Rib meat is one of the most delectable cuts, irrespective of the quadruped in question. As usual, there's a myriad of terms and confusion over what's what and how to cook it. Since virtually all the rib meat we consume hails from cows, pigs and lambs, we will confine ourselves to those animals. But before getting into specifics, let's discuss rib meat in general.
The ribs come off the spine, curve around the chest cavity on each side, and meet at the breastbone or sternum. Their obvious function is to protect the internal organs, most notably the lungs and heart. Rib meat is usually tender but not all rib cuts start out that way. It depends on where on the rib the meat is taken from. Muscles that are used more often will be tougher than ones that are not. Just like humans, exercise firms muscular tissue. The muscles of the back receive the least wear and tear. As you move toward the ends of the animal, or down to the belly, you encounter muscle groups with less vacation time. Thus, the meat from the stretch of rib nearest the spine is naturally tender. Much like a strip steak or fillet mignon, these cuts benefit from dry cooking methods such as roasting, grilling, and broiling. Meat from the ends of the ribs closest to the breast bone is tougher. The muscles of the diaphragm are constantly moving to facilitate breathing and bear the burden of gravity. Tougher meat requires wet cooking methods, most notably braising, or if a dry method is to be employed, (as in genuine barbeque), it's done at a low temperature for a protracted period of time. Low and slow as it's colloquially known. With these distinctions in mind, let's look at different animals.
THE COW The first thing we need to clear up is the term "prime" rib. Prime rib refers to the rib meat nearest the spine. However, prime can also refer to the grade of beef. Prime is the highest grade of beef and usually not found in standard supermarkets. Most prime beef is sold to upscale restaurants and hotels. You need to go to a real butcher shop to acquire prime meat. Most of the "prime" rib out there, especially at those American chain restaurants is actually "choice," the second highest grade of beef. If you're rib cut was actually a prime grade you'd technically have a prime prime rib.
If you have three or more ribs together in one mass you have a rib roast, also called a standing rib roast. This is an absolutely delicious roast. After roasting it in the oven, you will slice individual steaks by cutting between the bones. These are then called rib steaks. Of course you can just buy individual rib steaks. If the bone is removed, leaving just the round piece of rib meat, then you have a rib-eye steak. And if you remove the bones from a whole roast prior to cooking, then you produce a rib-eye roast.
Never make a rib-eye roast. Any meat in the world will be more succulent and taste better when cooked on the bone. Even if you must cut the bone off prior to service, roast it with the bone on. This is true for individual steaks as well. They are juicier and tastier when cooked on the bone. Get over your neurosis about the bone and allow your palate to enjoy what naturally tastes better.
Individual rib and rib-eye steaks are best grilled with broiling a close second. Or you can sear them in a blisteringly hot pan and then finish them in the oven. Many people consider the rib or rib-eye steak to be the best because it has almost the same degree of tenderness as a fillet mignon, but more flavor. This is quite true. Rib steaks are the best of both worlds.
The part of the beef ribs closest to the sternum is called the short ribs. These succulent jewels actually start off rather tough. They absolutely must be braised, I'd argue for at least two and a half hours but many chefs will braise them for 5-6 hours. They will then melt off the bone like butter.
THE PIG The cow certainly doesn't have a monopoly on convoluted terminology. Case in point: What's a pork chop? What's a center cut pork chop? What's the difference between spare ribs and baby back ribs? What's a St. Louis cut? A pork chop is basically a steak, only from a pig. It can come from the loin or the rib. The loin is toward the lower back behind the ribs. Loin pork chops are the equivalent of a beef T-bone or porterhouse steak. Center cut pork chops come from the meaty center section of the loin. Rib pork chops are the beef equivalent of a rib or rib-eye steak, based on whether it's on or off the bone. This is the "prime rib" of pork, shall we say. Again, just like beef, you can also have a pork rib roast. Pork rib roasts and chops are cooked with the same dry heat methods as beef rib roasts and steaks.
Baby back ribs are the ribs closest to the spine while spare ribs are the rib section closest to the breast bone. Baby back ribs are less meaty, less fatty and tenderer than spareribs. Baby backs come with the meaty "eye" removed. A St. Louis cut is an entire slab of spareribs with the sternum and cartilage trimmed away.
Spare ribs and baby back ribs are best cooked low and slow, be it a dry or wet heat method. They can be coated with a dry rub and slow cooked in the oven or even a grill. For the latter they are seared first and then cooked on the rack above the grill at a lower temperature with the lid closed. Or they can be contained within foil or a cooking vessel with liquid and braised. And of course they are the quintessential barbeque food. Depending on the school of thought barbeque will involve a sauce and/or a dry rub, but definitely long slow cooking with smoke flavoring.
THE LAMB I saved the easiest for last. Lamb chops are just like pork chops: they can come from the loin or the rib. Lamb loin chops look like mini T-bone steaks while the rib chops are a small round piece of meat, (the eye), with a long thin bone attached. Lamb loin and rib are extremely tender and thus only dry heat methods are appropriate. You can sauté, broil, or grill, individual rib chops or make a rib roast, known as "rack of lamb." Sometimes rack of lamb comes "Frenched" whereby they remove all the succulent meat between the bones. This is completely for aesthetic reasons and in my opinion is one of the worst crimes in the culinary world. Nibbling the unctuous meat between the bones is one of the best parts of rack of lamb. Whoever thought looking at bare bones was more gratifying than eating the meat on them should be imprisoned for life and fed only tofu and water.
I hope I have helped clarify the world of ribs. Multiple definitions and confusing terms only engender intimidation on the part of the consumer and sometimes avoidance of the product in question. Knowledge is not only power, it makes for good eating.
About the Author: Mark R. Vogel is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary
Education in New York City. He also has a BA in economics and Master's and Doctorate degrees in psychology.
Over the past two decades he has worked as a waiter, bartender, chef and manager in an array of restaurants.
Currently he is a culinary instructor and food writer. His column "Food for Thought" is published in
a variety of periodicals and websites. Be sure to check out Mark's website www.foodforthoughtonline.net
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