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Baby Back Ribs vs. SpareRibs: What’s the Difference?
There are two basic cuts of pork ribs:
- Baby back or loin ribs are taken from the upper portion of the rib cage that connects to the spine. Baby backs tend to have shorter bones and leaner meat, while spares are typically fattier for juicy meat.
- Spare ribs come from the lower portion around the belly and sternum. If you’ve ever had St. Louis-or Kansas City-style ribs, those are spare ribs that are trimmed in a specific way. Riblets and rib tips also come from spare ribs.
How to Buy Good Spare Ribs
When shopping for spare ribs, look for a rack with a good amount of white fat and red-pink meat. Avoid ribs that look dry or gray. If you see any exposed bones on the surface of the meat, pass on those as well. The exposed bones are known as shiners and they’re the result of bad butchering.
Aaron’s recommendation is to buy the most natural product you can find. Avoid “enhanced” pork that has been injected with salt water and other additives. Not only does salt water give you less control over flavor, it makes the ribs heavier and thus more expensive. Also note that an excessive amount of blood in the packaging is a sign that the ribs were previously frozen.
How to Trim Spare Ribs
First things first, acquaint yourself with the rack of ribs. Lay the rack parallel to the bottom edge of your cutting board and identify the “top” and “bottom” edges. The top of the ribs should be more or less a straight line, whereas the bottom edge will have more of a curve, this is where the ribs connect to the sternum and belly.
The presentation side of the ribs (the “outside”) will be the side that looks cleaner and meatier.The “inside” of the ribs is where you’ll find the skirt, the silverskin, and more pockets of fat.
Trimming a rack of ribs involves cutting through tough cartilage, so Aaron uses a sturdy 10-inch
chef’s knife rather than the lighter boning knife he uses when trimming brisket. You’ll want to trim the following:
- Sternum (also known as the breastbone). Not only is it tough to eat, it’s going to get in the way later when you’re feeling around the ribs to check for tenderness. Cut the sternum off at an angle, then clean the bottom edge with a thin slice along the bottom length of the ribs, removing any stray bits of flesh and cartilage and leaving a smooth, slightly curved edge. Finish this part of the trim by rounding off the far end of the rack opposite the sternum, so that it has a clean, aerodynamic shape. This is essentially a more conservative version of the trim used for St. Louis-style ribs, which end up looking more rectangular.
- Silverskin. The silverskin is a thin white membrane located on the “inside” of a rack of ribs. Lots of people remove it, but Aaron personally likes to leave it on, as it doesn’t actually get in the way of the ribs taking on flavor. Whether you leave it on or not is totally up to you.
- Skirt. Also on the inside of the ribs is a diagonal flap of meat known as the skirt. Sometimes butchers remove it in advance, but if it’s still attached, go ahead and trim it off. The skirt is actually a good piece of meat, so do try to find a use for it. For instance, you could easily toss it into a batch of sausage or a pot of beans.
- Anything weird. Feel all around the rack of ribs for any stray pieces of bone or cartilage that might have been chipped off during butchering, and remove them with your fingers. You might also find random pieces of connective tissue still attached to the ribs that you can cut off as well. If it seems like the rack is excessively fatty, you can trim some of that, too, but only do so if you’re confident it’s for the greater good.
Slather and Rub: How to Season Pork Ribs
A single rack of ribs will need about ½ cup of seasoning. Since ribs are a thinner cut of meat than pork butt and brisket, Aaron goes with a dry rub that’s heavier on ground black pepper than salt. A 2:1 ratio with a small amount of paprika for color is Aaron’s recommendation. Go light with the slather on the meatier side of the ribs—the texture should be tacky rather than wet—and a little heavier with both the slather and the dry rub on the fattier portions, as the extra stickiness will help the smoke adhere and give the ribs a more uniform flavor.
The “outside” of the ribs is your presentation side, so apply the slather and rub to the “inside” first. As always, use one hand to move and slather the meat, and the other to pat the rub. Slather with mustard or hot sauce, then shake or sprinkle on the rub. Moving from side to side, parallel to the rib bones, distribute the rub in an even layer along the length of the rack, then flip it over to the presentation side and repeat. Allow the ribs to rest at room temperature while you build your fire and get the smoker up to temp.
How Long to Smoke Pork Ribs
It takes about 6 hours to smoke a rack of pork spare ribs. Some pitmasters will do what’s called a “3-2-1” with their spare-rib cooks: 3 hours on, 2 hours wrapped, and 1 hour unwrapped. Aaron follows more of a “3-3” game plan, leaving the ribs wrapped for the whole second half of cooking for the best ribs.
Aaron Franklin’s Smoked Pork Spare Ribs Recipe
- Once your smoker has reached a consistent temperature of 265 to 270°F and you’re producing clean smoke, place the ribs in the cooking chamber with the thickest part closest to the fire. Check the meat at the end of the first and second hours, spritzing the edges with water, beer, or apple cider vinegar as needed to cool them off and keep them moist. If at any point during the first three hours of your cook, it looks like the fat in your ribs is starting to render, reduce your cooking temperature. The strategy is to have the fat render only after the ribs are wrapped, so it can emulsify with your barbecue sauce.
- After the second hour of cooking, combine equal parts warm barbecue sauce and apple cider vinegar in a squeeze bottle and shake thoroughly. Mixing the two will make the sauce thinner and reduce the overall amount of sugar (which is liable to burn in the smoker). Two and a half hours into the cook, spritz the rack of ribs thoroughly so the surface is wet to the touch. Squeeze the diluted barbecue sauce on top of the ribs in an even layer parallel to the bone side, in the same way you distributed the rub. With your hand, work the sauce around the sides and surface of the ribs until the entire presentation side is coated. Give it one more light spritz, then close the lid and allow the sauce to set for approximately 10 minutes. Flip the ribs over and repeat the saucing process on the other side.
- After the sauce has had a chance to set on the non-presentation side of your ribs—about 10 minutes more—remove the rack from the smoker. Be sure to use your hands for this rather than a pair of tongs, as the jagged metal could cut into the ribs as you move them. A trick Aaron recommends is spritzing your hands to cool the skin before you touch the ribs, though you could also pick up the ribs with a paper towel. This is the last time you’re going to see the ribs before they’re finished, so give the rack a thorough once-over before you wrap. You might notice little chunks of bone have started to emerge as the meat has shrunk—pull those out if you can so they don’t puncture the foil when you wrap. Also note if the meat feels too dry or the sauce is starting to burn. If so, consider lowering the heat in your smoker for the final stages.
- Return the wrapped ribs to the smoker with the seam of the foil facing up and cook for three more hours at 265–270°F.
- After the final three hours on the smoker, remove the ribs and set them on your workstation with the seam of the foil facing up. Feel around the sternum for the third rib bone. If the meat around the bone feels soft and pliable, that’s a good indication that your ribs are done. Allow the ribs to rest in the foil for about 30 to 40 minutes.
How to Serve Smoked BBQ Pork Ribs
Unwrap the aluminum foil, being careful not to spill any juices. With the bottom of the ribs and sternum facing away from you, grab the far end of the foil and lift it up, flipping the ribs toward you. The ribs should land presentation side up on your cutting board with the juices pouring on top. With a chef’s knife, slice the ribs in between each bone and serve.
Franklin received the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2015. His popular and critically lauded Southern restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, was awarded Texas Monthly’s coveted Best Barbecue Joint in Texas, and Bon Appetit’s Best Barbecue Joint in America.
Learn more Texas barbeque recipes and techniques in Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass.