What We’re Grilling Now: Pork Spare Ribs
To politics and religion—topics not to be discussed in polite company—you might want to add barbecued pork ribs.
On the other hand, if you want to stir up a little trouble, announce your preference for spare ribs over baby backs. Then wait for it. Boom!
The truth is, they’re both very, very good.
What’s the Difference Between Spare Ribs and Baby Back Ribs?
Back ribs, aka baby back or loin ribs, come from the loin sections that run on either side of the backbone. (They are called “baby” backs because of their diminutive size, not because they come from baby pigs.) An average slab usually weighs between 2 and 2 1/2 pounds and has eight or more bones. They are intrinsically tender, though tend to be more expensive per pound than spare ribs. One slab will serve 1 to 2 people.
Spare ribs—my personal favorite—take a bit more time, but reward the patient pit master with superlative, competition-worthy bones. Cut from the lower part of the rib cage near the belly, they tend to be larger and meatier than baby backs with more marbling. (Remember: Fat = Flavor.)
A full rack of spare ribs, including rib tips—the cartilaginous but meaty bridge between the ribs and the breastbone—typically weighs 3 to 4 pounds and consists of 11 to 13 bones. Expect one slab to feed 2 to 3 people. Oftentimes, butchers trim off the rib tips, the skirt (the small flap of meat on the bone-side), and smaller end bones to create a more rectangular shape. Trimmed this way, the ribs are known as St. Louis-style. You can save money, of course, by trimming them yourself. Barbecue the tips separately (a nice reward for the cook) or use them to flavor beans, collards, or other greens.
Where to Buy Spare Ribs
When sourcing spare ribs, our first choice for you would be heritage breed meat from a local farmer or butcher or a trusted online source like Snake River Farms. But we’ve had good luck at our neighborhood supermarkets, too. When feeding a crowd—not that we’ll be doing that any time soon—you may want to shop at a big box or a food service supplier that also does business with the public.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Spare Ribs?
Next decision—which cooking method should you use?
While baby backs are tender enough to grill directly (making them a good choice for gas grillers) or spit-roast, most people indirect grill them with wood smoke. Due to their intrinsic tenderness and generous marbling, you can indirect grill baby backs at a higher temperature, thereby shortening the overall cooking time.
One formulaic approach that’s been popular for the past few years is the 3-2-1 method. (Read more about it here.) The ribs are smoked for 3 hours at 225 degrees, tightly foiled for 2, then uncovered, sauced, and cooked for an additional hour or so. Ribs cooked this way appeal to the “fall-off-the-bone” crowd, but disappoint anyone (including competition barbecue judges) who prefer their ribs to have a bit of chew. For them, the 2-2-1 method was invented; it eliminates one hour of smoking time.
You can even skip the foil wrap (also called the “Texas Crutch”) and cook the ribs at 225 degrees for 5 to 6 hours, or until they’re done to your liking.
As for me, I’ve come full circle: Not long ago, while thumbing through Steven’s Best Ribs Ever (originally published as Raichlen on Ribs, Ribs, Ribs), I was reminded of all the wonderful bones my family and friends ate in 2005 when we were testing recipes for this terrific book.
And while there were some exceptions, most of the spare ribs were cooked start to finish at 325 degrees—hot and fast, in other words. I’d set up my kettle grill for indirect grilling, load up a rib rack with four slabs of spares (often with four different rubs), throw a couple of handfuls of soaked wood chips on the coals, and replace the lid. After 45 minutes, they got a spritz with a simple mop sauce—apple cider, bourbon, and melted butter was a favorite. Near the end of the cook time (usually 2 to 2 1/2 hours total), I’d paint the ribs with their respective sauces and let them bask in the heat for 10 minutes or so—just long enough to set the sauce. No wrapping required.
The ribs were tender, but not mushy, with great bark.
So there you have it—several disparate cooking methods that prove there’s no right way or wrong way to barbecue one of the most delectable and satisfying parts of the pig. We urge you to try one or more to determine what works for you. In the meantime, here are a few recipes to get you started.
3 Pork Spare Ribs Recipes:
Simple but explicit, this nearly fool-proof recipe will walk you through the steps to rib nirvana, from removing the membrane to making a homemade rub, mop sauce, and finishing sauce.
Here is one of my favorite rib recipes from Project Smoke. Be sure to allow 24 hours for brining, and while you could serve these ribs with any coarse-grained mustard, the Mustard Caviar takes them over the top.
Growing up, ribs were not part of my family’s barbecue repertoire. Understandable, as Dad grilled for many years on a 1950s era grill—the kind with a shallow pan and no lid—good for direct grilling and nothing else. So it was a treat to get Chinese take-out ribs with their sweet-salty flavor profile.