Is the thought of buying pork ribs a daunting task? Do you feel unable to even start, because you have heard people talk about all the different types of ribs, and you are not sure which type to purchase? Are you skeptical about buying “fresh” or frozen ribs? Or, are you unsure about whether they should be lean or have fat on them? Read on for some tips to ease your fears and get you started on smoking some truly great ribs.
TYPES OF RIBS
When you are buying pork ribs or looking up recipes for them, you will see many terms used. For example, you may see baby back ribs, baby backs, Canadian back ribs, pork loin back ribs, back ribs, or loin ribs. Also, there are spareribs, spares, St. Louis cut ribs, Kansas City cut ribs, SLC, or barbecue cut. I am sure that there are others that I have missed.
At its most basic, there are two kinds of pork ribs sold. This is based on the fact that the ribs of the pig are cut in to two different sections. I will refer to them as either baby back ribs or spareribs, which I think are most common terms for the two kinds of ribs.
Depending on the breed, pigs have either 15 or 16 ribs coming off the spine. The section closest to the spine that presses up to the pork loin are the baby back ribs. Farther down, the ribs press up against the pork belly. These are the spareribs. The diagram below shows the “Loin” (pork loin) and “Belly” (pork belly) sections and the ribs contained within.
The other “major” category are St. Louis-style ribs. St. Louis-style ribs are simply spareribs that have had sternum bone, cartilage, and rib tips cut off. The shape is almost rectangular.
This is all you need to know.
When I buy ribs, I look for slabs (or racks) that are marbled. I do not buy ribs that look lean. I also buy ribs that are in the vacuumed packaging from the processor:
Lastly, I buy ribs when they are on sale and freeze them. The best sales are around holidays associated with grilling and barbecuing, such as Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day. That said, I have also noticed that retailers put ribs on sale around holidays that are not associated with grilling or barbecuing. By me, that includes Christmas.
One store near me, Jewel, has buy one get two (or even three) free around Memorial Day every year. A sign near the ribs advertises that the ribs were “previously frozen.” I buy several slabs of those ribs and freeze them. The USDA says it is perfectly fine to refreeze meat. You may experience some moisture loss, but, personally, I have never noticed a difference. This is probably due to the fact that the ribs have been vacuum sealed since they left the processor. This is unlike buying ribs from a butcher, where the ribs have been removed from the packaging and are sitting in a display case. (Note: The ribs in the butcher’s display case also came frozen from a processor and vacuum sealed. They have been thawed, taken out of the packaging, and displayed by the butcher. You can decide for yourself which are “fresher.”)
A WORD ABOUT BRINING
Should you brine ribs? Yes and no.
The ribs I buy on sale from Jewel are “enhanced.” That means that water, salt, and sodium phosphate have been added so the ribs won’t dry out as easily when they are cooked. Butterball has used this same process on turkeys for 50 years.
Why is pork “enhanced?” Years ago, pigs were raised as much for their lard as for their meat. But, when lard fell out of favor as a cooking fat, farmers bred and raised pigs to have less lard. This resulted in leaner meat, which, in turn, caused the meat to dry out faster when cooked. To combat this, the processor brines the pork for you. If you brine “enhanced” pork, it will be too salty. Therefore, do not brine pork if it is enhanced. (Note: I only buy enhanced pork that has added water, salt, and sodium phosphate. I do not buy pork where spices have been added. I can do that myself.) If the ribs are “natural,” meaning not “enhanced,” I will brine them so that they will not dry out during the cook. Brining ribs will be included in a future recipe using natural ribs.