How to Buy, Trim, and Cook Ribs: Tips from the Butcher

Need help with how to prep ribs, how to smoke ribs, or which ones to buy? Look no further! Our inhouse butcher Mark Holzkopf breaks down everything you need to know about one of the best cuts of pork known to man.

Cooked pork ribs seasoned with dry rub and cooking on a grill

Pork ribs are my absolute favorite meat to barbecue; I mean come on, who doesn’t love ‘em?

There’s just something about picking up a rib with your fingers and chewing all that meaty, smokey deliciousness. The thing that I love most about ribs is their ability to handle almost any type of flavor or spice, from a traditional barbecue rub to ones that have been glazed. Some of my favorites include bourbon-glazed, sticky Asian, jerk spiced, hoisin ginger… you get the picture. As my wife always says, “It’s all about the flavor!”

Where the Ribs Are Located On the Pig

Chart detailing all the butcher cuts of a pig

Let’s start with baby back ribs: they are cut from where the rib meets the spine, at the top of the pigs back. They are lean, tender, and the most popular, so that equals the most expensive. There are thirteen ribs on a rack, they have curved bones and are shorter on one end due to the natural tapering of a pig’s rib cage. Contrary to what you might think, baby back ribs are not from a baby pig. They are called that because they are smaller in size compared to the larger spare ribs.

Next are the spare ribs. They are the same thirteen ribs, just down lower on the pig by the belly. Spare ribs are meatier, the bones are larger, flatter. They do contain more fat but remember, fat equals flavor! Spares are less expensive than baby backs and will take a little more cooking time to make them tender.

Full rack of ribs cut in half to show the smaller baby back ribs on the top and the larger spare ribs on the bottom


Buying Ribs

Making the best ribs ever starts with knowing what to look for when buying them. When looking for ribs at your local butcher shop, or market, make sure they have an even layer of meat across the rack. You certainly don't want to buy a slab that has a large amount of meat on one end and little to no meat on the other. Particularly with baby backs, don’t choose slabs that have exposed bones, known as “shiners”, as they were cut too close to the bone and may fall out during the cooking process.

Also, avoid ribs that have been “enhanced”, meaning they have been pumped up with an added solution (mostly water and salt). So be sure to check the label! The USDA does not grade pork the same way it does beef. Pork is inspected for “wholesomeness”, meaning it has been inspected and passed from visible disease and is safe to cook and consume. The pigs today are bred to produce very uniform and tender meat.

How Many Slabs of Ribs Do I Need?

Being a butcher, I am always helping people out with their meat purchases. People will ask, “How many slabs do I need for my barbecue?”. I always suggest one slab of baby backs will feed two adults. When it comes to spare ribs, I always figure one slab for three people, just because they are larger and meatier.

How to Trim Ribs

First, make sure your workstation and cutting board are large enough to handle the amount of ribs you are cooking. Open up your package of ribs, pat them dry with a paper towel, and lay them out on the cutting board with the meat side up. Closely look at your ribs; trim off any dangling meat or excessive fat.

Next, turn the ribs over to remove the membrane covering the rib bones. To remove the membrane, simply insert a kitchen butter knife on top of a rib bone on the small end of the rack of ribs; gently push the knife upwards to loosen the membrane. Grab the membrane with a paper towel and slowly pull it toward the opposite end of the rack. If it tears, just repeat the process until it is all removed.

Photo showing a knife removing the membrane from the back on a rack of ribs

Photo showing how to remove the membrane from the back of a rack of ribs using a paper towel

Now it’s time to apply your favorite dry rub. If you want classic barbecue ribs, use a rub heavy on brown sugar, paprika, salt, and pepper. Our Redwood rub is perfect here and pairs great with most bbq sauces.

With the rack laying on the meat side, simply sprinkle the rub on to the entire rack making sure you don’t miss any areas, even the sides of the ribs. Flip the meat over and do the same on the other side. I like to season my ribs an hour before they go on the smoker.

How to Cook Ribs

Photo of three racks of ribs cooking on a smoker

If a rack of ribs is improperly cooked, it can be tough and dry. You’ve probably experienced this in sub-par restaurants plenty of times! The best way to cook pork ribs is the well known 3-2-1 method. This is the foolproof method for fall-off-the-bone tenderness, especially spare ribs. Once your barbecue pit is up to temp (225 degrees) place the seasoned racks on the smoker, bone side down, for 3 hours. After 3 hours, the ribs will look golden brown and will have absorbed all the smoke flavor they need.

Next, lay down a double sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil and place each slab separately in the foil, meat side down. Just before sealing them up tightly, I like to pour a little apple juice in to help steam the meat to become tender. Place the sealed ribs back on the smoker for another 2 hours.

Now we are almost there! Remove the ribs from the foil and place them back on the smoker, meat side up, and hit them with your favorite barbecue sauce or glaze for 1 more hour. Some folks even like hitting the ribs on a gas grill for a few minutes to char things up. If you need to rotate things on your smoker, you can throw wrapped ribs on a baking sheet and place it in a preheated oven at 200°. This method will almost guarantee you the best ribs ever!

Photo of fully cooked rack of ribs covered in dry rub seasoning

Mark Holzkopf

About the author:

Mark Holzkopf

Contributing Writer

Mark Holzkopf has been in the meat business for over thirty-five years. He started as an apprentice meat cutter and over the years has worked his way up as a meat manager, meat buyer, and even owned his own meat market. Being around meat all day has sparked and heightened Mark’s passion for grilling and barbecuing over the years. Mark enjoys using his expertise as a butcher to help spread more knowledge about meat, tips on buying, grilling, and smoking those prime cuts!