Rib-bit

It’s funny what you remember years after a moment in time. I’m no psychologist, but I imagine moments accompanied by heightened emotions – good and bad – make certain incidents more impressionable on our memories. I remember a good deal of my junior high days, as I’m sure many others do: a time of wading waist-deep in the murky river flowing between the land of innocent childhood and the shores of independent adulthood. One of the great challenges my classmates and I faced in that awkward, angst-ridden age was the fetal pig dissection in seventh grade Life Science class. Scalpels and specimen pins were handed over to this bunch of pre-teens without any warm-up dissections on, say, an earthworm or frog: just one example of my formidable early education. At the end of our dissection odyssey came the exam: we silently moved from one spreadeagled piglet stuck with numbered pins to another and wrote down what we believed to be the correct porcine part by the corresponding number on a single sheet of paper. In our teacher’s entire lengthy tenure, no one had ever aced the exam: a fact he enjoyed declaring to his pupils as they poked and prodded in the weeks leading up to the final test.

However, while this challenge might have been a tall order for middle-schoolers, I believe it was one of the life experiences that stoked my interest in Meat Science and the meat industry at an early age. (Funnily enough, I dissected pigs again in eleventh grade and then was a teacher’s aide and helped with dissections in a later term. I never dissected any other type of animal until after high school.) Also, while I did admittedly well on the seventh grade dissection exam, my teacher pointed out one of my errors to me this way: “When you go to a restaurant and want to order ribs, ask for a plate of intercostals.” I had incorrectly identified the muscles between the ribs as…well, I don’t remember that, but the correct term has been rattling around in my brain since then. So, to share this knowledge, this post will explore varieties of pork and beef ribs: delicious in any season, but even more fun in the summertime when outdoor barbecuing is a favorite pastime for many home chefs.

PORK RIBS

This diagram is adapted from the Pork Bone Structure Chart and Rib Guide in The Meat Buyer’s Guide (North American Meat Processors Association [NAMP], 2007) and is used for reference below.

Pork ribs are chiefly divided into the back ribs (A), spareribs (B), and riblets (shaded area, E). (Step-by-step photos showing the separation of these rib portions can be found here.) Back ribs (a.k.a., “baby back ribs”) are associated with the loin primal cut, and an entire section will contain at least eight ribs and their attached intercostal meat, and small pieces of vertebrae may still be attached between the ribs (NAMP, 2007). These ribs have a curved appearance and may have some deliciously tender loin meat attached to them (Goldwyn, 2020a). Spareribs originate in the spareribs/belly primal cut, and the separation of the sternum (“breastbone”) and cartilage that connects ribs to the sternum divides spareribs into St. Louis Style spareribs (C) and brisket bones (D; NAMP, 2007). Riblets, which is perhaps one of the funnest meat cut names, contain at least four lumbar transverse processes – the vertebra structures that are parallel to the ground – and the lean meat associated with them (NAMP, 2007).

Portions of vertebrae can appear in different types of pork ribs. Photo credit: Wikipedia, 2020.

Both “wet” (applying sauce to ribs through the cooking process) and “dry” (rubbing ribs with dry ingredients prior to cooking) cooking are common methods for preparing ribs (Pork Checkoff, NA).

BEEF RIBS

Pork and beef ribs have similarities, but then again, a pig isn’t a cow, so differences are natural.

Like pork ribs, the curved portion of beef ribs extending down and out from the spinal column are referred to as “back ribs” and have relatively little meat beyond the intercostals between the bones (NAMP, 2007). This is due in large part to the high value of the muscles that lay on top of the back ribs as steaks such as the ribeye (Goldwyn, 2020b) Beef ribs inherently have more connective tissue and therefore need cooking methods which can improve tenderness such as barbecuing, braising, mechanical tenderizing, or reducing the surface area to allow more marinade absorption (Goldwyn, 2020b).

The other type of beef rib to cover is short ribs. Short ribs are relatively straighter than back ribs and can originate in the chuck (ribs #2 – #5), rib (ribs #6 – #10), or plate (ribs #6 – #12).

Back ribs originate in the rib primal, but short ribs can come from the chuck, rib, and plate primal. Photo credit: Beef2Live, 2020.

In addition to the intercostal muscles, short ribs are associated with the serratus ventralis muscle, so these ribs are meatier than back ribs (NAMP, 2007). (The serratus ventralis is necessary for shoulder and neck movement, and more information on it can be found on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bovine Myology site, here.) Short ribs are cut in different ways to meet customer preference and cooking styles (Hansen, 2020).

  • Flanken cut ribs are cut at a right angle to the bone, so about four to five pieces of rib about 1/2″ thick are spaced along a strip of intercostal meat and any attached serratus ventralis.
  • English cut ribs are separated parallel to the rib, so a length of bone usually 6″ to 8″ is present. These can be purchased as a rack with multiple ribs or individually.
  • Riblets are English cut ribs reduced in size to 1″ to 2″ long pieces (cut at a right angle to the bone).

The last type of rib to cover is the “country-style” boneless rib. These exist in both pork and beef forms, with the pork country-style ribs coming from the rib end of the pork loin (Pork Checkoff, 2020), and beef country-style ribs coming from the chuck primal (Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, NA). But if ribs are technically bones, I ask you: is it possible to have “boneless ribs”?


When I started this blog, I was looking forward to writing about ribs when one of our local non-profits would hold its annual “Ribfest” fundraising event in June. This recently established tradition showcases teams serving pork ribs and vying for the top prize decided by a popular vote. Along with many other events, Ribfest was postponed until this fall, and who can say if it will be held at all this year? However, whenever it is held next, I plan to support this worthwhile cause and buy a ticket to enjoy a plate full of smoky, saucy intercostals.

REFERENCES

Beef2Live (7 July 2020). “Beef cuts: list of American primal cuts.” Beef2Live. Retrieved from https://beef2live.com/story-beef-cuts-list-american-primal-cuts-0-103897.

Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (date unavailable). “Country-style ribs.” Accessed 18 July 2020. Beef It’s What’s For Dinner. Retrieved from https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/cuts/cut/2918/country-style-ribs.

Goldwyn, M. (28 April 2020a). “Pork cuts explained.” Amazingribs.com. Retrieved from https://amazingribs.com/tested-recipes/pork-recipes/pork-cuts-explained.

Goldwyn, M. (7 July 2020b). “The science of beef ribs.” Amazingribs.com. Retrieved from https://amazingribs.com/tested-recipes/beef-and-bison-recipes/science-of-beef-ribs.

Hansen, S. (10 February 2020). “Beef ribs: the different cuts & variations explained.” BBQ Champs Academy. Retrieved from https://bbqchamps.com/beef-ribs-different-cuts-variations/.

North American Meat Processors Association (2007). The Meat Buyer’s Guide. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Pork Checkoff (date unavailable). “Types of pork ribs.” Accessed 18 July 2020. Pork.org. Retrieved from https://www.pork.org/cooking/cuts/ribs/.

Wikipedia (7 July 2020). “Vertebra.” Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertebra.

Published by Amy G.

I'm on a mission to educate readers about meat and its part in human existence: its science, the many ways it's enjoyed, and the people who prepare it for others' enjoyment and nourishment.

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