Sunday, August 14, 2011

What are Spare Ribs vs. St Louis Style Ribs?

By Dru Chai

There's something ultra-carnivorous about eating ribs. You pick it up with your hands, tear into the meat, and let out a primal scream (or grunt) of approval. It's lip smacking, finger-licking, downright delicious to finish off an entire rack of ribs. By far, ribs is my favorite type of BBQ -- whether it's baby back ribs, spare ribs, or those dinosaur-sized beef ribs.

"Boil rice, not ribs"

However, I've eaten some bad ribs during my time, and vow never to go through that experience ever again. If you've never had bad ribs before, consider yourself lucky. Bad ribs are either mushy in texture, non-smoked, dry and flavorless, or drenched with too much generic-tasting BBQ sauce. Bad ribs are simply boiled in water, or thrown into the oven. Words to live by:

"Boil rice, not ribs."

What is the difference between baby back ribs vs. spare ribs?

It wasn't long ago, that I had no idea what the difference was between baby back and spare ribs. It all depends on the location where they come from on the pig. Baby back ribs are from the back loin. The bones are smaller in width and length, and meat is more lean and tender. So they're more popular, plus don't forget those annoying commercials.

On the other hand, I think of spare ribs as the bigger brother of the smaller baby back ribs. They are taken from the belly side of the rib cage, so spare ribs are bigger and tougher, with more meat on the bones. It is for these reasons, that I think spare ribs are perfect for cooking low and slow on the Weber Smokey Mountain. "I want my SPARE back, SPARE back, SPARE back..." just doesn't have the same ring to it though.

Costco spare ribs, $2.99 per lb
St Louis cut ribs -- remove skirt flap, trim the rib tips

Recently, I just felt like smoking some ribs, so I made a trip to Costco and bought $24 worth of spare ribs. At $2.99 per pound, I got 2 full racks of spare ribs, with each rack weighing a little over 4 pounds. It may seem like a lot of meat, but remember it will shrink down after hours of smoking. Spare ribs are usually trimmed St. Louis style before hitting the smoker.

What are St. Louis style ribs?

St. Louis style ribs are just spare ribs cut and trimmed into a rectangular shape, so that it resembles baby back ribs in appearance. The rib tips and skirt flaps are removed. You can have your butcher do it for you, or sometimes you can buy it St. Louis style already. But if not, it's easy to do it yourself. There are plenty of how-to videos online, but here's a good one. For the one I bought from Costco, I simply used a sharp knife and trimmed it myself.

I made my own rub for the ribs. It's simple and straightforward with the following ingredients:

- Seasoned salt
- Ground black pepper
- Brown sugar
- White sugar
- Garlic powder
- Paprika
- Other secret spices

The end result was some pretty darn good ribs. I love how the spare ribs are so meaty, and it was tender, smoky, and juicy at the same time. The meat came clean off the bone. Though if I were a BBQ competition judge, I would want a better bark on the outside of the ribs. Practice makes perfect, right? But for now, these ribs were better than any chain restaurant could ever produce.