Difference Between Baby Back and Spare Ribs
Ribs are a cut of meat, typically pork, that is common in North American and Asian dishes. They are typically prepared by smoking, grilling or baking.[i] Often, though, you will see selection indicating that the ribs are either baby back ribs or spare ribs, which leads to the question of what is different between the two types? There are several key differences between both types of ribs.
Region of origin
Baby back ribs and spare ribs come from different regions of the pig. Baby back ribs are taking from the top of the ribcage, starting between the spine and extending to the point where spare ribs begin, below the loin. For this reason, they are sometimes called back ribs or loin ribs or pork loin back ribs. Spare ribs, on the other hand, start at the side of the belly where the baby back ribs end and extend to the breast bone. They are sometimes called sideribs.[ii]
Since baby back ribs start at the spine, they typically are quite short with the shortest only measuring about 3 inches. The longest baby back ribs are about 6 inches though these measurements depend upon the size of the pig. They also taper with the shape of the pig’s rib cage and are curved. Spare ribs are substantially larger than the baby back ribs. They are flatter and usually contain more bone than meat, but they can also have a higher fat content.[iii] If you purchase a full rack of spare ribs, it typically weights several pounds at least and would include the tips. However, it is common to have ribs trimmed St. Louis style, which removes the tips.[iv] In this instance, the rack would be smaller, but the bones would still typically be as long, or longer than the baby back rib bones. In order to serve the same amount of baby back ribs as spare ribs, you would generally have to have about 1.5 times the amount of baby back ribs. A rack of baby back ribs typically weighs approximately 1.5 to 2 pounds[v] while a rack of spare ribs generally weighs around six pounds.[vi]
Quality of meat
Baby back ribs are removed from the loin, meaning that they are essentially the same texture and consistency as a pork chop. They have less fat than the spare ribs and more meat, making them naturally more tender. The spare ribs are mostly bone, with some mean and quite a bit of fat too. This typically makes the rib tougher than a baby back rib would be.
Best method for cooking
There are many different ways to prepare any type of rib. Some of the most common are boiling, braising, baking, smoking and grilling. And generally speaking, both baby back and spare ribs benefit from slow cooking at a lower temperature as faster methods usually lead to a tougher outcome. One of the more common methods is called the 3-2-1 method and requires smoking the ribs for 3 hours at a temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit, then wrapping it in foil, adding some liquid and cooking it for two hours. Finally, for the last hour, the rib should be unwrapped and cooked at a slightly higher temperature while basting it often. This typically leads to a very tender rib. Since the spare rib is generally much tougher than a baby back rib is, it usually takes much longer to cook in order to get it to a very tender state, so while decreasing the amount of cooking time for a baby back rib will not necessarily affect the tenderness, doing so with a spare rib is not advised.[vii]
Since the baby back rib is generally meatier and more tender, the price is usually quite a bit higher too. Baby back ribs are usually sold at a price between $3 and $7 per pound, although this can go up for specialty ribs, organic meat or ribs that are pre-marinated or seasoned. The price for spare ribs is usually much lower because, remember, they are mostly bone and fat. Untrimmed spare ribs with the rib tips left on can sell for as little as $1.50 per pound, but the average price is usually somewhere around $3.50 per pound.[viii]
Distinction from other cuts
As you can see, there is a clear distinction between baby back ribs and spare ribs, however, there are other cuts with similar names that should also be mentioned in order to avoid additional confusion. Button ribs come from the last six bones in the backbone and do not actually contain any rib bones at all and are not taken from the rib cage. They are located at the sirloin end of the loin. Country-style ribs are from the blade end if the loin near the pork shoulder. There are no rib bones, but there are parts of the shoulder blade. A rib roast is a whole pork loin with the back ribs attached. Rib chops are pork steaks that include a back rib bone and have the loin meat attached.[ix]
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[i] Pork ribs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pork_ribs
[ii] Pork ribs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pork_ribs
[iii] Pork ribs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pork_ribs
[iv] Ribs 101: What to buy and how to cook them. (n.d.). On The Nest. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from https://www.thenest.com/content/difference-between-spare-ribs-and-baby-back
[v] What’s the difference between baby back ribs and spareribs? (n.d.). On kitchn. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-between-baby-back-ribs-and-st-louis-ribs-meat-basics-219386
[vi] Rush, C. (2016, June 29). “A guide to the best baby back ribs and spare ribs.” On Chowhound. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from http://www.chowhound.com/food-news/164955/rib-101-your-guide-to-the-best-baby-back-ribs-and-spare-ribs/
[vii] Rush, C. (2016, June 29). “A guide to the best baby back ribs and spare ribs.” On Chowhound. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from http://www.chowhound.com/food-news/164955/rib-101-your-guide-to-the-best-baby-back-ribs-and-spare-ribs/
[viii] Rush, C. (2016, June 29). “A guide to the best baby back ribs and spare ribs.” On Chowhound. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from http://www.chowhound.com/food-news/164955/rib-101-your-guide-to-the-best-baby-back-ribs-and-spare-ribs/
[ix] Pork ribs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pork_ribs