While pork ribs get a lot of attention, beef ribs deserve just as much love.
Located near the ribeye, beef ribs are full of connective tissue and marbling, making them ideal for low and slow cooking.
Beef ribs can be confusing to buy, with lots of regional variations. In this guide, we’ll break down the main types of beef ribs so you know what to order when you get to your butcher.
Beef Ribs for Beginners
There is a lot of variation between butchers as to how long to leave the bones, and how much meat they leave on them, so it can get a little tricky to recognize the different types of beef ribs.
For instance, some butchers will leave the “cap” or the muscle called the “spinalis dorsi” on, while others will remove it.
Especially when you are new to cooking ribs, this variation can be baffling, as the ribs you get from one supplier may look different from another despite technically being the same cut.
However, getting to know your way around the ribcage of a steer will help ease this confusion, so let’s look a little closer at how the rib is broken down.
The three types of beef ribs
The 13 ribs that make up a whole side of beef are broken up into three main parts.
- Plate Short Ribs
- Back Ribs
- Chuck Short Ribs
Let’s take a more detailed look at each of the main types of beef ribs.
Plate Short Ribs
These are the ribs you will most likely see when you turn up to a Texas barbecue joint. This cut is big, meaty, and tender.
Perfect for barbecue.
They usually come in a set of three ribs, being the sixth, seventh and eighth. Just one of these bones can weigh 1 – 1.25 pounds!
You can often find them sold as single ribs, but I find the whole slab works best otherwise the meat can dry out during cooking.
Problem is, they can be hard to come by for your ordinary, backyard, pitmaster.
Often they are only available from commercial suppliers or specialty butchers.
Aside from their size, one reason these ribs are so popular is that they pack a punch when it comes to flavor. There is a lot of fat and connective tissue in this meat, so when it is cooked down you get a rich, beefy taste.
Best Way to Cook: Cooking these ribs is sometimes compared to cooking brisket, as there is a similar fat content.
The best way to cook them is low and slow, so the fat can break down while the meat stays moist.
A simple Texas-style rub with equal parts pepper and kosher salt is a great option.
You can also add garlic powder and paprika for color. We have an in-depth recipe for Smoked Beef Ribs which you can check out.
However, it is completely up to you to decide whether you stick with tradition, or try out some other flavors.
These ribs come from a little higher up the beast, towards the spine. This is the area that the prime rib roast hails from.
The prime rib roast is one of the priciest cuts, so in most cases, the butcher will take most of the meat from this area to sell as part of the roast.
While these ribs might have less meat on them, you will still find some pretty good meat between the ribs.
Best Way to Cook: There is less meat on these ribs, so they will not take as long to cook as some of the meatier rib cuts.
They are also a little more tender, owing to the quality of the meat this part of the animal produces.
Many like to get a little more adventurous with flavor when cooking back ribs.
A sweet barbecue also sauce tends to work well.
You can cook these indirectly over the grill, or even try braising them.
Owing to the marrow in the bones, you will find a lot of flavor can be added to stews when you cook them this way.
Chuck Short Ribs
They are probably the easiest rib to buy from the supermarket. They are nice and meaty, although they don’t quite compare to the plate short rib.
They will have a smaller bone than the plate short rib and generally will have a block of meat at one end of the bone.
These ribs can tend to contain a fair amount of hard fat.
How Best to Cook: These ribs are great to grill, and are very popular in Korean cooking.
They also do well when marinated, braised or even stir-fried when the meat is cut off the bone.
While there is plenty of inventive stuff you can do with these ribs, they are still fine to smoke, just like you would short plate ribs.
Keep in mind that you will not need to smoke them as long as you would short plate ribs as there is less meat to cook.
Best Types of Ribs for Barbecue
Short plate ribs are hands down the best for barbecuing, but there is a sting in the tail. As we mentioned earlier, they may not always be easy to come by for the humble home pitmaster.
Understanding why they are the best, though, is handy if you can’t get your hands on any. Armed with some knowledge, you can look for the best alternatives that are available.
Short plate ribs are great because there is plenty of meat on the bone, and they are a good size.
Chuck ribs may not be quite as big as short plate ribs, but they will have more meat than back ribs, so good quality chuck short ribs can make a worthy replacement.
Short plate ribs are also popular due to the nice amount of fat and connective tissue that is in the meat which cooks down to create delicious flavors.
So if your best option is chuck ribs, look for a portion that contains enough fat to break down into great flavors.
In fact, if you are looking to break the ribs down into individual portions, the chuck ribs make a great choice, as their size makes them easy to break down into smaller portions.
However, a word of caution. Be sure to have a good look at all the meat in the pack you plan to buy. You don’t want them to be too fatty.
Sometimes, you may find a couple of good, meaty ribs on the top of the packet only to see that the others hidden behind these tasty looking specimens are mostly fat.
Difference Between Beef and Pork Ribs
I’m going to state the obvious first – we are talking about two completely different types of animals here – a hog vs a steer.
But what are the characteristics of the meat that sets these two apart?
First things first, beef ribs will be bigger than pork ribs, thanks to the size of the animal they come from.
One other important distinction is the type of rub and sauce you serve with beef ribs.
While pork ribs go great with sweet rubs and sauce, beef ribs are best served simply.
You can read more about preparing pork ribs here.
If you would like to know about how the pork ribs are broken down in detail, and the characteristics of each type, check out this article.
Wrapping it up
You should now be able to walk into your butcher and order beef ribs with confidence.
You can’t go wrong with beef short ribs on the smoker. There’s something primordial about picking up a huge beef short rib and taking a bite.
Let us know your favorite way to prepare beef ribs in the comments below.