I was confused. Standing in the supermarket, staring at the butcher shelves, I was trying to decipher the difference between “pork side ribs” and “pork back ribs”. For me, the only thing that differentiated the two was the price; the pork back ribs are more expensive than the side ribs. Much more.
“But what is the real difference?” I wondered.
And so I bought both.
After making Chinese-Style Barbecue Ribs with both cuts, the clear winner for me was the pork back ribs. The meat was more tender, the meat flavor was more robust, and the fat content was just enough to give it juiciness without dripping in fat and giving you glossy, greasy lips. The pork side ribs, on the other hand, had a less distinct meat flavor and was fatter. Because they had more fat, my stomach felt like it needed extra energy to digest them (My stomach has a weak digesting ability for fat. Unfortunately for me, they just don’t like each other, and it can get me quite uncomfortable).
As for the cooking time, I find that the side ribs require a lot longer cooking time. Almost 2 hours, in fact, compared to about 1 hour for the back ribs, due to its thicker meat. And I just don’t have the time (nor the patience), to wait.
Back ribs (also known as baby back ribs) are the ribs that are closer to the pig’s loin area (see diagram above). This area has less fat and the meat is more tender. It is perfect for the more health conscious. Side ribs (also known as spare ribs) are the ribs that extend around the belly of the pig, and therefore, the meat is longer, fatter and tougher. There is also more meat around the bone than the back ribs. However, because the meat is thicker and tougher, pork side ribs is best to be slow cooked. If you have the patience for slow-cooking, it will reward you with the most succulent, tender, and juiciest meat you’ve ever tasted.
If you like really thick meaty ribs, and you have the patience to slow cook on a barbecue, then side ribs would definitely be your choice. Personally, I prefer back ribs, because I’m just not patient enough to wait an extra hour to eat!
(The image above is courtesy of AmazingRibs, which has the most amazing and comprehensive information on ribs and barbecuing I’ve ever seen!)