The world of barbecue is a huge and enticing place. Even if you decide to narrow your menu options down to include just pork ribs, you might have a hard time deciding. In this guide, we’ll look at Kansas City style ribs vs St. Louis style ribs to help you discern the difference between these two styles.
Kansas City Style Ribs vs St. Louis Style Ribs
St. Louis style ribs are spare ribs that have had the breastbone and cartilage removed. Kansas City style ribs are trimmed in a similar way, but the cartilage is left in place. You can use the two rib types interchangeably, but St. Louis style barbecue sauce is thinner than Kansas City style, with a strong kick of vinegar.
About Pork Ribs
If you thought all pork ribs were the same, you’re not alone. Many beginners are unaware that there’s more than one type of rib, even when you rule out the beef and lamb variety.
All pork ribs are cut from the rib cage of a hog. Their flavor and texture depends on their specific location, as well as their thickness and fat-to-meat ratio. Before you try to suss out the difference between Kansas City style ribs vs St. Louis style ribs, you need to be familiar with the basics.
Baby Back Ribs
Also called “back ribs” or “loin back ribs,” these barbecue staples are cut from the loin area of the rib cage. The meat in this region is lean and relatively tender, though the ribs still need to cook for a long time to achieve the right texture.
The “baby” designation refers to the fact that loin back ribs are smaller than spare ribs. It has nothing to do with age–although the size of these ribs may range from 3 to 6 inches, depending on how large the pig was before it was slaughtered.
Spare ribs come from the area close to the belly, below the back ribs and above the sternum. You might also see them referred to as “side ribs.”
There’s more bone than meat on each spare rib, and their shape is broad and flat. They also have a higher fat-to-meat ratio than baby back ribs, which is why some pitmasters swear by them.
There’s no denying that spare ribs pack a punch in the flavor department. You can usually buy them at a cheaper per-pound price than baby backs, too. Still, because the racks are larger than the ones taken from the loin, they also take longer to cook.
St. Louis Style Ribs
When you see a rack of ribs advertised as “St. Louis style,” you’re looking at a rack of spiffed-up spare ribs. To earn this designation, the ribs must have the sternum bone and cartilage removed, as well as the rib tips (see below). This trimming procedure gives them a rectangular shape that cooks evenly and browns up beautifully.
Kansas City Style Ribs
This is another variation on the basic spare rib rack. The difference between St. Louis style and Kansas City style ribs is in the presentation.
When trimming St. Louis-style ribs, the butcher removes the cartilage. Kansas City style ribs, meanwhile, still have the cartilage attached. It’s a minor difference, and one that amateurs may not even notice, but it’s the only real distinction between the two.
In fact, it’s fine to use St. Louis style ribs or even regular spare ribs in a Kansas City style rib recipe. The cartilage doesn’t make or break the dish, and spare ribs are often easier to find. If you’d like, you can do the trimming yourself. We’ve included instructions in How To Prepare Your Own St. Louis Style Ribs, below.
Connecting the front ribs to the sternum are a series of small bones and a great deal of cartilage. These are the segments that are trimmed away from spare ribs when butchers are preparing racks of St. Louis style ribs. Although they’re sometimes discarded, rib tips can be delicious when they’re prepared just right.
Country Style Ribs
Aside from the fact that they’re all made of pork, country style ribs don’t have much in common with the other rib types on this list. In fact, technically speaking, they’re not ribs at all.
The meat from the upper region of the blade end of the pork loin is rich and meaty, and it’s surrounded by pillows of fat. When the meat is cut into sections, each segment looks something like a large pork rib. If you want a rib-style presentation with a flavor and texture that’s closer to pork chops, this could be the cut for you.
It’s In The Sauce
Another distinctive feature of Kansas City style ribs is the sticky sauce that’s usually applied during the last stage of the cook. Barbecue sauce comes in many regional varieties, and this one is characterized by its thick texture and complex flavor profile. The ribs are also typically treated with a warm spice blend before they hit the grill.
The sauce used in St. Louis style barbecue is similar, but the recipes usually include more vinegar. This makes for a thinner, tangier sauce.
How To Prepare Your Own St. Louis Style Ribs
The bad news about St. Louis style ribs is that they can be difficult to find in the supermarket. Your local butcher shop might be able to provide them for you, but it’s easy enough to buy a rack of spare ribs and transform them yourself.
To begin, carve away the triangular end of the rib rack. This is known as “squaring up.”
Next, flip over the rack so that it faces bone side up. Locate the flap of meat known as the skirt, and trim it off.
Tip: If you’d like, you can set the skirt aside and add it to the smoker during the second half of the cook. Since it cooks in about half the time, it should be ready at the same time as the ribs themselves.
Check for any other fatty bits, and remove them as needed.
Once you’ve trimmed the rack to your liking, it’s time to remove the membrane, or peritoneum. Slide your fingers beneath one end of the membrane, grasping the rack in your other hand. Move along the length of the rack, tugging on the membrane until it peels away. If necessary, use a blunt knife or a spoon instead of your fingers.
Your next task is to remove the breastbone and cartilage. To do this, find the longest rib, which is usually the fourth bone in on the wider portion. Move your fingers along the rib until you hit the soft spot where the rib meets the sternum.
Cut into the soft spot, then make a long perpendicular cut along the length of the rack, severing each bone from the sternum as you go. This should leave you with a rack that’s more or less perfectly rectangular in appearance.
Prepare and cook the ribs according to any recipe that calls for a St. Louis style rack.
Kansas City Style Rib Recipe
- 2 racks prepared Kansas City or St. Louis style ribs
For the Rub:
- 1/2 cup dry mustard (do not use prepared mustard)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
For the Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup tomato paste (about 2 6-ounce cans)
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
1. Make the sauce. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a small saucepan. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Mix in the remaining ingredients and stir to combine, then simmer for 30-45 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, mix together the ingredients for the spice rub.
3. Prepare the rib racks if you haven’t already done so. Pat dry with paper towels, then coat with the spice rub mixture.
4. Set the grill or smoker to 225 degrees. When it’s come up to the right temperature, add the rib racks with the bone side facing down.
5. Close the lid and smoke the ribs for 3 hours.
6. If desired, remove from heat and wrap in a double layer of butcher paper or aluminum foil, then return to the heat to cook for another 2 hours. If you elect to skip the wrapper, cook for about 3 hours longer, keeping an eye on the temperature to be sure the ribs don’t overcook.
7. Remove the foil, if you used it, and return the ribs to the grill. Let cook until the internal temperature reaches 195 degrees, about 1 hour longer. During the last 15-30 minutes of cooking time, brush the ribs with the prepared sauce.
8. Remove the ribs from the heat and let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving with additional sauce on the side.
The Bottom Line
Kansas City style ribs are trimmed spare ribs, and St. Louis style ribs are spare ribs that have been trimmed a little bit more. As barbecue styles go, they’re very much alike. Try experimenting with each to see if you can really tell the difference. It will provide a great test for your palate–not to mention twice as much delicious barbecue.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!