kinds of ribs, starting with pork and then moving on to beef.
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Pork Back Ribs
Pork back ribs (sometimes called baby back ribs) come from high on the back of the hog where they meet the backbone. They're the ribs that are found in bone-in pork rib loin chops, but the loin has been removed to make a boneless pork loin, leaving just the rack of ribs.
Like all ribs, pork back ribs will require slow cooking, using either moist heat, as in a slow cooker (you'll need to separate the rack into 2 halves to get it to fit), or dry heat, as in a smoker or on the grill. The reason is that the ribs have large amounts of cartilage and connective tissue in, around, and between them, which requires time and low heat to become tender and juicy.
A rack of back ribs will usually offer between 8 and 13 ribs, and they're generally cut 3 to 6 inches wide. You'll notice that they're slightly curved since they wrap around the loin.
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Pork Spare Ribs
Spare ribs are the lower section of ribs, extending around the belly to where they join the sternum.
Spare ribs are a bit fattier than back ribs, as you would expect since they come from the belly region. They're also flatter and generally cut 6 to 8 inches wide with a full rack featuring 11 to 13 ribs. Additionally, the meat from the spare ribs is a bit tougher (the muscles around them are involved with breathing, so they are used quite a bit more) and they contain more cartilage than back ribs.
Like back ribs, long, slow braising or cooking in a smoker, grill or oven, will turn the meat tender and succulent.
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"Country-Style" Pork Ribs
The country-style ribs are less specific than the 2 types of ribs just discussed, which means there are a few cuts of pork that tend to be sold as country-style ribs.
Officially, country-style ribs are pork rib chops taken from the front end of the loin near the shoulder. They feature a narrow portion of rib bone, with the attached meat, along with a narrow portion of feather bone (which is technically part of the backbone) with the meat attached. Sometimes country-style ribs are taken from the Boston butt rather than the loin, in which case they consist of cross-sections of the shoulder blade bone. And once in a while, you'll see sections from all the way down at the sirloin end of the loin labeled country-style ribs.
Note that boneless country-style ribs are simply long strips of loin muscle along with the meat from between the rib bones.
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Beef Back Ribs
As with pork back ribs, beef back ribs come from the upper part of the carcass and indeed the ribs in question are the ones in bone-in ribeye steaks and whole rib roasts (aka prime rib).
And in theory, this would mean that beef back ribs are generally meaty, flavorful, and highly desirable.
In practice, however, if you've ever had beef back ribs you know that they are mostly bone and fat with a bit of cartilage and a tiny bit of meat, and probably drenched in BBQ sauce to conceal this fact.
The reason for this is that meatpackers and butchers aim to leave as little meat on the beef ribs as possible because beef ribeye and prime rib are among the most profitable cuts of beef per pound. Moreover, since beef ribs are less popular overall compared with other cuts that come from the rib primal, the intercostal meat (from between the ribs) usually ends up like ground beef.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
05 of 05
Beef Short Ribs
Just as pork spare ribs come from the lower part of the ribcage, where it meets the sternum, so do beef short ribs. And likewise, these ribs are tough and heavy with connective tissue. Unlike beef back ribs, beef short ribs are generally quite meaty, since, at least from an economic standpoint, there's no real reason for using that meat in any other way.
The reason they're called short ribs is that they're generally cut much shorter, proportionally, than pork spare ribs—3 to 4 inches long in most cases, and sometimes even shorter, which of course is because the beef carcass is so much more massive than pork, and cutting them any longer would make them unmanageable. At 2 to 3 inches, they'll fit perfectly in a slow cooker, which also happens to be a wonderful way to cook them.
Although it's possible to slow cook these on the grill or in a smoker, and many people do, by far the most common way to prepare beef short ribs is to braise them. Indeed, beef short ribs are a wonderful starting point for making soup, beef stew, or even chili.