BBQ Anatomy 101: The Other Kind of Back Ribs
Why beef back ribs aren't as popular as their pork counterparts.
Last week, after I wrote about beef short ribs, I got a few responses from folks who said they flat out didn’t like beef ribs. After pressing them a bit more, I found that some of them had only eaten beef back ribs instead of the giant beef short ribs I had written about. Beef back ribs are the anorexic cousin of short ribs–all bones, no meat.
Why don’t they leave more meat on those bones? To explain beef butchery, let’s start with an explanation of the market for pork baby back ribs versus pork loin. Baby back ribs of the pork variety are enormously popular, and therefore they fetch a nice price for retailers. Looking at the wholesale prices for this week (this price is lower than what you pay at the store), pork baby back ribs are selling for $2.38 per pound and boneless pork loin is just $1.33. When the meat is still on the hog, the baby backs and the loin are attached. The bone in a typical pork chop is part of the baby back rib; the rest of the chop is what we know as the pork loin. When the two cuts are separated for retail sale, the butcher has a choice of where to make that cut. In today’s wholesale market it’s more profitable (over a dollar more per pound) to leave more meat on the ribs and less on the boneless loin. That never happens with beef.
A hog is much smaller than a steer, but there are still plenty of parallels in beef and pork anatomy. A bone-in beef ribeye steak comes from the same area on the animal as a pork chop. The curved bone in a ribeye steak is a beef back rib. When the butcher is breaking down a steer the same choice is made about where to make the cut between those ribs and the whole boneless rib roast. In this case there is no benefit to leaving more beef on those bones. Unlike the pricey pork baby backs, beef back ribs are currently getting just $0.99 per pound on the wholesale market while that ribeye meat is worth $6.13. A “shiner” is a negative term for a rib where the meat doesn’t cover the top of the bone, so the bones “shine” through down the entire rack. Racks of beef ribs are nearly always shiners because it just doesn’t make financial sense to slice them any other way.
I took a class called Beef 101 at Texas A&M where we discussed beef butchery for a few days. Davey Griffin, one of the class’s leaders, told a story about eating beef back ribs at the County Line barbecue joint in Austin. He was there with a beef producer, and the ribs were really meaty. Davey was enjoying them, but the beef producer couldn’t take it. He stormed back in the kitchen to check where the beef came from. He came back to the table in better spirits after determining that the ribs were from another producer. If one of his plants had been leaving that much meat on the back ribs, he was ready to fire someone.
There’s a different attitude at Creekstone Farms in Kansas. I was reading a barbecue newsletter when I saw an ad for their “Meaty Back Ribs.” This was a new direction, but Creekstone says they’ve seen a demand for beef back ribs that resemble the meatier pork baby back ribs. You’ll pay a pretty hefty price for them (about $7.50 per pound vs. less than $4 per pound at most grocery stores) which is why these meatier back ribs will probably remain a novelty.
Whether or not there’s meat on those bones, most of the meat on a beef back rib is between the bones. Along with the meat is plenty of connective tissue. If you try grilling a rack you’ll end up with beef that’s far too chewy. They require a long, low cook to get that meat between the bones tender enough to enjoy. Even if it’s tender, there still isn’t a ton of meat in there. I once ordered all-you-can-eat beef back ribs for $9.95 at Riscky’s in the Fort Worth Stockyards. I ended up eating about a full rack. The cleaned bones made an impressive pile, but I wasn’t as stuffed as you might think. At the Salt Lick in Driftwood they cut the ribs a little differently to get more meat with every bone. Borrowing a trick from the barbecue competition circuit, they discard every other bone so each remaining bone has double the meat. It’s called the Hollywood cut.
With enough patience beef back ribs can be cooked well and if cut properly you can get enough meat for a good meal. I’ve had some good beef back ribs in the past, but I’d rather have a single smoked short rib than whole rack of back ribs. If they’re the only beef rib you’ve tried, you might consider branching out to try a meatier short rib. It might just change your mind about beef ribs.