I have spent a lot of time on this site talking about beef so I thought it was time to give some attention to pork. Specifically pork ribs.
Let me start by saying I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite cut of pork. Obviously bacon can stand in a class by itself but how would you pick between ribs, ham, pulled pork, pork chops, and pork tenderloin? I change my mind almost daily on which cut I like the most but lately I have been leaning towards ribs. There is something awesome about eating meat directly off the bone and no food gives you as good an opportunity for that as ribs.
For the sake of this discussion I want to talk about the two main cuts of pork ribs: Baby back ribs and spare ribs.
Baby Back Ribs – Baby back ribs come from the top of the hog and are from where the rib bones meet the spine. Generally speaking a slab of baby back ribs has 10-13 ribs and weighs 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. The meat on baby back ribs is usually a bit more tender than spare ribs and a bit leaner which appeals to some people. The bones of the baby backs have more of a curve than spare ribs and as a result can be a bit trickier to cook evenly. Most baby back rib bones are in the 3-6 inch range.
If you are planning on cooking some baby back ribs plan on 1 slab per person. If you have light eaters you might be able to get two meals out of one slab but it is always good to have some left over than to leave your guests wanting more.
Can we talk about the name baby back ribs for a couple minutes? This is another example of how the popularity of a cut of meat can be tied to its name. Having “baby” in the name instantly triggers words like tender, delicate, and light in my mind since young animals are generally more tender and leaner than older animals. If they were to call them spine ribs or curved ribs they wouldn’t have the same appeal. Seafood suppliers did the same type of thing when they started calling the Patagonian Tooth Fish the Tilapia. Which sounds more appetizing?
Baby back ribs will generally run you $4-6 per pound. They can go on sale for less than that from time to time but since there are only maybe 4 pounds of ribs per hog they aren’t a plentiful cut.
Spare Ribs – The spare ribs come from right below the baby back ribs. They tend to be a bit meatier, have a bit more fat, and have a bit more of a chew to them.
You can find whole spare ribs or “St. Louis Cut” spare ribs where the bottom of the ribs are cut off leaving a more rectangular shape. When possible I like the whole spare ribs. If I want to cut them down to St Louis cut I can do that myself and then I have some delicious rib tips I can cook up. But usually I just leave them whole. Most competition cooked ribs are St. Louis cut ribs since they are a more uniform shape and look a bit better in a presentation box.
If you go to a good barbecue restaurant and order ribs you will almost always get served spare ribs. Spare ribs tend to be a bit less expensive than baby backs and you get a lot more meat on them so it makes sense for restaurants.
Most slabs of spare ribs weigh in around 2 1/2 pounds and 8 inches or so long. One slab will probably feed two people unless you have some big eaters around. Spare ribs can generally be had for about $3 per pound.
BTW, if you see “country style ribs” or “boneless ribs” in your butcher’s meat case don’t think you are getting a true “rib”. They are usually cuts from the shoulder of the hog. They can be delicious in their own right but are nothing like a real rib.
Should the membrane be removed? On the backside of a rack of ribs you will find a tough membrane. Most people remove it before cooking, others don’t. In most cases I would remove it just to be safe. I am not sure how much the membrane prevents smoke flavor from penetrating the meat or if it affects the texture of the ribs but I usually remove it.
How should ribs be cooked? Well, that is for another post. I prefer Memphis style dry ribs with no sauce but others swear by a nice sauce. I am not against barbecue sauce in any way and from time to time a nice, sticky, saucy rib is perfect but I think the dry ribs let the pork flavor come through a bit more.
Where to buy ribs – Every grocery store or butcher shop should carry spare ribs so you should have no trouble finding those. Baby backs can be a bit tougher to find but they are still very plentiful. Be sure to check your local Costco as well.
But what if I want a really good rib? Well, let’s talk about pig breeds… The most common breed in the US and the breed you have probably ate your whole life is the American Yorkshire pig. These are the standard pink pigs most people think about when they think about pigs. There is nothing inherently wrong with them but they are bred and raised for yield, leanness, speed of growth, and other factors like that that allow us to get a rack of ribs for $3. If you want ribs with more flavor and more fat you will have to look to heritage breeds.
Duroc is the heritage breed you will probably come across most frequently. Mangalitsa is another awesome breed that is actually a bit wooly. Both of these breeds have a higher fat content than your standard pork and as a result have a more complex flavor. It takes some digging around to find a local farmer that raises these breeds and you might have to do some legwork to find them but you will definitely notice the difference in flavor and texture.
For the best of the best I would look to a Kurobuta or Berkshire pork. The Kurobuta hogs are basically the pork equivalent of Kobe beef. They are extremely rare in the US and there aren’t many butchers that will carry them.
I have found Snake River Farms to be the best source of Kurobuta ribs and pork. (Please note, if you want to experience some awesome Kurobuta ribs and pork and buy something from Snake River Farms through these links I earn a commission. But once you taste them you will know why I recommend them so highly.)
October is National Pork Month so Snake River Farms has many of their pork products on sale for up to 35% off. You can also get free shipping on all orders if you use the code FREEAFF when you check out.
The Snake River Farms Kurobuta spare ribs are a bit smaller than what you will find at the grocery store. Once again, the Kurobuta hogs aren’t necessarily raised to give the biggest yield, they are raised for flavor so they tend to be a bit smaller. These racks weigh around 2 pounds and are St. Louis cut so they are ready for the grill.
The normally cost $30 per rack but right now they are on sale for only $19 per rack. That works out to about $9.50 per pound which is 3 times what you would spend at the grocery store but you really are paying for quality here. I ordered two racks that should be delivered tomorrow that I will be throwing on the smoker this weekend.
Snake River Farms also has Kurobuta Baby Back ribs for $22 per rack (normally $29). These racks come in at right about a pound per rack so you will definitely want one rack per person.
Grab a few racks of pork ribs, fire up the grill or smoker, and enjoy the finger licking, lip smacking goodness. Hit up your grocery store for a few racks but if you are really looking for something special check out Snake River Farms and pick up some while they are on sale. Don’t forget to use code FREEAFF and get free shipping.