To a beginner, all pork ribs look about the same. To a seasoned grilling aficionado, meanwhile, the difference between them is obvious. In fact, the more you learn about the various types of pork ribs, the easier it is to choose between them. Our baby back vs St Louis ribs matchup will help you decide which one should star at your next barbecue.
Baby Back vs St Louis Ribs
Baby back ribs contain the meat that gets left behind after the butcher has removed the pork loin from the carcass. St. Louis style ribs, which are spare ribs that have been trimmed to give them a more uniform shape, come from the belly of the hog.
A Word About Pork Ribs
Before we begin, here’s a brief overview of the various types of pork ribs.
There are four basic types: baby back ribs, spare ribs, St. Louis ribs, and rib tips. Baby backs come from the top of the rib cage, while rib tips consist mostly of the fat and cartilage that hangs around the belly section. Spare ribs and St. Louis ribs–which are basically the same cut, as you’ll come to learn–take up residence somewhere in the middle.
About Baby Back Ribs
Even if you enjoy eating them, you still might not know that baby back ribs aren’t actually made from the bones of baby pigs. This is a common misconception. In fact, the ribs are called “baby backs” because of their small size, not because they come from piglets.
As the name suggests, baby back ribs come from the upper section of the ribcage, where the ribs meet the spine. The butcher makes this cut after removing the loin, which is why the rib meat is so tender.
If the ribs are on the larger side, they might be labeled simply as “back ribs.” In any case, they tend to be smaller than the spare ribs, which is the real reason for the “baby” designation.
When you buy a rack of baby backs, you’ll usually get 10 to 13 ribs. Pigs have 15 to 16 ribs, depending on the breed. When the butcher is dividing up the carcass, however, a few of the bones get left behind. If the rack contains fewer than 10 ribs, it’s known as a “cheater rack.”
A slab of baby back ribs is wider on one side than the other, with the longer bones measuring about 6 inches and the shorter ones topping out at around 3 inches.
The bones on a rack of baby backs are curved, so it can be tricky to cook them over direct heat. That’s one of the reasons why we recommend indirect cooking methods–such as smoking–when it comes to preparing baby back ribs.
About St Louis Ribs
St. Louis ribs are spare ribs that have been trimmed to remove the triangular hank of cartilage that usually hangs off the end. Because the spare ribs come from the lower part of the ribcage, the meat is fattier and more flavorful than back ribs. The bones are also flatter, so the surface browns more easily.
Why do butchers bother to remove the cartilage? In a word: presentation. St. Louis ribs are much more appealing on a visual level, which makes them a popular choice for pitmasters on the competition circuit. It can also be daunting for beginners to deal with all that connective tissue, even if they prefer spare ribs to baby backs.
Baby Back vs St Louis Ribs: A Breakdown
Baby back ribs are a very popular cut of meat. As such, they’re easy to find in the meat section of most supermarkets. You can also ask your butcher to make a special order for you, especially if you’re hoping to support local farmers.
St. Louis ribs might not be as well-known as baby backs, but they’re not that difficult to find, either. If you have any trouble locating them on supermarket shelves, ask an associate if they’re available at the meat counter. As an alternative, you can go to a specialty butcher shop, where you’re bound to have more luck.
If cost is a major factor in your decision, you might want to seek out St. Louis style spare ribs. Because baby back ribs are so popular, they’re usually set at a higher price. If you opt for regular spare ribs over the trimmed version, you can expect to pay even less.
As we pointed out, the meat on baby back ribs tends to be leaner than you might expect from a bone-in cut. As such, it can dry out easily on the grill if you’re not careful.
Because St Louis ribs come from the belly of the hog, the meat contains a higher concentration of fat. As long as they’re prepared correctly, however, the meat will come out perfectly tender, pulling away from the bone at the slightest touch.
Although lean meat has its strong points, flavor isn’t one of them. Back ribs don’t have the same strong pork flavor as spare ribs, owing to the fact that there’s less fat on the bone. That’s why they’re so often slathered with barbecue sauce when they crop up on restaurant menus.
It’s not necessary to over-season St. Louis ribs, because all that melting fat creates a rich taste that’s both savory and sweet at the same time. It’s fine to serve the meat with sauce on the side, but many grillers prefer to let the flavor of the pork shine through.
Note that if you do decide to add sauce to the ribs, don’t apply it until the last 10 to 15 minutes of the total cooking time. If you add it too soon, the sugar in the sauce will burn, giving the pork a bitter, acrid taste.
As a general rule, you can expect a slab of baby back ribs to weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. About half of that weight is comprised of bone, but the other half is mostly meat. A full rack of baby backs can usually serve two people, unless one of them has an exceptionally hefty appetite.
Surprisingly, St. Louis style ribs have many similarities to baby backs in terms of size. The cuts also consist of 10 to 13 bones, and the racks weigh in at around 2 to 3 pounds. However, the bones are 5 to 6 inches long on average, with less of a distinction between one and the other. You can also expect more of the weight to be taken up by fat.
Whether you choose baby back ribs or St. Louis ribs, one thing is clear: These cuts taste phenomenal when they’re prepared on a grill or smoker. We would recommend smoking the meat if you have the time, since the wood contributes a burst of flavor that complements the pork without overshadowing it.
Even if you opt to prepare the ribs indoors, it’s important to go low and slow. This means cooking the meat for a long time at low temperatures to allow the fat to render out slowly. When ribs are prepared this way, the meat has a chance to tenderize, so it will seem to melt in your mouth when you bite into it.
Although we prefer the low-and-slow method for all types of pork ribs (and beef ribs as well), you can cook baby back ribs at a higher temperature. If you need to get dinner on the table more quickly, baby backs are the way to go.
One final note: If your first step is to brown the ribs in a pan, buy St. Louis ribs instead. The rib rack is symmetrical and the bones are flat, so the majority of the surface area will come into contact with the heat. Meanwhile, back ribs are curved in a way that makes it impossible to brown the meat evenly.
As you’ve probably guessed, St. Louis ribs take longer to cook on account of their larger size.
If you’re cooking the ribs at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, St. Louis ribs will take about 2-1/2 to 3 hours to finish cooking. The same amount of baby back ribs, on the other hand, should be finished cooking in 1-1/2 to 2 hours.
Should you decide to set the temperature to 250 or 275 degrees Fahrenheit the cooking process will take a bit longer. If you have the extra time, we would recommend taking this step, as the meat will come out even more succulent and tender.
Before deciding on baby backs vs St Louis ribs, consider the size of your group.
If there will be fewer people in attendance, then St. Louis ribs are the better choice. They offer better flavor and more meat per rib, and it’s easy enough to prepare a small batch on the grill or in the oven.
For larger gatherings, we would recommend baby back ribs. You can cook off a lot of these smaller ribs at once, and they work well as finger food. Each rib has a good meat-to-bone ratio, not to mention a lower percentage of fat.
Can You Substitute Baby Back Ribs For St. Louis Ribs?
It’s possible to substitute one type of rib for another, as long as you take their differences into account. In this case, size is the primary factor.
If you’re using a recipe that calls for St. Louis ribs and you’d prefer to use baby backs (or if you just can’t find the right kind), you’ll need to adjust the total yield accordingly. We would recommend using about 1-1/2 times the amount when substituting baby back ribs for spare ribs, including the St. Louis style version.
Conversely, you can use St. Louis ribs instead of baby backs if you want to give the recipe an extra boost of pork flavor. Just use the same formula by cutting the yield by 50 percent. For example, if the recipe calls for 3 pounds of baby back ribs, scale the total back to 2 pounds.
Baby back ribs have many fine qualities, and they’re easy enough for novices to make. However, although St. Louis ribs might require a bit more care when it comes to preparation, they’re a delicious and discerning choice.
Your decision comes down to a number of factors: how long you have to prepare the ribs, how many people you’ll be serving, and whether you prefer leaner meat or richer flavor. We would recommend trying both types of ribs beforehand. That way, you’ll have a better idea of which one you prefer, if any.