With their robust flavor, succulent texture, and overall finger-licking goodness, ribs are an ideal partner for the grill. Choosing what type of ribs to cook, on the other hand, can be a tricky prospect.
Depending on the butcher, the meat might be packaged or labeled in ways that make it difficult to understand exactly what you’re getting. Here, we’ll look specifically at pork loin back ribs vs baby back ribs.
Pork Loin Back Ribs vs Baby Back Ribs: Is There a Difference?
Pork loin back ribs are cut from the area of the pig where the rib connects to the spine, just at the top of the rib cage. This cut typically takes place after the loin has been removed. Because the ribs are small—usually 3-6 inches long, depending on the size of the pig—they’re more commonly referred to as “baby back ribs.” You might also see them labeled as “pork loin ribs” or simply “back ribs.”
Contrary to a popular misconception, baby back ribs are not taken from the ribs of baby pigs. That’s why the labeling can be confusing, particularly for amateurs. The truth is, pork loin back ribs and baby back ribs are the exact same cut. Should you notice any visible discrepancy between two racks in particular, that’s likely because the pigs in question were vastly different in terms of size.
If you know your way around a grill, you’ll already be aware that lean meat can dry out in a heartbeat. For this reason, you should take extra care not to overcook the ribs.
How Many Racks Should You Buy?
The amount of ribs you need depends on a number of factors, including the time of the event, the average age of your guests, and what sides you plan to serve. That said, when it comes to baby back ribs, a general rule of 5-6 per person should suffice.
Although pigs have either 15 or 16 ribs, depending on the breed, a few of these are left on the shoulder when the loin is separated from the carcass. That’s why some racks contain more ribs than others, although a rack must have at least 8 in order to be sold commercially. If there are fewer than 10 ribs on a rack, the butcher may refer to it as a “cheater rack.”
A rack of baby back ribs usually has about 10-13 ribs and weighs between 1 and 2 pounds. That means a single rack should feed 2 people, unless the ribs themselves are on the smaller end of the spectrum. Use these numbers as a guideline when planning your grocery list.
On occasion, back ribs will have so little meat on them that the bones are visible down the entire length of the rack. Some pitmasters refer to these lightweight racks as “shiners.” The meat is still tender and lean, but because there’s so much less of it, the risk of overcooking the pork becomes that much greater.
How To Tell Pork Loin Back Ribs from Spare Ribs
You’ll be able to tell the pork loin back ribs from the spare ribs by taking a close look at their shapes. While a rack of spare ribs is flat and rectangular, the back ribs will have a distinctive curved shape, like a rainbow. This curvature makes it more difficult to finish the back ribs with a strong sear, which is why some chefs prefer spare ribs for certain recipes.
Unlike spare ribs, which are larger and fattier, the meat from baby back ribs is quite lean and exceptionally tender. They might even have a half an inch or so of loin meat attached to the top, depending on the butcher. They’re also naturally shorter at one end, owing to the tapering of the rib cage.
As a general rule, baby back ribs are more popular than spare ribs. As a result, they also carry a higher price tag. The increase in cost, coupled with the smaller size, means that you can expect to spend a great deal more on ribs when you’re feeding large crowds.
One final note: If you come across a rack that’s labeled “St. Louis ribs,” know that these are spare ribs that have had the tips, sternum, and cartilage trimmed away. They have a neater shape than regular spare ribs, but the meat is essentially the same in texture and flavor.
For more information on how to tell one type of ribs from another, take a look at this handy tutorial.
How To Cook Pork Loin Back Ribs
While ribs have many excellent qualities on their own, they can always be improved upon with the right seasoning—not to mention a mouthwatering sauce. In addition to salt and pepper, you can add spices like ground mustard, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and dried herbs to the mix. Brown sugar is another popular “rub” ingredient, but bear in mind that the sugar will burn easily when exposed to high temperatures.
When it comes to ribs, you should choose a low and slow cooking application, such as smoking. The extra time will allow the fat to render and the connective tissues to break down, making the meat so tender that it will fall off the bone easily.
If you choose to add a sauce, don’t be tempted to brush it on too early. Instead, wait until the last few minutes of cooking. Barbecue sauce tends to be high in sugar, and as we mentioned, sugar burns when it’s left on the fire too long. This will give your ribs an unpleasantly bitter flavor, which is the last thing you want after you’ve worked so hard to make them delicious.
Can You Substitute a Different Type of Rib Rack?
This is one of the great debates in grilling circles: If you can’t find pork loin back ribs, can you swap in a rack of spare ribs or St. Louis ribs? It is possible, but you’ll have to make several adjustments as you go along.
First of all, because spare ribs have more meat on them, you won’t need to buy as many. If the recipe called for baby back ribs and you have to use spare ribs instead, plan on cutting down on the number of racks by about one-third.
Similarly, you should plan to cook the spare ribs for a significantly longer period of time. A few racks of baby back ribs might cook in as little as 1-1/2 hours, but spare ribs can easily take twice as long. Bear in mind that the spare ribs contain more fat and connective tissue, so you won’t have to worry as much about overcooking them.
When it comes to seasoning, don’t forget to account for the difference in size and weight. If you’re substituting spare ribs for back ribs, you should add a bit more salt to the rub recipe (allowing for about 1 teaspoon kosher salt per pound). The other seasonings can be adjusted according to taste.
The Bottom Line
In short, there’s no difference between pork loin back ribs and baby back ribs. Pork ribs can be labeled in several different ways, even if the cuts are exactly the same. Learning which names are used for the same racks will help you choose the right ones every time you visit the meat counter. In addition to impressing the local butchers with your knowledge, you can rest assured that your recipes will turn out just the way you planned.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!