You might wonder why you would need to know the difference between spare ribs and baby back ribs besides them having different names, but the flavor and texture of these two kinds of ribs is quite unique. Usually spare ribs contain more cartilage and are fattier than their counterparts, however, they are both delicious in their own right.
Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs are taken from the top of the rib cage, right below the spine. They get their name from the fact that they are a lot smaller than spare ribs. Baby back ribs have a lot less fat and less bone, so there’s more meat on these bad boys. The meat is very tender and flavorful thanks to an increased amount of marbling. They cook very quickly and need much less time than spareribs do. Compared to spareribs, baby backs are more expensive because there’s less meat per pound.
What to Look for in Spare Ribs
Whether you’re selecting spare ribs for a dinner party or planning a family BBQ, the most important thing is to go with meat that’s going to be worthy of your recipe.
Spare ribs are known for their superior marbling, which makes them ideal for slow cooking and braising. You’ll want to make sure that your ribs have the right ratio of lean meat to fat—too much fat and you’ll end up with a tough end product, too little and you might as well just use baby backs.
Also, make sure to check the quality of the meat before buying—you want an even color throughout (the bones should be white) and nice pinkish-red meat. Staying away from ribs that look dull or grey will help ensure tenderness in the final product.
How to Prepare Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs, also known as “back ribs” or “loin ribs,” are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs. They are shorter, leaner, and usually more tender than spare ribs because this cut is from the loin, which is used for many quick cooking cuts such as chops and roasts. Baby backs generally have more meat on them than spare ribs and are usually more expensive.
Baby back ribs usually weigh 1 to 2 pounds each and contain 10 to 13 bones. They are curved like their name suggests and are smaller at one end. When preparing baby back ribs, remove the thin, papery membrane from the bone side of the rack by inserting a dinner knife under it; the membrane should peel off easily.
Place the rack with meat side up on a broiler pan or other shallow roasting pan. The rib rack can also be placed directly on aluminum foil that has been cut to fit your baking sheet. If you don’t have a rib rack, roll up strips of aluminum foil into 2 inch balls and place them on your baking sheet so they form a “rack” for your ribs to sit upon.
The rolled foil will allow air to circulate around all sides of your ribs while they cook and keep them from stewing in their own juices. Spray both sides of the ribs with non-stick spray. Spraying them will keep them from sticking to the foil and keep the baking sheet clean.
Cover with heavy duty aluminum foil and place in a 225 degree F oven for about 2-2½ hours or until tender and you can easily pull meat off of the bone with your fingers (about ¼ to ½ inches thick). Brown the ribs on all sides, turning once, until they are dark brown and all of the meat is crispy.
When you are done cooking, remove the meat from each bone and place it to one side until you make your sauce. When you have removed all of the meat, place it in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Pour fat from baking sheet. Place browned ribs in deep crock pot slow cooker or dutch oven or oven roasting pan.
Pour your favorite barbecue sauce over the ribs and mix everything together until coated. Cook on low heat for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. And you’re done! Serve on a plate and add your favorite barbecue sauce (optional).
A spare rib is a rib cut from the pig’s belly side of the ribs, behind the section that includes the pork belly. The name, “spare ribs,” refers to this cut being a by-product of cutting off the pork belly (including bacon and side ribs) for use in other dishes. Spare ribs are flatter than baby back ribs, but also contain more bone, fat, and connective tissue than baby back ribs. They are typically sold with the brisket bone attached at one end. The section of meat nearest to the bone is called “the featherbone.” it is often removed and discarded before cooking because it is tough and not very flavorful. A full rack of spare ribs has 11 bones.
What to Look for in Spare Ribs
When you pick out a slab of ribs at the grocery store, what should you be looking for?
Quality is important. It’s worth it to pay extra for the good stuff—not only will the meat taste better, but it won’t dry out as easily, either.
Here are a few tips for choosing a quality slab of spare ribs:
- Meaty Ribs: You’ll want to get a slab that has plenty of meat on it—more than 30% is ideal. The bone-to-meat ratio increases in larger slabs.
- Check the Color: The color should be a light pink throughout the meat, with no gray or brown spots (although if you’re buying beef ribs, brown spots are okay).
- Fat Content: Look for a healthy layer of fat on top of the meat—this prevents drying and ensures great flavor. Marbling: This refers to streaks of fat within the muscle tissue itself, which helps keep the meat moist and tender when cooked.
- Look for Good Meat Texture: Meat should have an even texture from end to end—check by gently pinching between your fingers. Avoid any loose or stringy bits.
How to Prepare Spare Ribs
Spare ribs are larger and flatter than baby back ribs, and have more connective tissue, fat, and bone. They need low, slow cooking to become tender. Make sure you have plenty of time for your spare rib recipe!
Step 1: Remove the “Silver Skin”
The first thing you’ll need to do is remove the membrane from the underside of your spare ribs. Removing this membrane allows the seasonings and smoke to penetrate to the meat. The membrane is also what makes the ribs tough when they’re cooked.
Step 2: Trim the Spare Ribs
Cut off any excess skin or fat hanging off of your spare ribs. If you don’t see any excess pieces hanging off, this isn’t necessary!
Step 3: Season Your Ribs
We like to slather each rack of spare ribs in a mustard-based mixture before applying our rub. This not only adds moisture to the meat and helps it absorb the spices better, but it also improves the color that you get when you bite into them (i.e., bark). Next, apply your favorite rub on both sides of each rack of ribs, coating completely.
Step 4: Let Your Spare Ribs Rest Before Cooking
Allow your spare ribs to rest on their racks for at least 20-30 minutes before cooking. Resting your spare ribs allows the rub to really soak into the meat and improves the flavor.
Step 5: Low & Slow is Yours!
Place your spare ribs in a smoker or grill and cook as you normally would. These will take on a deep, rich color as they tenderize. Depending on how moist your ribs are, it could take up to 4 hours to become fork tender.
Step 6: Get Fried!
Once your ribs are finished cooking, transfer them to a wire rack set over a baking sheet or foil-lined plate. This will allow the excess fat and juices to drip off as they cool. Now you’re ready to apply a simple Korean-style beef short rib marinade. This is one of our favorite marinades—it’s packed with flavor and easy to customize.
What about St. Louis ribs?
St. Louis ribs are another name for spare ribs, but they’re cut differently. The rib rack is cut down so there are no bones sticking out past the meat, and the tips of the ribs are trimmed off. The curved part of the rack is left intact, which gives St. Louis ribs a squarer shape than spare ribs do. This cut is more convenient to cook and serve, but it also means you lose some of the best parts, like the bony tips (which is why they’re often smoked separately). If you’re looking for tastes that will knock your socks off, stick with spare ribs instead.
The Difference Between Spare Ribs And Baby Back Ribs
Ribs have been synonymous with American barbecue for decades, and with good reason. They’re a staple at backyard cookouts, tailgating parties, and family reunions. But what about the different types of ribs—what’s the difference between spare ribs vs baby back ribs? It all comes down to anatomy and location.
Spare ribs are cut from the underside of a pig’s ribcage—the belly side. A full slab of spare ribs will include the upper end of the rib cage (called “rib tips,” which you can see in the photo below), as well as the lower end of the blade bone (also called “flanken”). Because spare ribs come from an area that sees a lot of action while the animal is walking around, they tend to be tougher than other cuts, but they are also full of flavor.
Baby back ribs are taken from further up along the rib cage, closer to the spine. They’re not actually from baby pigs—the name is misleading because they’re smaller than spare ribs and therefore easier for smaller eaters to handle! Baby backs come from a more tender section of meat on a pig because it doesn’t see as much action during movement like spare ribs do. They’re more popular with people who prefer a softer, more tender rib.
It’s really just personal preference when it comes to choosing between spare ribs and baby back ribs. If you’re having a cookout and you want to go for the whole “ribs feast,” it’s not a bad idea to ask one of your guests to bring a full slab of ribs (spare or baby back) and another guest to bring a separate slab if everyone wants both types.