Spare and Baby Back Ribs: The Difference is in the Bones

Pork ribs are a quintessential summer backyard barbecue staple. Whether you slather them in thick barbecue sauce or keep it simple with a dry rub, ribs are one of the most popular meats to cook on the grill. When it comes to pork ribs, you've got a variety of options at the grocery store, which can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Pork ribs is a generic term for several types of ribs with the two most popular kinds being spare ribs and baby back ribs.

What Are Spare Ribs?

Barbecue ribs on a cutting board

Cut from the rib cage, Spare ribs are located directly underneath the baby back ribs. Unlike the baby backs, these have less meat on top of the bone and more meat nestled between the bones called flap meat. Spare ribs also have more fat and marbling, which gives the protein a meatier, richer flavor. All that being said, they're a bit tougher due to the number of bones and cartilage interspersed in the rib.

When sold, spare ribs come with a minimum of 11 bones per rack and are typically 2.5-3.5 pounds. Side by side a spare rib is flatter, less curved, and slightly longer than the baby back. A rack of spare ribs are typically cheaper than baby backs, making them a great option to feed a large party of people, especially cooked low and slow on the smoker.

What Are Baby Back Ribs?

Baby back ribs

These ribs are slightly shorter than spare ribs and are closest to the backbone, which is where their cute "baby back" nickname comes from. Baby back ribs are cut from the upper rib cage, just above the spare ribs and are located under the loin muscle, attached to the backbone of the pig. The baby back rib is slightly curved, making it easy to identify them.

When you purchase baby back ribs in the grocery store, one rack weighs about two pounds and you can expect 11-13 ribs per rack. Since baby back ribs weigh less than short ribs, the cooking time is shorter. Baby backs are also leaner than spare ribs, making them more tender. Most butchers will also leave some extra loin meat on the rib so you have more meat to sink your teeth into. That being said, baby backs tend to be pricier than spare ribs. Despite the higher cost, baby backs continue to be a popular rib choice in America and are great for serving at your next barbecue.

How To Cook the Perfect Pork Ribs

One favored style of cooking pork ribs is the 3-2-1 method. It's a low and slow style of cooking that requires a smoker or a grill that can be used as a smoker. Cooking the ribs this way ensures they are tender juicy, with a hint of smoke flavor.

First, you take the rack, season it liberally, and smoke it for 3 full hours. Next, wrap the ribs in foil and add your liquid of choice. Return the wrapped rack back to the smoker for 2 hours. Lastly, remove the foil, add barbecue sauce, and smoke for one hour.

The final result is a fall-off-the-bone, melt-in-your-mouth piece of meat. The best part is this method works great with baby backs and spare ribs.

Our Favorite Pork Rib Recipes:

READ MORE: Here's How Long to Smoke Baby Back Ribs for Tender, Smoky Perfection