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Tastes of Texas: A Pork Rib Overview

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In Part 1 of our discussion on pork ribs, Tastes of Texas lays out the various rib styles coming to a pit near you.

When I wrote my first post in this series I was largely dismissive of pork BBQ and the place it has in the BBQ hierarchy. Admittedly, that was a bit disingenuous. I love pork BBQ, and while the loud mouth Texan in me will rarely miss the opportunity to take a jab at a Southerner for their inferior pig 'Q,' I truly do believe pork stands well on its own against some of the best beef Texas has to offer. Pork is succulent, juicy, tender, and most importantly, it's easier to BBQ than most beef.

This series has strayed from its bread and butter (meat and sauce?) for several weeks now, so I decided this was an appropriate time to get back to BBQ and rendezvous with another BBQ staple: pork ribs.

I don't want to make it seem like ribs, or pork in general, are easy to make. Believe me, I've had many a dry rib and tough pulled pork from people who didn't know what they were doing. But, BBQing pork is easier than BBQing beef. Generally speaking, there is a lot more fat marbled throughout the meat, and the meat isn't as tough as brisket or beef ribs. This gives you some "wiggle room" on the final product, and because of that, I don't have just one method for cooking ribs. In fact, with pork ribs I often like to play with various regional cooking styles and mix different flavors into my rubs and sauces. Because I don't have one preferred style of cooking, I simply can't fit everything I'd like to say into one post, so I've decided to split the rib topic into a multi-part series. We'll start with an overview on cuts of pork ribs.

Before delving into any methods for cooking pork ribs, it's important to know exactly what you're cooking. For all practical purposes there are three types of pork ribs available: spare ribs, baby back ribs, and St. Louis cut ribs. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

Baby Back Ribs

These are the ribs the population is most familiar with thanks to the advertising efforts of national chain restaurants like Chili's, and because of this marketing, many assume that baby backs are a superior cut of meat. Contrary to this assertion, baby back ribs are not automatically better than other ribs, though there are benefits to cooking them. Baby back ribs are the first cut of ribs coming down off the spine of the pig, and because of this placement, they are very curved. The major advantage to cooking baby back ribs is that they are much more tender than other cuts which drastically lowers the cooking time and gives you a larger window for error. For example, if the temperature in your pit gets too hot and the ribs get done sooner than expected, you should not have an overly tough piece of meat. On the contrary, if the cooking process runs longer than expected, the ribs will not have been in the pit so long that you're left with dry, flavorless ribs.

The down side to baby back ribs, however, is the lack of fat. Other rib cuts have much more fat marbled throughout the meat which results in a more flavorful product. Also, because of the perception that baby back ribs are far superior to other cuts, baby back ribs are usually several dollars more expensive per pound which is a major consideration if you're catering to a large group. Even with the shortcomings, however, many seasoned BBQers prefer baby back ribs for the tenderness and ease of cooking. Ultimately, as with anything else, it's all a matter of preference.

Spare Ribs

These ribs are the standard fare in almost all BBQ restaurants, and I personally consider them to be far above baby back ribs in terms of quality. Spare ribs are cut just after the baby back ribs and come most of the way down the side of the pig. They consist of two distinct parts: rib tips and St. Louis cut. St. Louis cut ribs are what most people think of when they eat ribs as they have long, thick bones with meat between them. Running along the bottom of the St. Louis ribs are the rib tips which contain cartilage, fat, and an incredible amount of flavor. Some people love the rib tips while others have no use for them. I'm firmly in the former category; I think rib tips are consistently the most flavorful , juicy, and delectable part of the spare rib, but many are turned off by the cartilage and subsequent gnawing required to get the meat off the bone.

I've already alluded to the major advantage of spare ribs: They have more fat marbled throughout the meat and are immensely more flavorful than baby backs. The downside to spare ribs, however, is that the meat is a lot tougher than the meat on baby back ribs, so it takes a lot longer to cook spares. This longer cooking time means that temperature control during the cooking process is much more important, and there is very little room for error. Essentially, it is much easier to screw up spare ribs than it is to screw up baby backs. If you do cook them properly, though, the process of which we'll discuss in a future post, you will be left with a succulent product that your dinner guests will love you for. The decision between baby back ribs and spare ribs is really whether you believe the superior flavor of spare ribs is worth the extra care and effort. I, for one, am firmly in spare ribs' corner.

St. Louis Cut

I already said that St. Louis cut ribs are simply spare ribs sans the rib tips, but they deserve to be mentioned in their own section. Every time I cook spare ribs, I split the rib tips off the St. Louis cut prior to cooking to make handling the ribs easier. However, if you do not want to deal with that extra prep work, or you are not a fan of rib tips, you can find St. Louis cut ribs in most grocery stores and butcher shops. I mention this because some meat purveyors will drastically increase the price when they label spare ribs as "St. Louis cut." Avoid this marketing trick and go for the full spares instead; they're usually the cheapest of all the varieties.

Hopefully you now have a good sense of the pork ribs available to you, and you can make an informed decision on what style is best for your next tailgate, game watching party, or Sunday night supper. Next time we'll delve even further into the pork process and explore some of the many ways to prepare your pig parts perfectly. I promise to cool it with the alliteration (maybe).