Spare ribs and baby back ribs, also called loin ribs, are varieties of pork ribs, but they are different in size, tenderness and fat content. Cooking methods for each are somewhat different as well, although both are staples of the backyard--or the professional chef's--barbecue. While we sometimes associate pork ribs with traditional Southern or Western cooking in the United States, a number of different cuisines around the world use pork ribs extensively.
Spare ribs are taken from the lower section of a pig's ribs, near the belly, where bacon comes from. Baby back ribs are so named because they are cut from the upper portion of the ribs, near the back. The pig's rib cage tapers at one end, making a rack of baby back ribs shorter on one end than the other.
Spare ribs weigh more than baby back ribs and are flatter. They contain more bone, and according to some barbecue experts, more flavorful meat because of their proximity to the high fat content bacon section of the hog. At the supermarket, they usually are less expensive than baby back ribs. Ribs are packaged in "racks," which have 10 to 12 bones per rack. A rack of spare ribs weighs about 3 lbs.; a rack of baby backs weighs about half that much.
No one is certain where the term "spare ribs" originated. One notion is that it simply refers to the meat that is "spare" after the belly of the hog is removed in the butchering process. Another story of European origin is that spare ribs really means "spear ribs," because they were often roasted over an open fire on spears. Many years ago, butchers sometimes gave away ribs because they were thought to be too tough and too high in fat to consume.
Spare ribs have more surface area and must be cooked longer to become tender than the smaller baby back ribs. This makes spare ribs ideal for a slow cooking process involving low heat and smoke. Rib enthusiasts often use special cooking units called smokers to barbecue spare ribs rather than typical backyard grills. Spare ribs are often used in barbecue contests at fairs and other regional events.
Baby back ribs can reach the ideal degree of tenderness with a shorter cooking time, so they can be cooked on a grill or in the oven.
Ribs are easily adapted to a variety of cooking styles. Chefs often start by spreading a dry rub over the ribs a few hours before cooking. Dry rubs are a mixture of herbs and spices. As the ribs cook, the dry spices form a flavorful crust on the meat. In the Southwest, the rubs often contain dried chili peppers, which add both heat and flavor.
Because ribs are cooked for a relatively long time, it is important to keep them moist. Basting sauces made of herbs, vinegar and spices are often used, but some chefs use citrus-based sauces with lime or orange, which work great on baby back ribs, or add flavor with such ingredients as beer, cola or bourbon. Chefs are limited only by their imaginations when coming up with sauces to use on ribs. Thanks to the popularity of ribs, there numerous delicious sauces on the grocery store shelves as well. When the ribs come off the grill, they are often served with an additional sauce that is either spread over the ribs or presented on the side.
- Book: America's Best BBQ: 100 Recipes from America's Best Smokehouses, Pits, Shacks, Rib Joints, Roadhouses, and Restaurants, Ardie A. Davis, Chef Paul Kirk; 2009
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