When you’re deciding how much meat to serve at your next gathering, you’ll need to know how many guests to expect. The next step, which is just as important, is to determine what the appropriate serving sizes are.
When it comes to bone-in meats like ribs, this question can be a tricky one. Ribs are usually sold in bulk, which complicates things even further. How many ribs in a rack, and what exactly is a half rack? Our guide will give you the answers you need to make your next event a hearty success.
How Many Ribs in a Rack
While pigs have 15 or 16 ribs (depending on the breed) and cows have 13, the number of ribs that you get in a rack is somewhat different. A full rack of pork ribs usually contains 10 to 13 ribs, while a full beef rib rack has 9 ribs. A full rack of lamb, meanwhile, consists of 7 or 8 loin rib chops.
The first thing you need to understand is that ribs come in more than one form. Even if you’ve decided to limit your search to pork ribs, you’ll have more than one type to choose from.
Spare ribs are taken from the breast bone. The meat is fatty and somewhat chewy unless the ribs are cooked for a long time at a low temperature. This cut is generally inexpensive and yields a decent amount of meat per rib.
The average rack of spare ribs yields 11 to 13 ribs. St. Louis ribs, which are a trimmed-down version of the same cut, will have 10 to 13 ribs per rack.
Rib tips, meanwhile, consist of the meat that was trimmed from the spare ribs to make them into St. Louis ribs. These may also be called brisket—not to be confused with the beef cut of the same name. The rib tips usually measure about 1 to 3 inches wide, and the cut can be up to a foot long.
It’s essential to cook rib tips properly, otherwise, the meat will be chewy to the point of toughness. This is why many pitmasters don’t bother with them. If you do decide to try your hand at rib tips, it’s a good idea to marinate them and cook them sous vide before adding them to the grill.
As you might have guessed, the back ribs come from the upper spinal region of the animal. They’re leaner and more tender than spare ribs, and they also take less time to cook. They may also be labeled as loin back ribs or baby back ribs (see below for more details).
When the back ribs are removed from the pig, there are usually a few left behind in the shoulder region. Even so, these racks consist of more individual ribs than the ones from the lower section. A count of 15 or 16 is typical for a rack of back ribs.
Be aware that “back ribs” and “baby back ribs” both refer to the same cut of pork. The “baby” designation refers to the fact that these ribs are smaller than spare ribs. The overall rib count may be lower, too—sometimes as low as 8.
What is a “Cheater Rack?”
The term “cheater rack” is used to refer to racks that contain fewer than 10 ribs. If the count dips below 10 on a rack of back ribs, it’s often because the rack suffered some degree of damage during the butchering. This leads consumers to believe that they’re being cheated out of a full rack of ribs.
However, since meat products are sold by the pound, this is an erroneous assumption at best. While it’s in your best interests to count the ribs on every rack when you’re making a bulk purchase, you’re only paying for the amount of meat that you receive.
How Many Ribs is a Half Rack?
You see it all the time on restaurant menus: The choice between a full rack and a half rack. But just exactly how many ribs make up a half rack?
Because a pig has 15 to 16 ribs, a half rack (or half slab) usually consists of 7 or 8, depending on size. Just like with whole racks, the number could also vary if the ribs suffered any damage during the butchering procedure.
If you’re purchasing the ribs from the store, you should be able to count them for yourself. When it comes to restaurant dining, you can expect to get anywhere from 3 to 8 ribs in a “half rack.”
While beef ribs are another tasty option, you won’t often see them sold in full racks. That’s because they’re enormous—as long as 18 inches in some cases.
A steer has 13 ribs on each side, measuring from the breastbone all the way up to the backbone. Because a few of them get left behind when the cattle is butchered, a full rack of beef ribs would consist of about 9 ribs. In most cases, these ribs will be taken from the middle section.
While beef ribs couldn’t be called cheap, they’re less expensive than many other cuts of beef. That’s because they contain a great deal of bone, which means they yield less meat per pound. However, what they lack in volume, they make up for in bold, beefy flavor.
Like pork ribs, beef ribs are sold in two separate cuts. The back ribs are sometimes called dinosaur ribs, and they measure around 6 to 8 inches long.
These ribs are usually sold in strips of 7 ribs, but this number depends on the butcher’s method for cutting the rib roast. There’s not a lot of meat left on top of beef back ribs, but there’s plenty in between the individual bones.
Beef short ribs, on the other hand, are usually sold in strips consisting of three bones, with plenty of meat in between. This cut is known as BBQ-style or flanken-style short ribs, and it’s quite popular for braised dishes.
With short ribs—which are also called short plate ribs—the bones are quite flat, with a couple of inches of meat on top. This is the main difference between beef back ribs and short ribs, which can actually be quite large.
Rack of Lamb
A lamb rib chop consists of a long, slender bone with a round morsel of loin muscle meat at the tip. Most restaurants will “french” the rib chop. That means they trim the fat and excess meat from the bone so that the cut resembles a lollipop, making the loin meat the star of the show.
If you were to buy a full rack of lamb, you would receive a cut with 7 or 8 individual ribs. You might get more or less, depending on the butcher, but these numbers are considered typical.
Now that you have a rough idea of what to expect when you buy a full rack of ribs, let’s break down the recommended portion sizes.
Generally speaking, a rack of spare ribs can feed two to three people. You’ll want to plan on serving four to five ribs per person, so if the rack contains 13 ribs and you’ll have three adults at your party, you should be all set.
For baby back ribs, you’ll want to plan on a couple more ribs per person. Not only are they much smaller than spare ribs, they don’t have as much meat on them, so the same number of ribs won’t get you as far. Assume that each adult guest will consume about six or seven baby back ribs.
You can scale down the numbers even further when you’re dealing with beef ribs. Plan on two or three beef back ribs per person.
If short ribs are on the menu, you can follow the same protocol. Since the ribs are usually sold in three-bone portions, it’s easy to adhere to these guidelines.
Rack of Lamb
When you’re serving rack of lamb, you should plan on about 4 rib chops per person. The average serving ranges from 3 to 4, but it’s better to err on the side of caution in this case. Often, the ribs will look like they have plenty of meat on them when they’re in the case, but it will shrink down a great deal when it’s cooked.
How To Adjust Serving Sizes
While we would recommend using the guidelines listed above as a rule of thumb, it’s fine to be flexible with the numbers. Here are some of the other factors to consider when you’re planning how many ribs to buy.
Time of Day
Evening gatherings tend to attract hungrier diners. If you’re holding your party after dark, it’s a good idea to buy more meat than you think you’ll need. Conversely, if the party is in the afternoon, you can expect people to eat a bit less.
Type of Gathering
For an elaborate sit-down meal with linens, go with generous portion sizes. For casual get-togethers that encourage the guests to mingle, it’s all right to cut back a bit. People will eat less when the focus is on the company rather than the food.
Age of Guests
You don’t need to serve as much meat if there will be a lot of kids at the party. This is especially true if the event is held outside during the day, when younger guests can find plenty of distractions.
Before you hit the butcher shop, plan out the rest of your menu. What will you be serving alongside the ribs? If you’re planning on a full-scale barbecue with coleslaw, potato salad, cornbread, and several different kinds of potato chips, opt for the bare minimum when it comes to recommended serving sizes.
As you can see, there’s no clear answer to the question “how many ribs in a rack?” The end result depends on the meat product you choose, as well as the size of the animal.
Anyone who’s looking to get the most bang for their buck should consider making beef back ribs at their next cookout. The ribs are set at a reasonable price and yield a great deal of meat for each penny spent. They also make a very impressive appearance at the dinner table, as long as the guests aren’t afraid of large bones.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!