When shopping for ribs, you might have noticed that some are labeled “baby back ribs” while others are called “spare ribs.” Aside from the pricing discrepancy, what are the differences between these two types of ribs?
Baby Back vs Spare Ribs
Baby back or “loin back” ribs come from the upper segment of the rib cage, while spare ribs are cut from the lower portion. As such, baby backs are leaner, often with more meat on top of the rack. Spare ribs are larger, with a higher concentration of fat and therefore more pork flavor.
All About Baby Back Ribs
Baby back ribs have a somewhat misleading name. The “back” part is accurate enough,” but the “baby” designation can be confusing.
These ribs are taken from the upper portion of the rib cage, along the spine. They’re meaty and satisfying, with just enough fat to contribute flavor. Because they’re smaller than spare ribs, they’re usually referred to as “baby back” ribs.
You might also find these ribs labeled as “loin back ribs” or “back ribs.” There’s no difference between these ribs and baby backs—the slabs are all cut from the same area.
A rack of baby back ribs consists of 11 to 13 bones on average and weighs in at around 2 pounds. Because they’re not that large, the ribs cook through relatively fast, although you still want to cook them low and slow to give them the right texture.
All About Spare Ribs
By contrast, spare ribs come from the lower section of the rib cage. They’re larger and fattier than baby backs and have a particularly impressive appearance when they come off the grill.
Since spare ribs are cut from the same region as the meat that’s used to make bacon, it’s not surprising that they’re so rich and flavorful. They’re a popular option for the smoker, as they can easily cook for 6 to 7 hours.
When you look at a rack of spare ribs, you should see a raised ridge along one side, perhaps with cartilage and gristle dangling off the opposite edge. The cartilage marks the spot where the rib cage was connected to the chest.
Per USDA regulations, a slab of spare ribs has to include at least 11 rib bones. Most of the meat is located in between the bones, unlike with baby backs, which have more meat on top of the rack.
When butchers trim away the breastbone and cartilage, the rack attains a more uniform rectangular shape. At this point, they become “St. Louis-style” ribs, and they’ll cook more evenly and brown up better than their untrimmed counterparts.
Baby Back vs Spare Ribs: The Breakdown
Now that we’ve covered the basics, what are the specific differences between these two delicacies? Let’s take a closer look.
One of the first things you’ll notice when comparing baby back ribs to spare ribs are the price tags. Baby backs are notoriously more expensive than spare ribs, perhaps owing to their leaner texture and attractive appearance.
If your budget is a primary concern, consider adding spare ribs to your shopping list instead of baby backs. You and your guests should be just as pleased with the results, assuming you’ve bought enough to feed everybody.
While I’m on the subject, I should point out that you can plan on serving fewer spare ribs per person than you would baby back ribs.
Since spare ribs are so much bigger, you should be able to get away with serving 2 to 3 per person. By contrast, even a person with a smaller appetite should be able to consume 4 to 5 baby back ribs in one sitting.
When you’re making your estimates, be sure to consider other factors such as the time of the gathering, the age of your guests, and how many sides you’re planning to serve. You should also think about whether you want to have any ribs left over after the party.
Spare ribs and baby backs are both delicious, so it’s tough to make a judgment call here. It all comes down to what you’re in the mood for.
Do you want a rich, meaty rib with a ton of pork flavor? Or are you hoping for a leaner texture and a shorter cooking time (see below)? If it’s the former, spare ribs are your best bet. Baby backs, meanwhile, will be easier for guests to manage.
It stands to reason that baby back ribs would take less time to cook than spare ribs. In addition to having leaner meat, the racks are smaller, which means they’ll reach the ideal internal temperature faster.
I’ve found that smoking baby back ribs using the 2-2-1 method yields great results. This means wrapping the ribs after the first 2 hours on the smoker, letting them cook for another 2 hours, then removing the wrapper for the final hour of the smoke.
Spare ribs, on the other hand, benefit more from the 3-2-1 method. They’ll spend an extra hour on the smoker before you wrap them, giving the fat more time to render. Here’s a video demonstration of the technique:
Does it matter whether you’re planning to slather the ribs in sauce or stick with a simple spice rub? Not really. Both types of ribs can hold up to bold seasonings, and the sauce debate is one that will continue to rage no matter what’s on the grill.
Whether you’re smoking baby backs or spare ribs, the internal temperature should reach 195 degrees before you take the rack off the heat. Try not to cook them past the 205-degree mark, as they might become leathery and dry.
Due to their higher fat content, spare ribs are more forgiving than baby backs when they’re overcooked. But I would still recommend taking them off the smoker at 195 degrees, then letting them rest for 10 to 15 minutes prior to serving.
Which Ribs Should You Buy?
If money is no object, then it’s purely a matter of personal preference. I love both types of ribs and prepare both as often as possible. But if you’re watching your budget, spare ribs are probably your best bet.
Instead of worrying about baby back vs spare ribs, pay attention to the quality of the rack. No matter which one you choose, the rack should have plenty of marbling and vibrant pink or reddish hues. Also, look for an even thickness—if the rack is too thin on one end, the meat will overcook in that spot while remaining underdone on the other.
Also, make sure the meat covers the bones as much as possible. Overly exposed bones might fall out before the meat is finished cooking, leaving you with a pile of pulled pork instead of ribs.
The Bottom Line
While it’s important to understand the difference between baby backs and spare ribs, you can easily substitute one for the other in recipes. The only thing you need to remember is that spare ribs will take longer to reach the ideal temperature due to their larger size.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!