Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs
I am not a pitmaster. Let’s get that out of the way first. You don’t need to be one though to make lusciously tender, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs or spare ribs.
What you do need is time — some three plus hours in fact. Once the ribs are in the oven though, it is largely a waiting game unless you are the type to make your own sauce (kudos to you). The waiting is the best part. Don’t let Tom Petty tell you otherwise. The delicious smell of meat and fat slowly cooking together will consume your home and pleasure your sinuses.
Some of you are only here for the recipe, so please click the link or head below, but be warned that well-executed dishes require context and understanding. All things you miss when you immediately skip to the steps of a recipe.
What Is the Difference Between Baby Back Ribs and Spare Ribs?
The differences are key because they affect cooking time. The first step in executing any dish is to understand what you are making. Most recipes online do not even describe the cut of meat. They most often assume you purchased baby back ribs, when in fact spare ribs are often cheaper and look somewhat similar.
Both cuts are from the bountiful pig, but baby back ribs come from where the rib meets the spine after the loin is removed. They are called “baby” because they are shorter than spare ribs — no baby pigs were hurt in this production, Wilbur. Given the fact they are more lean and tender than spare ribs, they are oftentimes more expensive.
Spare ribs are fattier as they are cut from the pig’s belly where they run along the breastbone and cartilage. The side nearest the breastbone is where the rib tips are. You will often see spare ribs sold as “St Louis Style” or “St Louis Cut” which simply means the rib tips have been removed. You can do this yourself if your spare ribs did not already come this way. It’s a good method for removing the extra flap of meat mired with bones and cartilage.
Although less lean, spare ribs have more meat on their bones than baby back ribs. They also generally have more marbling and therefore flavor. While one full rack of baby back ribs will feed one hungry adult, you can probably feed two hungry adults (or more) with one rack of spare ribs. It is hard to complain about more flavor and bang for your buck.
Cooking Types and Time
Both types of ribs require patience in the oven. Hours of patience. The worst thing you can do to a beautiful rack of ribs is rush the cooking process. You do not want chewy, tough meat that you have to peel from the bone when you can otherwise enjoy it tender and in a way that practically jumps from the bone to your mouth.
The oven is only one option. Ribs can also be smoked, braised, or grilled. We will focus on oven cooking here, which may not be the best option, but it still gets the job done well.
I bake my ribs at 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Some chefs go even lower to 250 degrees, but keep in mind this will increase cooking time. I think the output is about the same.
For baby back ribs you will need about 2 ½ to 3 hours of cooking time at 275. For spare ribs, the cooking time is longer for a standard size rack given the fact it’s meatier. Oven time of 3 to 3 ½ hours should do the trick.
Before you cook — and this is important — remove the membrane on the back of the ribs. You will not indulge in full fall-off-the-bone goodness if you don’t. The membrane has a slimy texture and is a white film that runs along the back of the rack. You can usually remove it easily by running a small knife underneath and along its side, while pulling it slowly away from the rack with your hand.
Spice Rub and Seasoning
Another important prep item is the spice rub and seasoning you put on the ribs. Reasonable minds differ here, with some advocating simple (just salt and pepper) and others more exotic. I am somewhere in between. I typically create and apply the following spice rub, which does flavor wonders for the ribs:
Use a small food brush or your bare hands to rub this mixture into the ribs. Apply on both sides. Thank me later.
In terms of sauce, most of the pre-made and bottled barbecue sauce will do just fine. Some people swear by their own homemade recipe. I prefer to do half sauce, half spice rub by itself. The rub described above brings powerful flavor to the ribs, to the point that extra barbecue sauce is unnecessary. If you choose to go with a sauce, make sure to add it at the very end, otherwise it will burn. You want it just caramelized enough to marry with the other flavors.
Full Recipe and Sides
Now that you understand the difference between the two most common rib cuts — baby back ribs and spare ribs — you are ready to chef it up. Below is the full recipe, step-by-step. I highly recommend pairing your wonderful rack of meat with any or all of the following:
- Cornbread (with a little honey for dipping, say hello to heaven)
- Cold bean salad (skip the baked beans and go with this lighter, fresher option)
- Mac n’ cheese (this is in the “to hell with everything” food category, and sometimes life calls for it)
- Brussel sprouts (if you’re only interested in healthier options, go with this, stir-fried in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and garlic)
Now for the long-awaited recipe:
- Pre-heat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pat down ribs with a paper towel to remove as much excess moisture as possible.
- Remove the membrane on the back of the ribs with a small knife as mentioned above
- Create this Spice Rub by individually applying each of the following (in equal amounts) from one end of the rack to the other (and on both sides):
- Press and spread the spices across the rack with either a food brush or your hands.
- Cover a baking sheet in aluminum foil and cover the rack in aluminum foil as well so it’s airtight.
- Put in the oven for the following amount of time based on rib type:
a) Baby Back Ribs — 2 ½ to 3 hours (assuming approximately 1.5 to 2 pounds)
b) Spare Ribs — 3 to 3 ½ hours (assuming approximately 3.5 pounds)
Finally, remove from the oven and apply BBQ sauce as desired, then insert back in the oven for only 2–3 minutes until sauce has caramelized. Once the cooking time has completed, let the meat rest (covered) for at least 15 minutes so it can breathe before you serve and cut.