As you can see there are several different names for all the different cuts of pork ribs. Pigs only really have 1 set of ribs so it’s easy to see how there can be some confusion on where they come from.
Pigs have anywhere from 14-16 rib bones (depending on breed) that are attached at their spine and go down to the belly. Starting from the top the full length of ribs is cut into 2 main sections: baby back ribs and spare ribs (see below).
The following is an explanation of the different cuts and sub-cuts of ribs. For recipes and how to cook them see the barbecue recipes page. For other tips on preparing and cooking pork ribs check out: spritzing ribs, removing rib membrane, 2-1-1 ribs and 3-2-1 ribs.
Baby Back Ribs, Baby Backs or Loin Back Ribs
Cut from the top section of ribs, just below the pork loin muscle, the baby back ribs are cut shorter than spare ribs (hence the name “babies”). A typical commercial rack contains 10-13 rib bones per slab. This rib section is the most tender and the leanest of the ribs. These ribs are curved or U-shaped and have a natural tapering down as they lead to the back of the hog.
Baby back ribs are usually the easiest to cook of the rib cuts and tend to command a higher price due to demand and the tenderness of the meat. Prices usually range from $4-8 per pound for baby backs. They are one of the most expensive cuts of pork due to high consumer demand.
Spare Ribs, Spareribs, Side Ribs or Spares
Once the top or baby back ribs have been cut off that leaves the spare ribs or the belly side of the ribs. Hence the reason why some believe the term “spare” refers to what’s left over. Others indicate the etymology is from a Low German word “ribbesper” referring to roasting ribs on a “sper” or spit.
Spare ribs are the section closer to the belly of the hog, where bacon comes from. They are large in size (2-4 lbs or more), are very meaty, and are somewhat less tender than baby back ribs. Spare ribs tend to have more fat, more flavor and cost less per pound than baby back ribs. That's why some love spares for their flavorful meat while choose them just based on price. Prices usually range from $2-7 per pound for spares.
St. Louis Cut Ribs, St. Louis Style Ribs or SLC Ribs
A slab of spare ribs can be cooked as-is or can be cut down further into “St. Louis cut” ribs and rib tips. St. Louis cut ribs remove the skirt meat from the back of the ribs and brisket/flap pieces. Your butcher can do this for you, but it would be cheaper to do this yourself. St. Louis cut ribs are shaped similar to baby backs and will cook more similar to baby backs than spare ribs due to their end weight.
On the back-side of the ribs there is a piece called the skirt runs diagonally that should be removed. This meat will burn long before your ribs would be done.
Then along the bottom you can bend or push on it to feel where the hard bones end and the soft cartilage begins. This portion, called the brisket, is a flavorful, meaty cut that has small pieces of soft cartilage instead of bones. Just cut this section off as shown in the pictures. Then square up the edge of the ribs by cutting off the flap meat - you can see when cut they resemble baby back ribs (top of the cutting board in the picture below).
Store the brisket/flap meat in your freezer until you have 5-6 racks worth and make some rib tips or just put them in your chili for some great flavor.
Country-Style Ribs or Country Ribs
Although these are not actually ribs (no rib bones). They are cut from the top, front end of a pig near the shoulder. Country-style ribs are somewhere in-between pork chops and pork loin. They’re very cheap and versatile. They grill well, brine well and I’ve even had good experience doing some of these with Meathead’s Vermont Maple Glazed Pig Candy. In fact I think these turn out better with country-style ribs than using baby backs. Prices usually range from $2-4 per pound for country-style "ribs".
Not ribs. In fact, I’m not sure what they are;)