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Styles of Ribs

There are two basic cuts of ribs from different parts of the pig Baby Back aka Loin Back ribs and Spare ribs.  Small under 1.3 lbs Loin Back ribs are baby Back ribs.  Back backs are are leaner, tender and have a milder flavor comparable to Beef Filet Mignon.  Spare Ribs have a more robust flavor comparable to a Beef Ribeye.  It's easy to buy whole spareribs and trim them St. Louis style yourself.  All you need is a sharp knife to trim spare ribs into St. Louis ribs.  Spare ribs can be just as lean and tender as Baby Backs when cooked right.  The vast majority of our cooking school students prefer Spare ribs in side by side taste offs.  The Back ribs are more curved and are cut from the area closer to the spine.  The Spare ribs are flatter and come from the stomach area. The only thing that separates back ribs from spare ribs is a cut made by a band saw.  Butchers will run a pork shoulder also known as a Boston Butt through a band saw and call them country style ribs.  Some competition cooks have great success with Baby Back Ribs which cook faster than Spare Ribs.  Both styles of pork ribs win competitions.  All our awards have been won with BBQ Spare ribs.

Our Award Winning
How to trim St. Louis Style Ribs from a full rack of Pork Spare Ribs

The instructions that follow show a full "Packer Cut" rack of spare ribs that has been trimmed to St. Louis style.  It's easy to buy whole spareribs and trim them St. Louis style yourself.  We prefer to buy packer cut ribs and trim them ourselves.  That gives us better control of the finished product and rib tips make for some excellent eating.  We only buy fresh pork that does not have "solution added".  The best prices and selection is normally found at the big warehouse stores or a meat wholesaler. We normally buy Swift or IBP which is owned by Tyson, brand ribs and win contests with them.  We find no advantage to using a butcher.

Pork ribs normally come sized over 4 pounds or under.  We prefer the smaller size that comes 3 packer cut or 4 St. Louis trimmed racks to a vacuum package.  Raw vacuum packed pork freezes just fine and I often buy a case and freeze the ribs I'm not cooking right away.  We have won many awards with frozen pork.

If your not competing and you want your ribs to fall of the bone as a pile of meat and bones, remove both membranes and cook the last hour or two wrapped in foil to an internal temp of 200°f~205°f and open the foil over the serving platter so the meat can fall out. 

Click on the pictures for a larger version

First remove the outer membrane, if you remove the second inner membrane the bones will fall out. In this picture the outer membrane has been removed from the right three ribs and the second is in place.  Start the first membrane by scrapping the corner (lower right in this picture) with your thumb nail.  The membrane is very slippery and a paper towel makes gripping it way easier as you pull it off.

This little flap under the knife blade is the skirt aka diaphragm and it needs to be trimmed off

Skirt removed and the flap from the narrow end with no bones in it removed. 
All these trimmings are seasoned and cooked as "Tasters"

This is the trimming into St. Louis ribs.  This little surplus flap (top left picture) needs to be removed for even thickness and therefore even cooking

The flap from the above picture removed and the rib tips removed.  I scribe a line with my fingers where the bones end and the use a sharp Chef's knife to cut along the indent from my finger.  You don't need a saw or a clever to cut through the cartilage. You will have some fat sitting on the ribs it will scrape off with a spoon and that is recommended. Don't go nuts with a knife,  just what will scrape off with a blunt old spoon.

A very thin translucent layer of mustard is applied, the less the better.  We prefer a spicy brown deli style of mustard.  My wife does not like mustard and can not taste any mustard after I'm done cooking.  The mustard does contribute to the final flavor just not a mustard flavor.  The Rub is applied like a heavy layer of "salt n' pepper" although only rub is used.  If you are making your own rub or buying commercial rub you can experiment with the cut off tasters to try the various rubs. Stick different number of toothpicks in each piece of meat and right down which number of toothpicks corresponds to which rub so when you are down cooking it will still all make sense.

Low and Slow in the Pit with lots of  "Tasters".  Opening the lid as little as possible is better and when you do use a spray bottle with apple juice to baste.  Cook between 200°f and 250°f with 225°~235°f being the target.  Hotter temps (235°f) with ribs seem to keep them moister than cooler (200°f).  Temperature is at the cooking grate not the top of the dome or barrel in an offset where some manufacturers put thermometers.  Up high tells you nothing about the temperature where the meat is. Wood smoke should not be visible or a thin blue trail.  Ribs are cooked bone down the whole time.  I move ribs around in my offset to get cooking every two hours in between leave the lid closed.  In a Weber Bullet you do not need to move them around leave the lid closed.  To increase capacity I use rib racks.  For the Bullet the Weber rack is OK, the best rack for a all pits is made by Dave Klose from stainless steel.  In a pit that is not tuned at the factory to run within 3°f top to bottom and left to right I rotate the ribs hourly spinning the rack 180° one hour and the ribs end over end the next hour.  In a tuned pit or a Weber Bullet I just leave them alone the fat trimmed end up and spray with apple juice hourly.

click to enlarge

Peeking is BAD! It lets the heat out.

They are done when a toothpick goes between the bones like it's going through butter.  Time can vary from 4 hours if your smoker is running hotter than you think to 6 to 7 hours.  Time is a tool, not a rule.  We have sliced off one rib per half hour towards the end as a learning experience.  While the meat was cooked at 4 hours it was far more tender at the 6 to 7 hour mark.  This was in a Klose pit with a thermometer mounted at grate level.  The thermometer had been in boiling water to check calibration at 212°f (adjust reading lower if you are above sea level). Only add sauce at the end.  First layer of sauce is painted on 20 minutes before removal and the 2nd layer 10 minutes before removal.  There is so much sugar in sauce it will turned to black carbon if applied early.  For clean slicing place on a cutting board and slice bones up so you can see where the middle is between ribs.  Some folks start carving at the end some in the middle.  A very sharp 12" slicer knife is highly recommended.

How to Cook Barbecue Baby Back Ribs

Back Ribs in a Klose rack on a WSM

Now that you know how to cook barbeque spare ribs mastering baby back ribs is a breeze. 

Baby back ribs are the filet mignon of pork ribs.  The trick is find baby back ribs that have not had the meat on top of the ribs trimmed off by a butcher.  The worst ribs I've ever had were at the Pickled Parrot in Minneapolis.  The only meat was dry and between the bones, there was not a scrap of meat on top of the ribs.  The best place to find good baby backs is at the large warehouse stores and at meat wholesalers.  Baby back ribs also know as loin back ribs.  The technical difference between baby back ribs and loin back ribs is blurred to the point of redundancy in modern usage.  We normally buy Swift or IBP (which is owned by Tyson) brand ribs.  Almost our awards have been won with these two brands.

Just as beef filet mignon does not have a lot of flavor, pork back ribs do not a lot of flavor.  To get the most out of them a marinade is a really good idea and mopping also helps.

Prep is much simpler than for spare ribs.  Remove the outer membrane as detail above and your done.  Then you can get on to the marinade, mustard, rubs and mops.  One very successful method of cooking baby back ribs is 2-2-1. The times are approximate.  Lower weight or higher cooking temperatures will shorten the time required.  Two hours at 225ºf to 275ºf with smoke to form a nice crust and get the smoke into the ribs. Two hours in foil to tenderize the ribs.  One hour to firm up the crust.  Add BBQ sauce at the very end of the final hour.

Award Winning "How to Barbecue" Ribs Cooking Tips:

  • BBQ It's about the rub.  Great BBQ tastes great without sauce.  The sauce is the finishing touch.

  • Buy pure meat nothing added. Certain percentage of anything added such as brine or salt water is not desirable.

  • Remove the first membrane on the back side of ribs.

  • Apply a BBQ spice "Rub" not more than 2 hours before cooking.

  • Use wood smoke.  Be very careful with oak and mesquite they can easily. overpower pork ribs.  You only want thin blue smoke coming from your smoker, not thick white smoke. Cherry is our favorite choice for ribs.

  • Cook the meat with indirect heat, not directly over the charcoal or propane burner.

  • The meat is done when a toothpick goes throw the meat like it was warm butter. Internal Temperature will be 190°f to 200°f .

  • Don't sauce until the ribs are cooked, apply one or two coats of sauce in the last 15 to 30 minutes on the cooker.  For a sweeter glaze add some honey to you BBQ sauce.

How to BBQ Ribs so they are falling off the bone tender

The secret of how to barbecue ribs until they are falling of the bone tender is foil.  Cook the ribs until they have a nice crust. Wrap in foil with a little apple juice and cook to 200f internal temp.  They will be cooked and falling apart tender.  If you want to sauce your ribs roll back the foil but leave it under the rack for support, sauce and put back with indirect heat for 15 minutes.

BBQ Do's BBQ Don'ts
Use a dry rub
for no more than 2 hours before cooking
Don't use Lighter Fluid
Cook Low & Slow or Indirect Don't use match light charcoal
Use the oven if your grill won't cook
low and slow to finish after
getting a nice crust
Don't boil your meat
(you are making stock and the flavor is in the water)
Marinate for flavor Don't put sauce on the meat Before Cooking
Use a light coat of mustard
before applying the rub for a more complex flavor.
Don't guess if the meat is done, use a thermometer
Use a charcoal chimney Don't tell people burnt is perfect caramelization
Sauce only for the last 15-30
minutes once the meat is cooked and tender
Don't Cook Tofu
Use an internal thermometer
for food safety
Don't believe that there is only one way to
cook great BBQ

Rib Success:

  • Both our Montana State Championships were won with 1st place Pork (Spare) Rib wins.

  • Our Nebraska State Championship was won with a true perfect "180" Rib score where all six judges gave us perfect scores. When combined with our Pork shoulder score we also brought home the "Best of Pork" award.

  • Our first visit to the American Royal Invitational World Championship in Kansas city cooking against the best of the best had "walking" for a 10th place ribbon.

1st Place Ribs Montana State BBQ Championship 2002
1st Place Ribs Montana State BBQ Championship 2003
Perfect 180 Ribs Nebraska State BBQ Championship 2003
"Best of Pork" Nebraska State BBQ Championship 2003
1st Place Ribs, Evergreen (WA) State Fair, 2004
2nd Place Ribs, "Cruzin' to Colby" -
Washington State Championship 2004
2nd Place Ribs, Factoria BBQ Championship 2003
2nd Place Ribs, St. Paul BBQ Championship 2002
3rd Place Ribs, Washington’s Best Chicken & Ribs Championship 2002
3rd Place Ribs, Olympia Tournament of Champions 2002
3rd Place Ribs, “Big Chill” BBQ Championship, Lake Tahoe 2003
More Awards Here

Related Pages
BBQ Secrets | Charcoal | Smoker Mods | BBQ Tips

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Last Updated 11/05/2012