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Pork Ribs Cartilage: What Are All These White Tubes?

The first time you looked at a rack of raw untrimmed pork ribs, you might have been intimidated by all the fat and cartilage you saw. What exactly is that stuff, and what should you do with it? Here’s everything you need to know about pork ribs cartilage.

Pork Ribs Cartilage

You’ll find cartilage attached to the tapered ends of untrimmed spare rib racks. The material has more flexibility than the hard bone. While it’s technically edible, some people find the chewy texture of cartilage to be off-putting. You can use this section to make smoked rib tips, either independently or alongside the ribs themselves.

What Is Cartilage?

On pork ribs, cartilage are those small, flexible bone-like appendages that are attached to the rib rack. If you’ve ever eaten rib tips, these consist mainly of cartilage, with some of the rib meat still attached.

In practical terms, cartilage is a type of connective tissue. Although it has a firm texture, it’s more flexible than bone. When you press against the cartilage and then against the bone on the rib rack, you’ll be able to tell what we’re talking about.

Cartilage exists mainly to aid in smooth movement and provide shock absorption, although some types serve other functions within the body. While it’s a useful component in living creatures, it can be a pain to deal with in culinary practice.

Do All Pork Ribs Have Cartilage Attached?

Cartilage is an important component of the rib cage, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find it attached to all pork ribs.

A rack of untrimmed spare ribs will have visible marrow on one end, and a measure of gristle and cartilage on the other. When this portion is cut away, the ribs become a St. Louis-style rack.

The section that you trimmed off can be used to make rib tips. We’ll talk more about this phenomenon in the next section.

If you don’t want to deal with all that cartilage, look for baby back ribs instead. These are taken from the upper portion of the rib cage, along the spine. Their meat is leaner, and there’s a distinctive curve to the rack.

You might also ask your butcher to trim the spare ribs down for you before you take them home. Be aware that St. Louis-style ribs are considered something of a specialty item, so it’s unusual to see them packaged for sale at the grocery store.

Is The Cartilage Edible?

Yes, you can eat the cartilage. That’s one of the reasons why rib tips, which were once considered nothing more than scraps, are now increasingly popular.

Some people can’t get past cartilage’s springy texture. Cartilage is a source of collagen, so it will break down to some degree as the meat cooks. However, there’s bound to be some left behind.

If you don’t want to eat the cartilage, just strip the bits of meat away from the whitish portions and eat that by itself. You can set the cartilage aside, along with the rib bones.

Are Rib Tips the Same as Button Ribs?

Rib tips are often confused with button ribs, which have been popularized by restaurant chains. Button ribs may also be called “riblets,” but this characterization is incorrect. In fact, button ribs aren’t ribs at all.

Button ribs are taken from the long, narrow strip of meat that runs along the pig’s spine. This portion is taken from the area behind the rearmost rib, and usually measures around 6 inches long.

This strip of meat contains small round nubs of bone, hence the “button” designation. There aren’t any rib bones included, which is why the term “button ribs” is a bit misleading.

To confuse matters still further, some restaurants—such as Applebee’s—will refer to button ribs as riblets. It’s only when the dish turns up that diners realize they’ve been fooled—assuming they know the difference between the two.

True riblets are pork ribs that have been cut into 2- to 4-inch segments. Apart from their diminutive size, they don’t have much in common with button ribs.

There’s nothing wrong with button ribs—the meat can be delicious when it’s done right. But we think it’s important for budding pitmasters to understand the distinction between rib tips, button ribs, and riblets.

What To Do With Pork Ribs Cartilage

Once you’ve removed the cartilage from a rack of spare ribs, you have a few options. You can always discard the trimmings, of course, but you’d be robbing yourself of some unsung pleasures of barbecue.

We like to smoke the rib tips alongside the full rack. They’ll cook more quickly, which means you can enjoy them as an appetizer while you wait for the ribs to reach their full potential.

If you don’t want to eat them right away, smoked rib tips also make a superb addition to baked beans and pork-based stews or soups. For a step-by-step tutorial on perfecting this delicacy, see the separate section below.

How To Make Smoked Rib Tips

If you want to make just the rib tips without smoking a full rack of spare ribs, ask your butcher if they can sell you a pound or two of the tips by themselves. You might even be able to find them packaged individually in the meat section at the supermarket.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound rib tips, trimmed from a rack of spare ribs
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin

Directions

1. Pat the rib tips dry using paper towels.

2. Make the seasoning rub. In a small bowl, mix together the smoked and sweet paprika, brown sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic powder, and cumin.

3. Cover the rib tips with a generous coating of the spice rub mixture. If there’s any seasoning mix left over, you can save it for another use, as long as it didn’t come into contact with any of the raw meat first.

4. Refrigerate the rib tips for at least 2 hours. You can also perform this step the day before you plan to smoke the tips, leaving them in the fridge overnight.

5. Set the smoker to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. If your unit tends to run on the cooler side, you might want to set the temperature to 250 degrees in order to compensate.

6. Let the rib tips smoke for 3 to 4 hours, until the meat is tender enough to tear apart easily. This should happen when the pork achieves an internal temp of around 200 degrees.

Pro Tip: If you’d like, you can smother the tips with your favorite barbecue sauce during the last 30 minutes or so.

7. Remove the rib tips from the heat and allow them to rest for at least 5 minutes.

8. Chop the meat into small pieces, roughly 1-1/2 to 2 inches square. Serve with additional barbecue sauce on the side.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to pork ribs cartilage, we take a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” kind of attitude. The rib tips provide us with an opportunity to create yet another delectable and savory dish on the smoker. What’s not to like?

Happy grilling!