When most of us say “ribs,” we’re referring to pork ribs. But did you know that beef ribs can be just as enticing when they’re done right? It’s literally a whole different animal, which opens up a new world of flavor possibilities. That’s why we’ve decided to compose this primer on beef ribs vs pork ribs.
Beef Ribs vs Pork Ribs
As a rule, beef ribs are larger and fattier than pork ribs. By contrast, pork ribs are more versatile, because their flavor tends to be far milder on account of the lower fat content. It’s also easier to buy pork ribs in bulk, and they don’t take as long to prepare.
About Pork Ribs
The first thing you need to know about pork ribs is that there are several different types, or cuts, available. This gives you a great deal of variety in terms of texture and flavor.
Back ribs are taken from the upper portion of the rib cage. When the butcher has finished carving away the loin section, the back ribs are left with whatever meat didn’t make it into the premium cuts. They might also be referred to as loin back ribs.
Baby back ribs are the same cut, but they’re sometimes referred to as “baby” because they’re smaller than spare ribs. Despite the misleading name, they’re not actually cut from baby pigs. The meat is very tender, too, which is a huge plus for novice grillers.
A cheaper option, spare ribs, are taken from the sternum. They’re also the meatiest of the bunch. Since they’re cut from the area around the belly, they contain a great deal of fat as well. For this reason, we consider spare ribs to be the most flavorful choice as far as pork ribs are concerned.
You might find St. Louis ribs in some specialty markets, but they’re harder to come by than the others. These are really just spare ribs that have been trimmed to remove the gristle and cartilage that hangs off the bottom. They’re packaged for presentation, which makes them a popular choice in competitive circles.
Rib tips provide another alternative. These are the bits of bone and cartilage that are left behind when butchers are trimming spare ribs to make St. Louis ribs. They’re sometimes discarded as waste, but they can also be cooked up and served with the meat chopped into small pieces.
Except for spare ribs, which pick up a ton of flavor from the rendered fat, pork ribs don’t have a very distinctive taste on their own. That’s why so many pitmasters season them liberally and slather them with barbecue sauce when they’re done.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, the mild flavor can be considered a perk, as it gives you a broad palette with which to work. If you’re using wood chips or pellets, they’ll absorb the smoke flavor beautifully.
Because pigs are smaller than cows, it stands to reason that pork ribs would be smaller than beef ribs. Fortunately, you can sidestep this issue by purchasing a lot of ribs at once. Try buying several rib racks and seasoning them differently so that diners will have more flavors to choose from.
It’s easy to find pork ribs in the supermarket or at your local grocery store. Spare ribs are probably the most ubiquitous type, but baby back ribs are readily available as well.
Pork ribs are also fairly simple to prepare, especially if you’ve opted for the baby back variety. In general, the leaner the meat is, the easier it is to cook. Back ribs will also cook more quickly than spare ribs.
The meat lends itself well to many cooking techniques, from grilling to roasting to braising. Just be careful not to overcook them, or you’ll end up with dry, stringy pork.
There’s not a lot of fat in back ribs, which is why they don’t have as much flavor. That makes them a healthier choice than spare ribs. They’ll also take less time to cook, which is an appealing characteristic for many budding chefs.
Spare ribs, meanwhile, have a higher fat content. This means you’ll have to take special care when preparing them, so all that fat will have a chance to render. When they’re done right, spare ribs will have moist, tender meat and a smoky-sweet flavor.
As we mentioned, spare ribs are usually less expensive than back ribs. In terms of beef ribs vs pork ribs, however, the choice is clear: You’ll save money by opting for pork ribs instead. Not only are they easier to find, they offer a much better value than their beefy counterparts.
Pork ribs are highly popular in the Midwestern region of the United States. Even if you were to stray a bit farther south–say, to Tennessee or the Carolinas–you would find a host of enthusiastic chefs eager to share their favorite recipe for barbecued pork ribs.
Back ribs also make frequent appearances in Chinese cuisine. In these recipes, they’re usually basted with a teriyaki marinade or a sweet-and-sour glaze. If you’ve ever visited a Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably seen echoes of this in the boneless pork spare ribs that are so popular with American diners.
About Beef Ribs
Just like with pork ribs, you have a couple of different choices in this category.
Beef back ribs are similar to pork back ribs in terms of preparation. They’re taken from the upper section and consist of the meat that’s leftover after the ribeye is cut away. This means that they have less meat and less flavor than their counterparts.
By contrast, short ribs are taken from the bottom half of the rib cage. They offer a higher meat-to-bone ratio and pack a wallop in the flavor department.
Once you’ve taken the first bite, it will be clear that you’re eating a beef rib rather than a pork rib. That’s because these cuts contain a ton of beefy flavor–arguably more than any other part of the cow.
It’s permissible to play around with different seasonings in order to play up the beef ribs’ best qualities. However, we would recommend keeping it simple and letting all that marvelous rich flavor shine through.
Beef ribs are typically large, which means you can plan on serving fewer ribs per person. This also means that they’ll take a long time to cook, so be sure to plan ahead. When they’ve been prepared correctly, the meat will be exceptionally tender.
Are beef ribs always larger than pork ribs? Surprisingly, no. Because butchers tend to reserve the oversized cuts for restaurants and special customers, the beef ribs you’ll find in the supermarket might be almost the same size as the ones in the pork section.
If you buy beef back ribs, you can plan on cooking them as you would pork ribs. The lean meat takes about the same amount of time to cook.
By contrast, beef short ribs require a long, slow cooking process. Otherwise, the meat will be too tough to eat. If you’re using a grill or smoker, set it to the 225 to 250 degree range and let the unit do its work. Otherwise, we would recommend using a slow cooker.
Buyers who are looking for a low-fat option should steer clear of beef ribs. While it’s true that back ribs are leaner than short ribs, both types contain more fat than their porcine counterparts.
To be fair, we should also point out that the fat content in beef ribs is lower in cholesterol. This means that you can leave it in place before you cook the ribs, and it will contribute to that indescribably luscious beef flavor. By contrast, St. Louis ribs have had a great deal of that fat trimmed away.
We’ve already established that pork ribs are less expensive than beef ribs. But if you’ve already decided on beef, which cut is cheaper?
Since short ribs contain more meat than back ribs, they also cost more. That said, we still prefer short ribs, as they’ll give you better value for each dollar spent. Remember that you’ll have to buy more back ribs to get the same amount of meat, so there’s really no benefit to buying those instead unless you’re looking for a leaner cut.
If you’re originally from Texas, there’s a good chance that you prefer beef ribs over pork ribs. There are two reasons for this: Cattle ranches are a common sight in Texas, and the residents tend to believe that bigger equals better, especially when it comes to barbecue.
Stepping into international territory, beef ribs are also more popular in Korea. In fact, we have several recipes for Korean beef short ribs in our repertoire. These are usually flavored with tamari or soy sauce and finished off with sesame seeds and scallions.
In the end, you don’t really need to declare a clear winner for beef ribs vs pork ribs. Just choose whichever one sounds best to you at the time.
Personally, I enjoy both and would have a hard time eliminating either one from my grilling lineup. The secret lies in the preparation, which gives you even more choices in terms of flavor.