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The summer grilling season is fast approaching and for those of us who live in four season climates, reuniting with our backyard barbeques is an annual rite of spring. Whether you grill year round or not, no matter how you fire it up, it’s that first grill of the season that rejuvenate our fervor for outdoor cooking.
Soon we’ll start seeing ads for ribs – Baby Back, Spare, St. Louis, Country Style, Tips, Roasts and Chops – a wealth of options to grill and prepare. Here’s a quick 101 primer for distinguishing between rib varieties and some tips on the best ways to grill ribs this season.
We’re all familiar with the term “Rib Cage”, where there is an arrangement of long bones that surround the chest to protect internal organs. Long rib bones start from the top of animals by the spine and extend downward with a curved shape towards the belly. These are the ribs butchers break down for consumption.
Baby Back Ribs
The most popular of all pork ribs, Baby Backs are the most lean and tender. These types of ribs are located at the top part of the rib bone that is connected to the spine (backbone), just below the loin muscle. The name “Baby” is derived from the fact they are shorter than spare ribs, and “Back”, because they are nearest the backbone.
Butchers make Baby Back Ribs by cutting them where the longest bone is, around 6? from the spine. The meat on top of the bones is tender and delicious. Depending on how they are butchered, Baby Back Rib racks weigh about 1.75-2.5 lbs and will normally have between 10-13 bones per rack. Baby Backs can be grilled, barbecued, roasted and smoked. They are typical to the northern region of the U.S. and Canada.
The Spare Rib starts from the end of Baby Back Ribs and extends to the end of the rib bone. Spare Ribs are bigger with more meat between the bones than the top of the bones and are a little tougher and fatter, but much richer in flavor. Spare Ribs average 10-13 bones per rack weighing between 2.5 – 3.5 lbs. They can also be grilled, barbecued, roasted and smoked.
St. Louis Ribs
This style of ribs was popularized in the 1930?s – 1960?s by butchers in the St. Louis area who wanted a better rib cut than they were receiving from big meat packers at the time. Ribs, or St. Louis Style Ribs are actually Spare Ribs with the rib tips cut off where a lot of cartilage and gristle exists with very little meat. ”Pork Ribs, St. Louis Style” officially became an official USDA cut standard NAMP/IMPSStLouisRib416a #416A in the 1980’s. Spare Ribs and St. Louis Style Spare Ribs are found on grills and smokers in the southern states of the U.S.
Rib Tips are found at the end tips of the rib bone. They are the by-products of St. Louis Ribs where butchers cut the tips off the end of the ribs into strips with a saw. Even with little meat and a lot of cartilage and gristle, Tips are rich in flavor due to the presence of bone and higher fat content. People generally either love them or hate them.
Country Style Ribs
You may be surprised to know that Country-style Ribs are not cut from the rib cage but from the front end of where the Baby Back Ribs are near the shoulder-blade. They are the meatiest variety of ribs and are perfect for those who prefer to use a knife and fork rather than eating with their hands.
Rib Chops & Roasts
Rib bones are also used in other types of butcher cuts. Rib Chops are produced where the loin meat is kept attached to the bone and portion cut into a chop. The end of the rib bone can also be exposed to create a “French Cut” Rib Chop. A Crown Roast is created when instead of cutting the loin into chops, it’s formed into a circle and tied to look like a crown. Crown style roasts are seasonal holiday favorites.
Beef, Lamb & Veal Ribs
The anatomy of pork, beef, lamb and veal is pretty much the same. Beef ribs are typically produced as Beef Back Ribs, Beef Short Ribs and Beef Rib Chops – aka bone-in rib eye steak. Denver Ribs are like St. Louis pork ribs but cut from lamb.
A set of five or more ribs together is known as a “rack”; veal and lamb ribs are sold as ‘racks’. Lamb and veal racks are typically roasted whole or cut between the rib bones into chops.
Top Grilling Tips
Regardless of the species, ribs are full of flavor and can be prepared in any number of ways. You can be creative with different rubs, sauces and marinades, to grill, roast, smoke or braise a variety of rib dishes. Our Corporate Chef, Russ Kramer, shares his top grill tips below:
Tip #1 – Cook to Perfection
There are a few methods to prepare pork ribs for the summer. Your number one goal should be to serve ribs that have a tender bite off the bone but never where the meat falls off the bone. Ribs that fall off the bone will do you in at competition BBQ s!
Tip #2 – Use Rubs
Rib rubs differ from steak rubs because they are generally sweeter; steak rubs are more savory. As a general guideline, use a Paprika base with spices such as, garlic, onion, cinnamon, clove and dry mustard. (For sweet, I use turbinado sugar.) Herbs are best left for steak rubs.
Generously sprinkle your favorite rib rub a good hour before cooking to let the flavors work into the meat. Be creative and experiment with your different combinations of spice and sweet until you find your favorite.
Tip #3 – Cooking Method
Over medium heat, grill the slabs until they are seared and caramelized, then switch to the indirect heat method and slowly finish cooking. This can take about 3 hours to get the nice bite off the bone. Then sauce them at the end.
Extra Tip Use a spray bottle with some apple juice in it and spray the ribs every 30 minutes to help keep them moist.
Tip #4 – Smoke Ribs (Competition Style)
Stoke the fire using lump charcoal and fruit wood such as apple. The fruit woods work well with pork since their smoke profile tends to be milder than a hickory or mesquite. Pork, being a lighter meat works best with a milder smoke.
Generously sprinkle your favorite rib rub a good hour before cooking to let the flavors work into the meat. You can also rub on some yellow mustard for a tangy flavor.
Maintain the smoker temperature at 250 degrees. Place ribs in the smoker and slow smoke for 4 hours spraying them down every 30 to 40 minutes with the apple juice infused with a bit of apple cider vinegar.
Foil the slabs after 4 hours by wrapping each slab individually in foil. In the foil pouch, add brown sugar and/or honey, some butter and a little apple juice to help steam the ribs a bit while in the smoker for the final time.
Let them cook for an hour and check for doneness. You will see the bones exposed a bit at the bottom of the slab – that’s a good sign. Remember that ‘tender bite off the bone’ is what you are looking for.
Once the ribs have cooked to perfection, pull the slabs from the foil and brush with your favorite sauce. Return to the smoker for about 10 minutes more to glaze the sauce.
Whether you use the traditional grill or the wood smoked method, have a fantastic grilling season!