How to Buy and Cook Ribs

More than a dish — an entire food category! — this barbecue favorite can be savored all year long. Here’s how to choose, cook and enjoy everything from baby backs to country-style ribs. Break out the napkins!
Published May 6, 2017
Most of us think of ribs as the ultimate barbecued meat, spicy and irresistible, a setup for hours of gnawing and lots of napkins. Pork spare ribs are the pinnacle of achievement for us backyard pit-masters. But long before we light the fire, when we’re facing the meat case at the supermarket, the choices can actually be manifold: country-style ribs, baby back ribs, rib tips and more.

Beef, pork and more options

Larger supermarkets can stock ribs from all sorts of animals: buffalo (like pumped-up beef ribs), antelope, venison, elk and wild boar. Some small producers at farmers’ markets offer lamb ribs. We’ve even seen smoked alligator ribs in some Florida barbecue pits. However, beef and pork divide the territory for most people.
  • Beef: Maybe the best part of a standing rib roast.
  • Pork: Not just spare ribs, but an astounding array of choices from all across the animal, some of them not even ribs at all!

You can often find large racks of ribs in sealed packs at the supermarket or at big-box stores. If possible, ask the butcher to divide them into individual ribs or smaller sections, depending on your needs. As an added bonus, the butcher will have to open the package and can make sure the meat inside is fresh. 

How to Cook Ribs

  • Barbecuing: Ribs are almost never cooked over direct heat (that is, they’re rarely grilled). They take too long and dry out too quickly. Instead, ribs are most often cooked with indirect, low heat (that is, they are barbecued), set to the side of the flame or coals. The best success here can be had with full rib racks or lean, evenly sized, cut-apart ribs.
  • Braising or stewing: Ribs can add tons of flavor to a pot of simmering vegetables and aromatics, a meaty accent for pure comfort food. Throw a rib or two into a pot of bean soup — or even some homemade marinara sauce. (See, you can have ribs in the winter, too!) Look for thick, meaty ribs — or even smoked ribs that have a good amount of meat left on the bones.
  • Oven-roasting: Ribs crave gentle, even heat — and so become soft and luxurious in the oven on a lipped baking sheet. A spicy rub works best to bring out even more flavor. This technique is best with whole racks or large sections of racks.
  • Smoking: The most labor-intensive cooking method can lead to the finest meal. You’ll need a day to watch the smoker, controlling its heat for an even, low burn. Choose racks of ribs or fat, thick, meaty, individual beef ribs.


How to Add Flavor


  • The meat on ribs is tasty and sweet — and doesn’t necessarily need help. So the best rubs offer contrasts and flavor notes. Look for bottled rubs at the supermarket. Or make a signature blend to store in a sealed bottle in a dark, cool pantry all summer.
  • If possible, choose a rub without salt (so you can be in control of the sodium in your meal).
  • Even traditional spice blends — Italian seasoning, herbes de Provence — work well as rubs.
  • Ribs don’t need to be oiled — or even coated with nonstick spray — before a rub is massaged in place. The meat will be sticky enough to catch and hold the rub. That said, a little vinegar smeared on the meat before the rub can add a spark of flavor.
  • For the most intense use of a rub, get it on the ribs the day before; seal the ribs in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 24 hours.


  • Ribs get a bad rap for being messy. Mostly, it’s the sauce that causes the drips and stains.
  • Any barbecue sauce is best as a post-cooking application. Sauces mopped on ribs while they cook just mess up the grill, gum up the grates, and morph into no more than a coating of carbon on the meat.
  • If you like the taste of the sauce after it’s been caramelized a bit, smear it on the ribs after they’re tender, then move them over direct heat for a few minutes to sear the sauce. Or simply have a batch of bottled sauces at the table, letting everyone add their own.
  • While sweet sauces are an American barbecue favorite, consider those with vinegar or chilies for more flair — and a better complement to the already sweet meat.


Visual Guide

Baby back ribs, spare ribs, beef ribs, button ribs — summer wouldn’t be the same without them. Here’s a guide to eight of the most common ribs in our supermarkets.


Beef ribs
Officially called “beef back ribs,” they’re sometimes the big bones that lie underneath a standing rib roast — along with more long rib bones. They’re flavorful but less sweet than pork ribs, and not terribly meaty. And the meat takes hours to get tender — so beef ribs are perfect in a smoker or low-heat oven. Or add a few to the slow cooker as a savory accent to your favorite stew or soup. By the way, don’t confuse them with beef short ribs, which are marbled hunks of meat on the bone that require long braising to get tender.

Pork spare ribs
These pork ribs are the American barbecue standard — and a favorite in Chinese restaurants. At the supermarket, you can find them as whole racks or cut into smaller sections of the larger rack. Also called “side ribs” there’s nothing “spare” about them: The fairly straight bones are laced with marbled, sweet meat that lies in between the bones rather than on top of them. Each rib includes bits and pieces of cartilage at one end, as well as other chewy (yet very flavorful) tidbits. At home, divide a rack of spare ribs into individual ribs after cooking, not before.

St. Louis–style ribs
Think of these as the royalty of pork spare ribs: The bottom of a rack of spare ribs has been shaved off for a neater, squared-off rack, and the flap of meat along the shallow, inside curve of the bones has been removed for a more graceful look. Because of all this trimming, St. Louis–style ribs are leaner, easier to cook, and easier to eat (without a lot to gnaw on). With most of the cartilage gone, they’ll often cook more quickly than standard spare ribs — but not by much, maybe only 10 percent less time in the heat. Expect to pay more for their convenience and aesthetic.

Baby back ribs
Smaller than spare ribs, with a more pronounced curve to the bones, these racks are not from baby pigs but rather are the arc of smaller bones from near the back of an adult pig. The bones are coated in meat: top, bottom and in between. Baby back ribs are the leanest and most tender of any pork ribs — and also the quickest cookers (although they’ll still take a couple of hours). The racks should be cooked whole and then cut for serving.

These are strips of meaty rib-bone pieces shaved from either spare ribs or baby back ribs — in both cases, to make the racks flatter and neater for packaging. There’s nothing but bone and meat: no cartilage or gristle. Think of a length of riblets as a short pork-rib rack with the bones only 2 to 3 inches long. (Indeed, some butchers in the U. S. slice whole racks into two or three strips of riblets — great for appetizers!) Cook riblets as you would a large rack of ribs. Or ask the butcher to slice them into smaller sections and use them as a flavoring agent in stews and braises.

Rib tips
These are most often found either in long lengths of meat and bone or in small 1-inch chunks, all cut from the cartilage- and bone-rich strips of meat sliced off standard spare ribs to create St. Louis–style ribs. (They’re sliced, by the way, from the opposite end of the rib rack that the riblets come from.) Rib tips are often served in Chinese restaurants as an appetizer, little bits of bone with chewy, sticky meat still attached. Because of all the connective tissue, rib tips need to be braised or stewed a long while to get tender.

Country-style ribs

Without the characteristic bone arching through the meat, these have very little to do with a pig’s ribs — except for the fact that they’re called “ribs” and cut to look like ribs. They’re actually cut from near the shoulder and are sold bone-in or boneless. Meaty and chunky, these are best braised — in the oven, on the stovetop, or in a slow cooker. Look for leaner cuts, like mini pork chops, rather than the heavily marbled country-style ribs often available in large packages in the meat case.

Button ribs
These also have nothing to do with spare ribs. They are, in fact, 4- to 6-inch strips of meat with small, buttonlike, round bones embedded along their lengths. They’re taken from the small, nubby strip of bones way back on the pig. They have been popularized as “riblets” by certain American family-casual restaurants — although they have nothing to do with riblets, either. Based on that popularity, they are now sometimes sold in supermarkets as “riblets.” The best cooking method is to steam them until almost tender, then finish them over direct high heat on the grill to add a smoky flavor.