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Pork Loin Back Ribs vs. Baby Back Ribs (Are They the Same?)

This article will tell you everything you need to know about pork loin back ribs, including how to buy and prepare them. 

Pork loin back ribs and baby ribs are exactly the same cut. Some butchers say true baby back ribs are on the shorter side. Pork loin ribs are butchered from where ribs meet the backbone. They measure anywhere between 3 to 6 inches, and many butchers label 3” ribs from this cut as baby back ribs. 

Pork loin back ribs and baby back ribs

Defining Pork Loin Back Ribs

Pork loin back ribs (a.k.a “baby back ribs”) are a popular cut of meat. The ribs are taken from the top part of an adult pig after the loin cut is butchered. Baby back ribs are curved, with lean and tender meat. Typically, a hog will give a rack of 10 to 13 ribs.

Other rib cuts are less meaty when compared to pork loin back ribs. However, because the muscles around the ribs are heavily used, they still benefit from longer cooking times to tenderize them. Some would argue that ribs should be overcooked to allow more collagen and fat to render, increasing palatability. 

Because baby back ribs are cut close to the pork loin, some of the attributes of palatability are similar between the two cuts.

How To Buy Pork Loin Back Ribs

When buying pork loin back ribs, make sure they are fresh and count at least ten ribs on the rack. Avoid buying ribs if you can see the bone along the entire rack, and check to see if the butcher has left some loin meat on top. 

There are a few factors you want to consider when buying baby back ribs. Here are a few:

  • Frozen ribs may dry out faster. Unless they are flash-frozen, I wouldn’t recommend that you buy frozen pork loin ribs. The freezing changes the texture of the meat surrounding the bones and significantly reduces its quality. There is an exception when it comes to flash freezing, which I’ll explain later. 
  • Avoid buying “shiners.” You may find a few racks of pork loin ribs where the bone is more obviously visible than others. Butchers call them shiners because of the way they look. Try to avoid buying these because you’d be paying for bones more than meat, which makes them more costly. 
  • The meat should be even across the rack. To ensure that the whole rack cooks evenly, you want to choose pork loin ribs with roughly the same amount of meat on all the ribs. Otherwise, some areas will be undercooked, and others will overcook.  
  • Count half a rack per person. A quick rule of thumb is to remember that each person should receive around six pork loin back ribs. That is half a rack. Of course, you could buy more if your guests usually eat larger portions.
  • Enhanced ribs aren’t better. The term ‘enhanced’ in the US is used to label ribs that have been pumped with a salt-water solution to add weight to the racks. Enhanced pork loin back ribs tend to dry out faster and will make smaller portions than expected. They also taste different from fresh ribs.

Which Is Better, Pork Loin Ribs or Spare Ribs?

Pork loin ribs are significantly meatier and more tender than spare ribs. However, their curved shape makes it difficult to get an even sear on baby back ribs. Spare ribs take longer to cook, but they are larger and arguably more flavorful. Nonetheless, baby back ribs are more popular.

At the end of the day, the choice between pork loin ribs or spare ribs is highly subjective. Baby back ribs are easier to cook. Many home cooks favor baby back ribs over spare ribs because it is easier to achieve a tender result. Generally, spare ribs require more effort to tenderize.

On the other hand, more experienced chefs tend to prefer spare ribs because they are considered more flavorful. Even though they are less meaty, the fat marbling in this cut makes the ribs taste better.

Related The 8 Best Beef Tenderloin Substitutes (And How to Use Them).

Cooking Methods for Baby Back Ribs

Baby back ribs are typically smoked but can also be baked. Cooks might add a dry rub to season the ribs before adding barbeque sauce. Because baby back ribs tend to dry out, they should always be cooked at lower temperatures to stay juicy and tender.

Before cooking baby back ribs, it is important to know how to trim them properly. Of course, you could always ask your butcher to do this for you. However, you may want to know the process in case you ever have a rack of ribs that aren’t already trimmed. 

Baby back ribs on a grill

Trimming Baby Back Ribs

Preparing baby back ribs involves trimming excess fat and meat and removing the chewy membrane holding the bones together. A butcher can do this for you, but it’s easy enough for most home chefs to handle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to trimming pork loin back ribs:

  1. Pat the ribs dry using a paper towel. For hygienic purposes, discard the paper towel.
  2. Place the baby back ribs on your wooden board with the meat side up. 
  3. Using a very sharp knife, trim any excess fat on the rack of ribs.
  4. Also, trim any small pieces of meat that are sticking out, which might burn or dry out during the cooking process.
  5. Turn the rack so that the bones are facing upwards.
  6. Use a butter knife to get in between the membrane and the bones.
  7. Carefully pull the entire membrane off. You can use a paper towel to help get a better grip on the slippery membrane for this job. 

Dry Rubs To Add Layers of Flavor

Dry spice rubs are mixtures of dry ingredients that are added to meats and poultry prior to barbecuing. Most dry rubs for ribs are a combination of mainly paprika, brown sugar, salt, and black pepper, among other ingredients.

After trimming your rack of ribs, it’s typically time to boost flavor by adding the dry rub of your choice. Spice rubs are traditionally added as a method of layering flavor in ribs without adding moisture. Of course, there are millions of recipes for the perfect barbeque dry rub and many ready-made mixes available as well.

I found Cattlemen’s Cowboy Rub (available on Amazon) a great choice. It’s smoky, flavorful, and doesn’t burn. Use mustard as a binder before sprinkling a generous amount of the dry rub on every part of the ribs.

If you find the taste of mustard too sharp, don’t worry. The final cooked ribs won’t taste like mustard at all, as the mustard will fade away during the long cooking process. Mayonnaise is also an alternative for those who really do not like mustard.

You can also make your own dry rub. These are some of the typical ingredients of many American-style barbeque spice rubs:

  • Brown sugar
  • Paprika (sweet or smoked, depending on your preference)
  • Cayenne (for spice)
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Mustard powder

You can experiment with the ratios to tweak them to your preferences. Some very old recipes include coffee in the dry rub, which I highly recommend you try at least once. 

Regardless of the type of dry rub you choose, reserve some to mix with your barbeque sauce. 

The 3-2-1 Method

The 3-2-1 method of cooking pork loin back ribs is fool-proof and results in tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs. Three hours of smoking, two hours steaming in foil, and one hour with barbeque sauce to create a sticky exterior.

While it may seem like it takes ages for this method, time is the most important ingredient in cooking ribs. Nonetheless, here’s how to prepare ribs using the 3-2-1 method:

  1. Start your smoker, allowing it to come to 225°F (107°C) before putting the ribs in. 
  2. Place the rack of baby back ribs in the smoker uncovered; close the smoker. 
  3. Periodically check the temperature of the ribs; it should reach 180°F (82°C) after 3 hours.
  4. Prepare three sheets of aluminum foil, laying one sheet across the other two on a baking sheet or roasting tray.
  5. Using tongs and a sturdy spatula, take the ribs out and place the rack on the foil.
  6. Add half a cup of liquid (water, juice, or broth) to the ribs and wrap the foil tightly around it. Ensure it is wrapped tightly and no steam can escape.
  7. Put the baking sheet with the tightly wrapped pork loin back ribs back into the smoker and cook for an additional two hours.
  8. Open the aluminum foil and remove it.
  9. Slather a layer of barbeque sauce on the ribs, taking the time to cover them entirely.
  10. Carefully return the ribs to the smoker.
  11. Periodically add more barbeque sauce to the ribs as they cook for an additional hour. 
  12. Allow the ribs to rest for 15 minutes (under foil) before cutting and serving.

Barbeque sauce is generally dry rub mixed with liquid ingredients such as ketchup, broth, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce. You can also buy commercially prepared barbeque sauce. 

I highly recommend the Royal Gourmet 24 Inch BBQ Smoker on Amazon. It’s got great air circulation for better smoking, and it’s large enough to hold two or more racks of baby back ribs. 

Baking Pork Loin Back Ribs

Pork loin back ribs can be baked at a very low temperature to achieve similar results to a smoker. Cook them covered in foil for up to four hours before adding barbeque sauce for the final stages of baking. 

There is absolutely no reason to avoid cooking baby back ribs if you don’t have a smoker. Oven-baked ribs can be just as tender–as long as you give them time. They are incredibly easy to prepare because the oven does most of the work. 

Baby back ribs with barbecue sauce on a cutting board

Here’s how to make oven-baked baby back ribs:

  1. Trim the ribs as usual.
  2. Add a generous amount of dry rub using mustard or mayonnaise as a binder.
  3. Prepare a mixture of apple cider vinegar, water, and molasses to cook the ribs.
  4. Wrap the rack of ribs in foil, adding a half cup of the vinegar mixture with the ribs.
  5. Ensure the aluminum foil is tightly crimped. 
  6. Bake the baby back ribs covered in foil for 3 to 4 hours at 275°F (135°C).
  7. Take the ribs out of the foil, and slather them in barbeque sauce.
  8. Bake the ribs uncovered for 15 minutes.
  9. Add more barbeque sauce, and turn on the broiler until the sauce is caramelized.
  10. Give the ribs 10-15 minutes to rest before cutting and serving to retain the juices.

Keep in mind that when you’re cooking pork loin back ribs in your home oven, there will be no smokey barbeque flavor. There are two options you can choose to add this flavor without an outdoor grill:

  • Add liquid smoke to your barbeque sauce. A few drops will go a long way, so be conservative. I like Stubb’s Hickory Liquid Smoke (available on Amazon) because it really smells of hickory, and it’s gluten-free. 
  • Light up one small piece of charcoal and add a teaspoon of oil before putting the charcoal in the oven and closing the door. The smoke from the oil burning on the hot charcoal mimics the smoke from a real barbeque, but there won’t be the smell of different types of wood, such as hickory or mesquite.

Note that both methods of adding smokey flavor to your oven-baked baby back ribs aren’t going to produce the exact same flavor as a real barbecue. Nonetheless, I believe the added step is worth trying to elevate the flavor beyond the dry rub or barbecue sauce

Final Thoughts

Pork loin back ribs, also known as baby back ribs, are deliciously tender and moreish when done right. Time and patience are essential ingredients when making any type of ribs, along with dry spice rubs and barbeque sauce. You can cook baby back ribs in a smoker or even bake them in the oven. Spare ribs are a cheaper and meatier option, but making them is slightly thicker.

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