Grillmasters take pride in their ribs. From selection to preparation, whether they prefer dry rub or have them swimming in sauce–those who prepare ribs have favorite tastes and practice time-honored cooking techniques.
Along with spirited discussions about whether mustard-based barbeque sauces are better or worse, another rib-bone of contention sometimes enters the conversation: Is a rack of ribs the same as a slab?
If they come to an agreement on that question, they may get into a counting debate over the number of ribs a slab or a half-slab should properly have.
Picking a Bone over Definitions
To answer basic questions such as how many ribs are in a slab or a half-slab, one must first define the animal that provided the cut of meat under consideration:
Meat Cut Definitions Vary by the Source
Rather than butcher the definitions, one must realize that the names applied for meat cuts depend on the animal, as well as sometimes the country or region where they are butchered. For pork ribs, a slab is the same as a rack.
With lamb ribs, however, loin meat is also considered part of the rack and is generally identical to a rib roast. Pork spare ribs are similar to beef short ribs.
For our purposes, we will focus on pork rather than lamb or beef. A slab or rack of pork ribs describes the entire section of ribs taken from the side of the butchered hog.
Some barbeque purists still make the distinction. They usually refer to untrimmed ribs with cartilage, fat, and muscle meat as a slab, while identifying those that have had cartilage and fat removed as a rack.
What Is a Slab of Ribs?
The exact number of ribs in a whole slab varies. A full rack can have up to 13 bones, though some racks may have fewer due to bones being removed during preparation or damage to the bones during processing.
In most cases, a whole slab available from a commercial butcher or grocery store will have between 10 and 13 bones.
During processing, the butcher cuts back ribs in the area close to the spinal column. These meaty ribs do taper off on one side, with the greatest amount of curvature on the part of the bone that was once closest to the spine.
Although a full rack may include fewer than 10 bones, if the number drops below that, it generally is no longer a full slab.
Is a half-slab defined as the name implies?
Yes. A half-slab of ribs usually contains 5 to 7 bones, though sometimes the half-rack will have fewer than that number. The perfect half rack of pork ribs should have either 6 or 7 clearly visible boans.
Racking up the Ribs
The meat and bones that make up pork ribs come from very tasty portions of the pig. Each of these cuts has distinct characteristics based upon the area of the rib cage where it originated and how the butcher cut and trimmed the meat and bone. They generally fall into four types of cuts:
Baby Back Ribs
These cuts originate from the highest area of the rib cage between the spare ribs and the spine. They have a noticeable curve and receive the ‘baby’ identification since they are shorter in length. Lean and tender, baby backs are sometimes called riblets, back ribs, or loin ribs.
With 11 to 13 bones usually in a full slab, these bones have less of a curve. They also have greater amounts of fat that give them more of a tender taste than baby back ribs.
They come from a section of the hog adjacent to where the bacon was removed, “sparing” the ribs for use separate from the bacon. Sometimes known as side ribs, spareribs may require some trimming during their preparation for cooking.
St. Louis Cut / St. Louis Style Ribs
These fancier cuts originate from the area near the breastbone. With an almost rectangular shape, St. Louis ribs offer better presentation for competitions because of the way the meat holds onto the bones.
Cartilage in this area is tough. Some barbeque fans refer to these types of ribs as Kansas City cut or style ribs when the butcher removes more of the bones.
Most of the hard structure surrounding the meat on rib tips comes from dense cartilage rather than bone. These rib tips are enjoyable to chew while nibbling on the small areas of cartilage.
Buying a Rack or Half-Rack of Pork Ribs
Purchasing the Ribs
Spareribs are a better option for recipes that call for slow cooking. Smaller and leaner than spareribs, baby back ribs originate from the hog’s back, top, or loin side.
When selecting your slab of ribs, ensure that they have a fair amount of meat on the bone. Rib slabs cut by factory machines frequently have shiny bones visible because these mechanical cutters have removed more of the meat than they should have done.
If you prefer to shop at grocery stores rather than a butcher shop, choose a supermarket that has more customers and therefore has a crew that rotates meat offerings more frequently.
While portion size certainly varies based upon tastes and diet, usually butchers will suggest somewhere between three-quarters of a pound to one pound of pork ribs for each person at dinner.
Butchers sell spareribs by size, from “3 and down” for three or fewer pounds, to “3 and up” for larger groups of anticipated diners. Generally speaking, “3 and down” spareribs get the most recommendations since they tend to be more tender.
Other Meaty Questions (FAQs)
Here are a few common questions about a slab of ribs.
What is a cheater rack?
A supposedly full rack of ribs with less than 10 bones.
What type of ribs are country-style?
Country-style “ribs” come from the pig’s shoulder area. The bone in these ribs is the shoulder blade, so they are not actually ribs.
Does pork receive grades like beef in the United States?
The USDA does not grade pork the way it grades beef (Prime, Select, etc.) based upon the marbling of fat. The gender and size of the animal determine the grade for pork.