Have you ever heard of a button rib? If you’ve ever eaten at a chain restaurant like Applebee’s, you might have seen them, even if you didn’t realize it.
But what are these ribs, exactly? Are they the same thing as rib tips, or are they something else? Let’s take a closer look.
Button ribs are cut from the rear section of the pig’s spine. They consist of small, circular segments of cartilage and bone, with thin strips of meat holding them together. Despite the fact that some restaurants refer to them as “riblets,” these are actually a different cut of pork.
About Button Ribs
As we mentioned, these morsels have gained popularity since being featured on menus at restaurant chains, where they may be called “riblets.” Although they’re often confused with rib tips (see below for more info on this rib type), they aren’t the same thing.
Button ribs are thin strips of meat with flat, circular pieces of cartilage attached. They’re cut from the pig’s spinal region, around the sirloin end of the pork loin. Technically, although they come from an area near the rib cage, they’re not ribs.
To confuse the issue further, you might see these referred to as “feather bones.” The cut might contain small bits of bone, but they consist mostly of small disks of cartilage surrounded by meat.
The pockets of meat that surround each button are what hold the “ribs” together. Since the meat comes from the loin area, it’s relatively lean and very tasty.
You can smoke a button rib section at a slightly higher temperature than you would use for pork ribs. Try setting the smoker to 350 degrees, seasoning the meat with your favorite spice rub, and allowing them to cook for 30 to 45 minutes.
Understanding Rib Types
Baby Back Ribs
Baby backs come from the loin section of the hog. These are the ribs that are connected directly to the animal’s backbone.
Despite the misleading name, baby back ribs come from fully grown hogs. The “baby” in the name refers to the fact that these bones are smaller than the spare ribs, while the term “back” indicates their location.
Though these ribs still contain enough fat to make them deliciously juicy, their meat is leaner than the meat from spare ribs. They can also be distinguished by a slight curve at the top of the rack.
Although “baby back” is the common designation for this rib type, you also might see these labeled as “loin back ribs.” Be aware that these are just two names for the same rib type—there’s no difference.
On the lower section of the rib cage, you’ll find the spare ribs. These may also be called “side ribs,” as they stretch down toward the breastbone of the hog.
These ribs are larger and meatier than baby backs, and there’s less curve to the bone. Because the meat contains more fat, they’re a more flavorful option. Be aware, though, that spares also take longer to cook.
St. Louis Ribs
When you look at a rack of spare ribs, you should see the marrow on one end. That’s the end that was separated from the upper portion of the rib cage.
The other end will have a hank of meat attached, along with a good amount of fat, gristle, and cartilage. This portion, the rib tips (see below), cooks more quickly than the rest of the rack, making for an uneven presentation.
When you trim the rib tips away from the spare rib rack, it becomes a rack of St. Louis ribs. These are popular in competitive circles because they have a uniform appearance that allows them to brown up beautifully.
It’s not easy to find St. Louis-cut ribs in the supermarket. They’re considered a specialty item due to the extra effort they require. You can ask your butcher to trim a rack of spare ribs in this fashion, but it’s also not difficult to do the job yourself.
Kansas City Ribs
Again, you aren’t likely to come across Kansas City-style ribs when you browse through the meat section of the grocery store. These are another “specialty” rib, with the name referring to the preparation style rather than the cut itself.
Kansas City ribs are basically St. Louis-style ribs that still have the cartilage attached. As such, they have a neater presentation than spare ribs, but they won’t cook quite as evenly as St. Louis ribs.
That said, it’s fine to substitute Kansas City-style ribs for St. Louis ribs, and vice versa. Be aware, though, that if you see Kansas City ribs advertised on a restaurant menu, the moniker might refer to the type of barbecue sauce, and not necessarily the cut.
Kansas City-style barbecue sauce is a thick, sticky, tomato-based concoction with a sweet and spicy flavor profile. Unlike St. Louis-style sauce, which contains a great deal of vinegar, this one relies on ketchup and molasses to give it a richer texture.
The rib tips are in the section where you trim off the spare ribs when preparing a St. Louis-style rack. They contain a lot of cartilage, along with small pieces of bone.
Some butchers and pitmasters discard the rib tips after trimming a rack of spares. However, they make a great snack when prepared independently of the full rack. Just remember that they’ll cook through more quickly.
All that cartilage gives rib tips a chewy texture. You can offset this effect by chopping the meat into small chunks before serving.
Other “Ribs” That Aren’t Really Ribs
Button ribs aren’t the only cut of pork that come with this particular brand of false advertising. Country style ribs are another cut with a misleading name.
Country style ribs are a type of pork chop, cut from the shoulder of the animal. Because there are usually one or two bones attached to the meat, and because they come from the area near the front of the baby back ribs, they’re called “ribs” even though they’re not.
If you want a flavorful chop with more meat on the bone than a real rib, country style ribs are a decent option. The meat is especially good if you brine it beforehand and then cook it slowly over low heat.
Are Riblets and Button Ribs The Same Thing?
No. In spite of the confusion caused by restaurants like Applebee’s, which labels its button ribs as “riblets,” these are two different cuts of pork.
Riblets are actual ribs that have been cut to make them shorter. Usually, butchers and chefs will cut a full rack in half to create riblets.
What’s the point of this exercise? Due to their smaller size, riblets make an excellent appetizer or meal for those with dainty appetites. They’re also popular with younger children, who are often overwhelmed when faced with a full-sized pork rib.
Riblet is also an official term used by the North American Meat Processors Association (now part of NAMI). In this case, it refers to the lumbar vertebrae and the lean meat that’s left behind after the loin and tenderloin are removed from the animal.
These official “riblets” can contain up to two rib bones. In order to gain the classification, they also need to include at least four transverse processes from the lumbar region of the spine.
Although neither of these cuts is particularly easy to find, the unofficial version is more common. In fact, some butchers discard the official riblets when butchering the hog.
Button ribs might not be actual ribs, but they’re still tasty and fun to eat. What’s more, they’re usually sold at a decent price. If you’re lucky enough to find them for sale, we would recommend giving them a try.