There are a number of great recipes for beef ribs out there, and many of them call for the smoker. The trouble is, you can’t always find quality beef ribs at the supermarket—or even at the local butcher shop. Here, we’ll explore this phenomenon.
Why Are Beef Ribs Hard To Find?
In the midwestern United States, it’s not uncommon to see various types of beef ribs on supermarket shelves. Outside of this region, however, the cuts might be reserved for restaurants and specialty shops. If you can’t find beef ribs, ask your local butcher if they’d be willing to make a special order for you.
Beef Ribs: A Primer
A steer is a huge animal, and the rib cage takes up a great deal of space on the carcass. There’s so much territory to cover, in fact, that the flavor and texture of the ribs might be very different, depending on where the cut was made.
Beef ribs can be divided into two basic categories: back ribs and short ribs. In fact, you can break them down even further than that, but here’s the rundown on each type.
These ribs are taken from the top section of the steer, right behind the shoulder. When the prime rib is cut from the bones, the back ribs are left behind.
Not a great deal of meat is left on the top of the bones—the butcher usually tries to cut the prime rib roast as generously as possible. Therefore, most of the meat on back ribs is in between the bones.
Back ribs measure about 6 to 8 inches long, and the bones can be distinguished by their curved shape. They’re excellent for the smoker, as long as you use indirect heat. You can also braise them in a low oven.
These are generally easier to find than beef back ribs, which is good news, since they’re also a popular choice. Unlike back ribs, they have plenty of meat on top of the bone, giving them an impressive appearance.
Short ribs come from the front portion of the steer. They’re almost completely flat, with an inch or two of meat on top of each one. Despite the name, they can measure up to 12 inches in length.
When choosing short ribs, make sure they’re well-marbled, with very little surface fat. They should be thick and robust, with the meat firmly attached to each bone.
Within the framework of short ribs, there are a couple of variations. Since they can be confusing, we’ve broken them down for you here.
Plate Short Ribs
These short ribs are longer than the others. They’re also especially hard to find at the grocery store. If you have your heart set on this cut, ask your butcher for help.
Chuck Short Ribs
As you might have guessed, these come from the area just below the chuck, running from the 1st to the 5th rib. They also have plenty of meat on the bone, but they’re shorter than plate cut ribs—about 3 to 6 inches.
There are a number of different styles that butchers can use for cutting beef ribs. It’s important to know which one you’re getting, as some are better suited to the smoker than others.
To make English cut short ribs, the butcher will cut between the ribs, leaving plenty of meat on top. They may either be sold as a rack of about 4 ribs, or as individual bones.
This cut leaves a layer of muscle and fat on top. If you don’t want to deal with this part yourself, ask the butcher to trim it off for you. The ribs should be advertised as “trimmed” or “untrimmed,” depending on whether this layer was left in place.
Similarly, if the beef ribs carry the “lean” label, that means the butcher removed most of the fat from that top layer. That saves you the trouble of trimming it, but it might result in a loss of flavor.
Be aware that it’s more common to find plate short ribs cut in the English style than chuck short ribs.
These ribs are typically cut about 1/2 inch thick, sliced across the bone. This gives you a thin strip of beef intersected with a few chunks of bone. Many Korean recipes call for this trimming style, which is often used for chuck short ribs.
Riblets are English-style beef ribs that have been separated into individual bones, then cut into pieces measuring 1 or 2 inches long. These are an ideal choice for braising in a low oven or slow cooker.
When the butcher cuts the meat away from the bone after making an English-style rib, you wind up with boneless rib meat. When sold boneless, the slabs usually measure about 8 inches long and 2 inches thick.
Why You Should Try Them
If you’ve never smoked beef ribs before, we highly recommend that you give them a try. When they’re done right, the meat should be smoky, succulent, and tender enough to pull clean away from the bone.
The secret to all that beef flavor is the amount of fat that can be found in the meat. Remember that when it comes to great barbecue, fat equals flavor. That makes beef ribs the ideal companion for your outdoor smoker.
Why Are Beef Ribs Hard To Find?
Now for the bad news: Unless you live in the heartland of the USA, it’s not always easy to find beef ribs. Outside of cattle country, these cuts are hard to come by.
One reason might be because processors tend to sell these cuts to restaurants and not the general public. Most professional chefs appreciate the fine qualities that beef ribs have to offer, and the restaurants are willing to pay top dollar for them.
It’s also possible that the majority of home chefs haven’t yet discovered how delightful these cuts can be when they’re done right. They do require a long, slow cooking process, which could be enough to deter some people.
If you’re having a hard time procuring beef ribs, ask your local butcher if they can find some for you. This may require a few days of planning ahead, but you’ll be rewarded with the cut you’re looking for, and the butcher can trim them however you’d like.
Another option would be to look online. Big-box stores such as Costco, Kroger, and Walmart often have beef ribs on sale. Since they’ll probably be sold in bulk, be prepared for a feast. You might also be able to add a portion to the freezer for a later date.
The Bottom Line
If you’re lucky enough to live in a spot where beef ribs are easy to come by, then congratulations. You can give these luscious cuts a regular spot in your cooking rotation.
Those of you who are having a harder time shouldn’t despair. Once you’ve established a good relationship with your butcher, they should be happy to help you get what you need.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!