Pork 101 : Baby Back vs Spare Ribs
Pork ribs are a staple in the BBQ industry. Being so cheap and great for finger licking, it’s often considered as one of the most popular dishes out there, and also a great way to get serious about BBQ.
Interestingly enough, to this day, a lot of people are still oblivious to the fact that traditional BBQ style ribs are not made from baby back ribs. Spare ribs, also known as St-Louis ribs, are what pit masters look for on both the competition scene, but also in their everyday lives.
Let’s help you understand the difference between both St-Louis and Baby Backs so that you can make your mind up on what fits your style best.
Baby Back Ribs
Most commonly found in grocery stores, these ribs are very easy to find. As they are more sought after, they’re a little pricier than St-Louis but still very affordable.
They are also called “loin ribs”.
Baby Backs are popular as they have a decent amount of meat, with very little fat on them. These ribs are taken from the upper part of the pig, near the spine, once the loin has been removed. They count 12 ribs on average, which is usually enough to feed 2 people.
Although they are called “Baby Backs”, rest assured, those ribs are not taken from piglets. They get this name strictly from their size in comparison to St-Louis ribs.
It’s very hard to mess up baby backs. Those ribs are very forgiving. Therefore, for the average consumer out there who’s looking for a low-risk/high-reward meal, this cut is one of the best on the market.
When choosing the best Baby Back possible, keep an eye out for the tail-end of the rib. As these are smaller, a good rib should be of even size from start to finish. It should not be thinning out at the end, nor having a thick slice of meat at the top. Some ribs will have a loin carry-over at the top if they weren’t processed properly, which will make it harder to have an even cook. This would sadly force you to sacrifice one of the 2 ends.
St-Louis / Spare Ribs
Spare ribs are bigger and meatier than Baby Backs. They used to have a bad reputation as there is cartilage between the ribs, so they do require more “work” as you eat them. This cut is taken from the belly of the pig once the belly has been removed.
Spare ribs are usually flatter, cut in a near-rectangular shape that make them easy to cook evenly.
They have a good amount of fat on them which make them a lot more flavorful than the baby backs, and juicier by default.
How do you cook them?
Whichever cut you plan on cooking, there are some basics to follow.
- You always want to remove the silver skin. Using the end of the spoon handle, work your way under the silver skin along a bone to detach it from the meat. Using a paper towel, it’s easy enough to yank the silver skin in one long piece.
- You always want to pat dry your ribs before adding your rub. A great combination for your ribs is a base layer of Butcher BBQ Honey Rub, with a top coating of House of BBQ Experts Kansas Rub. Rub your ribs and let them rest in the fridge for 4 hours.
- You never want to smoke cold meat, so remove your ribs from the fridge at least 1h before you plan on starting your cook.
- Cherry works great as smoke flavor with ribs, so it’s our go-to wood type for any recipe.
Baby Backs are very tender and have a mild taste. As they are very lean, those ribs are often at their best when you are using the 3-2-1 method, which can be done on any smoker.
The 3-2-1 method is a classic BBQ technique that calls for 3 hours of smoke at 225F, then 2 hours wrapped in foil with some liquid to add back moisture and flavor into the ribs while accelerating the cooking process, and 1 hour unwrapped to dry out the bark and glaze up at the very end.
The 3-2-1 is virtually a “can’t miss” approach to ribs as you are slowly cooking them, and making sure they don’t dry out.
It’s very easy to know if your baby back ribs are near done. Keep an eye out for ribs poking out of one side. If the bones are sticking out, this means you’re almost there!
Although this technique also works on St-Louis, one could argue that there is no need for the 3-2-1 method with this cut. Having a lot more fat content, it’s often best to slowly cook the St-Louis ribs so that they baste in their own fat rather than foiling with added liquid.
Spare ribs being bigger, they will require a little more time and care but the payoff is worth it. By cooking the ribs at 240F until they reach tenderness, you will get juicy and flavorful ribs with a lot more depth in mouth than any baby back ever could. As they are not foiled, it’s good to spritz a sugar-based solution every 45 minutes or so. This can range from beer to sodas or a simple water/sugar mix. The intent is to add moisture but more importantly help the ribs caramelize a lot more.
One of the reasons spare ribs stand out from the baby backs is the options that it gives you in terms of cooking techniques.
Putting spare ribs on a spit-roast is a very underrated method still to this day. This would not be recommended with baby backs as they don’t have enough fat to render out nicely but St-Louis ribs are perfect for Brazilian rodizio/rotisserie style ribs. This technique yields a dry rib that’s very different from what you are used to, but makes for amazing finger food. It’s also easier to do, with little to no maintenance to do throughout the cook.
Regardless of what you will set out to do, the last step to any technique is key to great ribs. We’re obviously going to sauce these ribs for a nice sticky finish.
Ribs should always be cooked to texture, not temperature. Of course, the 203F mark is usually where the magic happens, but it’s better to probe and check how they feel to the touch rather than relying on a thermometer only. You want ribs with a little pull to them still. If they fall off the bone, they are most likely a bit overdone but you’ll figure out how you like them best as you give them a few tries. Document everything, reset, retry. That’s the beauty of BBQ.