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Spareribs vs. Baby Backs: Before You Go to Ribfest, Know Your Cuts Of Meat

By Patty Wetli | June 12, 2015 6:28am | Updated on June 10, 2016 10:47am
 [File Photo]
[File Photo]
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NORTH CENTER — With Ribfest upon us this weekend, what better time to ponder: Where do ribs come from?

Obviously, pigs in general, but more specifically, what makes a baby back a baby back and a sparerib a sparerib?

It has nothing to with sauces or rubs or smokers or hickory wood chips and everything to do with butchers.

We came across this terrific graphic and explanation on the website AmazingRibs.com, which clarifies all things pork-related.

[AmazingRibs.com, "the world's most popular BBQ and grilling website with more than 1,000 pages of recipes, techniques and product reviews."]

So before you hit the fest, know what you're eating (and who's serving what).

Baby back ribs: Cut from the top of the rib cage, closest to the spine. The bones are curved, with meat on top and in between, and will taper in length on a full rack. Generally meatier than spareribs.

Who's serving: The Piggery is the only vendor specifically calling its ribs "baby back."

Spareribs, also known as side ribs: The remainder of the rib cage, closer to the underbelly, after the baby backs have been removed. These ribs are flatter and bonier, but the meat also contains more fat (aka, flavor) than baby backs.

St. Louis ribs: Spareribs with the tips cut off.

Rib tips: What's left after spareribs have been cut into St. Louis ribs. The tips are full of cartilage, not bone, and can be gristly and tough to chew. Not to be confused with riblets — essentially a slab of ribs cut in half lengthwise.

Who's serving: Robinson's #1 Ribs.

Pulled pork: Usually made from pork shoulder and slow cooked over low heat until the meat is tender enough to be pulled into pieces. Recipes may call for "Boston butt," which refers to the top of the shoulder.

Who's serving: Austin's Texas Lightning, Celtic Crown (jalapeño nacho-style), Chicago BBQ Company, Mr. B's BBQ, Porkchop, Robinson's #1 Ribs, Rubs Backcountry Smokehouse, The Piggery, The Smoke Daddy, Fit to Be Fried, and Blackhawk BBQ & Seafood.

Wait, where's brisket on the chart?

Um, wrong animal. Unless you're from Texas, ribs are almost always pork, but brisket, that other staple of barbecue joints, is made from beef.

Brisket is a tough cut of beef that's cooked low and slow until it's supremely tender. [Flickr/Wally Gobetz]

Brisket: Cut from a cow's lower chest. Brisket is a muscle, if you really wanna know, and, fun fact, supports 60 percent of a cow's standing/moving weight. So it's a workhorse, to mix metaphors, which is why it's one tough piece of meat. Like pork shoulder, brisket is cooked low and slow —  eight to 10 hours on a grill — until it's super tender.

Who's serving: Austin's Texas Lightning.

Burnt ends: Popularized in Kansas City, burnt ends are exactly what they sound like — the burnt ends of a brisket. Initially trimmed off and treated like scraps, burnt ends are now a menu item in their own right. They tend to be intensely smoky in flavor.

Who's serving: Q BBQ Lakeview.

Tri-tip: Not to be confused with rib tips. Sometimes called triangle steak, tri-tip is a cut from the bottom sirloin of a steer. Tri-tip barbecue is typically found in California, though its popularity is spreading.

Who's serving: Real Urban Barbecue.

Ribfest runs Friday through Sunday on Lincoln Avenue from Irving Park Road to Berteau Avenue. Hours are: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Suggested donation is $5, and food and drink tickets are $1 per ticket. Parking is limited, and public transportation to the fest is recommended.

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