Are riblets just smaller ribs, or are they a different cut of pork entirely? When it comes to ribs, the terminology can be confusing at times. That’s why we’ve put together this primer on riblets vs ribs.
Riblets vs Ribs
Riblets are baby back ribs that have been cut in half through the bone, making each rib roughly half the size that it was before. This technique doesn’t save time, but it makes the portions more manageable. The “riblets” sold at the Applebee’s chain of restaurants aren’t really riblets, but button ribs masquerading under a false label.
Did you know that pork ribs come in a few different styles? Some of the distinctions have to do with their location on the animal, but others refer to the way the rack was trimmed. This section will give you the rundown on the most popular types.
Baby Back Ribs
Pork loin back ribs are often labeled as “baby back ribs,” owing to the fact that these ribs are smaller than spare ribs (see below). The term doesn’t mean that the rack came from baby pigs, although the meat is relatively lean and tender.
As the name suggests, loin back ribs are cut from the back of the hog. They consist of the top portion of the rib cage. When you buy a full rack, you should get 10 to 12 bones. Racks that contain fewer than 10 rib bones may be labeled as “cheater racks.”
Baby back ribs measure about 6 inches long at the widest part of the rack, tapering off to about 3 inches at the end. You can expect the rack to weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds, depending on how large the hog was when it was butchered.
About 50 percent of the rib rack’s total weight comes from the bone. Since the meat shrinks down a bit as it cooks, that means your total meat yield will typically weigh less than a pound. A full rack should feed 1 to 2 people.
As we mentioned, baby back ribs are more tender than spares. As such, they tend to be more popular with the grilling crowd, and therefore more expensive.
The spare ribs are cut from the bottom portion of the rib cage. On this part of the animal, the bones are longer and flatter than they are on the top. They also have a hank of cartilage attached, which we’ll talk about more later on.
When you compare a rack of spare ribs with a rack of loin back ribs, you’ll notice that the spare ribs are much larger. A rack of spare ribs will weigh roughly twice as much as a rack of baby back ribs. As such, these require a longer cooking process.
The meat around the belly of the hog is fattier and more flavorful than the meat from the loin. That makes spare ribs a popular choice with barbecue enthusiasts, despite the prolonged preparation and cooking times.
A full rack of spare ribs should include 10 to 13 bones. Since the ribs are bigger, the rack should feed more people—3 to 4 on average.
St. Louis and Kansas City-Style Ribs
St. Louis-style ribs aren’t commonly sold in supermarkets, but you can ask the butcher to prepare them for you. This term refers to a rack of spare ribs that has been trimmed to remove the cartilage and rib tips.
Although these portions of the rack can be delicious on their own, they cook through more quickly, meaning they can burn and turn bitter when left attached. St. Louis-style racks are able to cook more evenly. They also have more eye appeal.
Kansas City-style ribs are essentially the same thing, except that the cartilage may be left intact. The term “Kansas City-style” refers more to the preparation technique, which involves coating the cooked ribs in a sweet and sticky barbecue sauce.
Do You Have To Remove The Membrane From Pork Ribs?
Regardless of whether you buy baby back ribs or spare ribs, the bone side of the rack will usually have a thin white membrane attached.
This membrane, also known as the peritoneum or the caul fat, will toughen up as it cooks. That will make the rib meat harder to chew, so it’s better to remove this segment before you season the ribs for the smoker.
To remove the membrane, grasp the end of it in one hand, steadying the rack with the other. Paper towels can help you maintain a better grip. Gently tug on the membrane, sliding the other hand beneath it if necessary, until the entire piece comes off.
Riblets vs Ribs: A Guide
How do riblets differ from pork ribs? The line gets blurry here, but we can tell you that real pork riblets are just ribs—usually baby backs—that have been cut in half.
This doesn’t affect the cooking time—ribs need to be exposed to low heat for a long time in order to tenderize the meat. So why would anyone transform a rack of baby backs into riblets?
For one thing, these miniature ribs have a great deal of eye appeal. They make an especially nice presentation on an appetizer plate. They’re also more manageable for young children, who might be overwhelmed when faced with a full-sized rib.
Cutting the ribs into smaller portions also makes the rack stretch farther. If you’re worried you might not have enough ribs for everyone, try serving them as riblets instead. This tactic is more successful when you have plenty of side dishes on offer as well.
The Truth About Applebee’s Riblets
If you’ve ever eaten at the Applebee’s restaurant chain, you might have spotted “Riblets” on their menu. While they’re a popular option, the riblets served at Applebee’s are not true riblets.
The “riblets” that wind up on the diner’s plate are actually nubs of bone that are taken from an area further along the spine. They’re sometimes called button ribs, but in fact, there’s no rib bone attached to them.
This doesn’t mean that the dish is bad. In fact, button ribs are very tasty when they’re done right. However, the improper label causes unnecessary confusion, especially among those who have never encountered real riblets.
What About Rib Tips?
Rib tips and riblets might sound similar, but they aren’t the same thing. The rib tips are the bits of meat and cartilage that are trimmed off the end of a rack of spare ribs in order to make St. Louis-style ribs. They may also be called “rib ends.”
Some people strongly dislike the texture of rib tips, which can be difficult to eat on account of the cartilage. If you don’t mind this side effect, the meat itself is quite flavorful. Rib tips are also more affordable than actual ribs when sold separately.
It’s easy enough to buy a rack of spare ribs and trim off the rib tips and cartilage yourself. If you do, try putting the tips on the grill at the same time as the ribs. Once they’re done, you can snack on them while you wait for the ribs to finish cooking.
The Bottom Line
In butcher’s parlance, riblets are just smaller versions of ribs. If you’d like to serve your ribs this way, you can either ask the butcher to cut the rack into riblets, or divide it in half yourself once you’ve taken it home.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!