In preparation for my Rib Class in March, I'll be focusing on rib basics for the Barbecue 101 series. If you are new to the blog, I have a series of posts for newbies to barbecue. If you ever have a question, or would like a topic covered, please ask.
Most people, when asked what their favorite cut of ribs is, will answer "baby back ribs." I think ad campaigns from companies like Chili's have more to do with this than actual knowlege of rib cuts. Just by mentioning Chili's, I'm singing while writing this post, "Gotta get me some baby back baby back baby back ribs!"
When I'm asked what my favorite rib cut is, I say, "it depends." Before I expand on that, let's lay out the three basic cuts of ribs.
Baby Back Ribs (bottom in pic): The smaller back ribs from the top of the back rib cage.
Spareribs (top in pic): Taken from the large front ribs. A rack of spareribs is one side of the chest ribs.
St. Louis cut (center in pic): This is a tightly trimmed sparerib. The tapered tip is trimmed off, the upper section that includes bone and cartiledge from the sternum is removed, and the fat flap at the other end is removed.
I like each cut for different reasons. At Smokin' Pete's BBQ, we smoke spareribs. Big and meaty, they satisfy that need to chomp into meat on the bone. They also don't dry out as quickly and can "hold" their temperature better, which is very key in our business. Barbecue restaurants must always keep just ahead of the demand. If too many ribs are ready, then they will get overcooked or dried out before consumed. If you fall behind, you are out of something on the menu.
If I were out there on the competition circuit, I'd choose the St. Louis cut. More manageable to eat, they are also more consistent across the rack. The individual ribs on a sparerib rack vary in size and texture; the tip ribs are small and angle away, and at the other end the last big bones have a fat connector that cuts the meat in half. It's all tasty, but if you are turning in a competition "box", you want all six judges to have the same experience.
St. Louis cut ribs are 2-3 times more expensive than the larger spareribs, but if you want to impress some barbecue lovin' guests, serve these.
Baby backs, to me, are the party ribs. They are the original finger food. While I tend to want my spareribs smoked with a simple rub, sauce on the side, I get creative with mops and finishing sauces on babybacks. That tender meat tastes good dressed up, and is best served hot off the grill.