Know Your Ribs

A guide to the perfect rack.

If you’re not sure what the difference is between baby back and spare ribs, or you don’t know if your recipe would be best suited with a St. Louis or a Denver cut, look no further. Here’s a guide to finding the perfect rack, plus a list of some of our favorite butcher shops around the state.

When you’re ready to hit the grill, click here for recipes for the season’s most mouth watering ribs.


Baby back ribs: Called “baby” because of their relative shortness compared to spare ribs, baby back ribs are located underneath the loin muscle and near the hog’s spine, making their meat the leanest and most tender of pork ribs. Baby backs cook quickly and easily, with little of the trimming demanded by spare ribs. Look for: Uniform thickness and marbling, plus limited bone curvature to ensure even heating.

Spare ribs: Cut closer to the belly of the hog than baby back ribs, this cut holds more bone, connective tissue and especially fat. This extra fat lends the cut loads of flavor. Look for: Even marbling and good meat coverage. Beware of “shiners”—ribs where the meat doesn’t cover the top of the bone, leaving the bone visible down the rack.

St. Louis ribs: Made rectangular by removing the “rib tips” from spare ribs—the underside of a rack of ribs—St. Louis ribs combine the flavorful fat of spare ribs and the lightweight, easy-cooking appeal of baby back ribs. St. Louis ribs typically cost less than baby back, but the cut can be hard to find. Ask your butcher to prepare a rack for you. Look for: If pre-trimmed, make sure the ribs tips are no longer attached and that the ribs have straight edges.


Short ribs: Short ribs are the meatiest of beef ribs—each rib can weigh as much as two pounds. Similar to the St. Louis cut of pork ribs, short ribs derive from the front of the belly in an area called the “short plate.” Many people favor short ribs over back ribs because of their light bone-to-meat ratio and flavorful marbling. Short ribs come in two styles—“flanken style” ribs are cut across the bone, and each piece of meat has three to four short sections of bones while the more common “English style” ribs are cut parallel to the bone, with just one bone in each piece of meat. Look For: Uniform thickness and marbling; watch out for large, solid veins of fat weaving through muscle layers.

Back ribs: Also called Texas ribs, this cut of beef is similar to the baby back ribs of pork. Whereas the meat of short ribs lies on top of the bones, the meat in back ribs rests in between the bones. Look for: As much meat as possible; because the valuable ribeye cut of steak rests on top of back ribs, butchers may be tempted to cut back ribs with too little meat around the bones.


Lamb rack: The versatile rack is the most prized cut of lamb. When “frenched,” the meat at the tips of the rack are cut away, similar to the removal of rib tips in St. Louis ribs. Look for: Pink to pale red meat with firm, white fat and even marbling.

Lamb rib chop: Made by cutting a lamb rack into individual chops, the meat of a lamb rib chop can be eaten straight from the bone. Look for: Chops about ¾-inch thick—or if you prefer extra juiciness, opt for a “double cut” chop, which holds two ribs instead of one.

Denver ribs: The lamb version of St. Louis pork ribs, Denver ribs are the most cost-conscious cut of lamb, but can have a heavy fat-to-meat ratio. Look for: Ribs without the “fell”—a thin, yet tough, outer layer of fat. A butcher can trim this for you.

Butcher Shops Around the State

Bedford Avenue Meat Shop, Lynchburg, 434-845-6328

Belmont Butchery, Richmond,

Country Butcher Shop & Deli, Virginia Beach ,

Croftburn Market, Culpeper,

Gore’s Fresh Meat and Deli, Stephens City,

Harvest Grocery & Supply, Richmond,

J&M Provisions, Charlottesville,  

Pendulum, Norfolk,  

The Organic Butcher, Charlottesville,  

The Organic Butcher of McLean, McLean,  

Two Fat Butchers, Front Royal,  

Village Butcher Shop, Virginia Beach,

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