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Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better – and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.
Today: Cara shares the lowdown on pork ribs, babyback and otherwise. So fire up the grill -- it's barbecue season.
Ever since that Chili’s ad campaign debuted in the late 1980’s -- you know the one I’m talking about, the one that worms its way into your head for days -- babyback has been the rib of choice for Americans. This means that they can be hard to get at the market, especially during grilling season. The good news is, you’ve got a couple more options when it comes to ribs -- and all of them are just as delicious, even if they don’t have their own catchy theme song. Let's break it down:
Babyback ribs lay over the pork loin, one of the most tender parts of the animal -- when you eat a bone-in pork chop, that bone is a babyback. Their location on the animal is one of the reasons they are so highly regarded; compared to other muscles on the animal’s body, the loin doesn’t get much work, which means that the meat on your babybacks is very tender. It also means that they don’t need much fussing over before grilling, so you can keep their preparation as simple as you want -- even a basic salt and pepper rub will do. The leanness of babyback ribs makes them less conducive to long, slow braises or smokes than our other rib choices, because they don’t have a layer of fat to protect them from drying out.
Next up are spare ribs. Calling them “spare ribs” seems unfair -- it makes you think that they are either unwanted leftovers or terribly lean, neither of which is true. Although they don’t come off of the prized loin section, spare ribs are meatier and more flavorful than babybacks. They lay over the belly of the pig and are usually removed before the belly is made into bacon. If these ribs are squared off on each side, they are referred to as “Saint Louis-style” ribs. They benefit from a salty rub or an acidic marinade that will help break down some of the tough muscle. Try bathing them in homemade barbecue sauce before grilling, or braising them in an Asian marinade with a good dose of salt and acid.
More: If you're on the hunt for an all-natural barbecue sauce, we've got you covered.
Lastly, we have the country-style ribs, which come off of the pork shoulder. Country-style ribs aren’t cut the same way in all butcher shops: Some butchers will cut chops from the shoulder blade and call them country-style ribs, despite the fact that they don’t have any ribs on them. What you see pictured here is the other way to cut them, in which the rib rack that lays over the shoulder is removed and then sold as-is.
Country-style ribs are the meatiest and most flavorful of all the ribs, but they also have the most gristle and connective tissue. This means that, like spare ribs, they do well with an acidic marinade. They also benefit from a longer, slower cook, and work wonderfully when slow-cooked for pulled pork. So get yourself to the butcher! I hope that jingle gets out of your head sometime within the next year.
How do you like your ribs: with a Memphis rub, simple salt and pepper, or drowned in barbecue sauce? Let us know in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom