You’ve got your smoker, you’ve got your chips. You're armed with tips for smoking ribs. Now all you need is a nice rack of pork ribs to put on there. So what kind of ribs do you choose? What’s the difference between spare ribs and the St. Louis cut? Where are baby back ribs from? (Hint: They’re not from baby pigs.)
No matter which type of rack you choose, remember to look for meat that is deep pink, leaning toward red. The meat should be relatively evenly distributed around the ribs, with even striations of fat rather than fatty pockets. If you can see the rib bones clearly, choose another rack. This is called a “shiner,” and that means the meat has been cut too close to the bone and will most likely fall off instead of cooking properly. And avoid anything that has been altered—don’t choose ribs that have been frozen, or ones that have been “enhanced” with a sodium solution to pump up the meat. That information should be readily available on the label on the meat.
Pork ribs extend from the spine to the belly, so we’re going to start with the spine and work our way down.
Baby Back Ribs – Baby backs are the small section of ribs that curve beneath the lean pork tenderloin that runs along a pig’s spine. Baby backs are the portion that attach to the backbone, which you may hear referred to as the “chine”. The meat on baby backs tends to be leaner than spareribs or St. Louis cut ribs, which come from the area around the fatty belly. The ribs are cut from the spine, and then at the spot where the curve flattens out into the rest of the rib cage. This leaves baby backs looking a little bit like the rounded blade of a hockey stick. They are smaller than spareribs so take a little bit less time to cook.
Spareribs – Spareribs are the remainder of the rib cage once the baby backs have been cut off. The full spare rib will extend down from the cut to the rib tips, a boneless strip of meat that extends the length of the rack. Trimming for a rack of spareribs is kept to a minimum; large hunks of fat are removed, and there’s a thin, dangling bit of meat on the back side of the rib called the skirt that is usually cut off, but the sparerib stays, generally, intact. Meat on a sparerib is more fatty, being attached to the belly (which is where bacon comes from) and requires some attention and time to become tender.
St. Louis Cut – The St. Louis Cut is taken from the spareribs, only the rack is trimmed into a tidy rectangle. The breastbone, attached along the top of the spareribs, is cut off, and with that goes chunks of cartilage that can be difficult to eat. The rib tips on the bottom also come off, since they have a tendency to cook at a different rate than the ribs. There’s a small, triangular piece of boneless meat called the flap to one end of the rack of ribs that is trimmed off for a St. Louis Cut, as well as the skirt off the back. This results in a rack of ribs that is neat and almost symmetrical, with similarly-sized bones. The uniform shape means a rack of St. Louis style ribs is easier to cook evenly, without worry over the flap or rib tips burning, and without the breastbone’s unpredictable texture. This is often the choice cut for restaurant ribs, because their uniformity makes cooking them supremely manageable.
Any of these cuts of ribs can be cooked using standard smoking techniques, with appropriate adjustments of cooking time for temperature and rib size.