There are two schools of rib thought in the United States. One, they’re something you slather in store-bought BBQ sauce and devour with minimal thought and maximum beer. The other is that barbecuing ribs requires an intimidating amount of time and commitment and is best experienced in rural temples run by wood-fire cooks. Both are true, and yet rib rapture can also be had in your own kitchen on a weeknight.
Americans hardly have a culinary claim on ribs: They’re equally popular in most of Asia, Mexico and even Norway, for starters. Yet no one would deny they’re part of the American comfort-food canon. Pork ribs were long enjoyed as part of whole-hog cooking, but didn’t emerge as their own cut until the advent of refrigerated meat processing at the end of the 1800s. Pitmasters (most of them Black and pulling influences from throughout the diaspora) popularized the “rib shack” across the country, and by the 1950s, handling of this once-humble cut evolved and you’ll now find it in fine-dining restaurants and suburban kitchens alike.
There are few other ingredients that give such an impressive payoff for minimal effort. Once you’ve prepared your rub, glaze or sauce base, it’s just a matter of getting them in the oven and forgetting about them while you relax with a glass of wine or two. The key is understanding how to navigate the world of ribs at your butcher or supermarket.
Know Your Cuts
Short ribs are the most common beef rib, taken from two places on the underside of the animal. Plate short ribs are long and meaty, but little seen outside specialty butcher shops. Chuck short ribs—which are what’s usually labeled simply as “short ribs”— are shorter but even meatier. “English cut” ribs are cut parallel to the bones, leaving a thick layer of meat rich in marbled fat and collagen that impart moisture as they melt into the meat. “Flanken cut” ribs are cut across the bones, for thin, quicker-cooking pieces with pieces of bone throughout. Back ribs are rarely sold on their own; they’re what hold the prime rib in place on a standing rib roast.
Both have their fans, but pork ribs can be oversimplified as follows: Baby back ribs are more tender; spare ribs are more tasty. Baby backs are from the top of the rib cage, lean, tender and short, hence the name. Spare ribs, taken from the underbelly near the bacon, have more fat and chew, and BBQ connoisseurs tend to prefer them. They’re sometimes sold as “St. Louis” or “center cut” ribs, where the breastbone, cartilage and flap have been removed to make an attractive rectangular shape. The cut parts are called rib tips, and are both economical and delicious, but require long, moist cooking (sous vide is a perfect method for them).
What About Lamb Ribs?
Lamb ribs, also called lamb breast, are worth seeking out for lamb fans. They resemble pork spare ribs with even more fat, but as lamb fat is strongly flavored, try punchy seasonings like mustard, garlic, cumin or rosemary. Cook long and slow, so the fat renders, then finish at high heat so any remaining fat crisps up.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!