Baby Back vs St. Louis Ribs – What’s the Difference?

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I don’t think I’m creating much controversy when I say that pork ribs are one of the most popular and delicious types of BBQ out there.  You’re surely in for a treat any time a succulent rack of ribs ends up on your plate.

While there are many different types of ribs you can cook, I wanted to dedicate an article specifically to comparing two of the most popular cuts of pork ribs: baby back vs St. Louis ribs.

Each of these cuts are easy to work with, and result in tasty BBQ, but there are definitely some differences to be aware of.

In this article, we’ve created a complete guide to baby back vs. St. Louis ribs.  By the end, you should know all of the similarities and differences of these two delicious rib cuts.

Baby Back vs St. Louis Ribs – Overview

For all of my visual learners out there, here’s a diagram of the anatomy of pork cuts.  Pork rib cuts all originate from the rib cage of the pig, and there are essentially 4 different styles of cuts that you’ll hear about:

  • Baby back ribs
  • Spareribs
  • St. Louis cut ribs
  • Rib tips
Photo courtesy amazingribs.com

As you can see from the diagram, St. Louis ribs are the next cut down the rib cage from baby backs.  Since these cuts are so close in relation to each other, they definitely share some qualities – but they have their differences too in terms of flavor and texture.

Both of these rib cuts are also very common in terms of availability.  While baby back ribs are generally more popular and in demand, St. Louis style ribs are definitely a common cut.  You should be able to find both of these styles at your local grocer, and you’ll definitely find both of them at a butcher shop.

Baby Back Ribs

Baby back ribs come from the upper most section of the rib cage, where the ribs connect to the backbone.  This cut gets its name from the fact that the rib lengths, when cut, are shorter than those of St. Louis or sparerib cuts.  It’s also because they come from the area that is so close to the backbone.  They do NOT get their name because they come from baby pigs.

A typical slab of baby back ribs will have 11 to 13 bones.  Baby back slabs have a side where the ribs are wider and a side with shorter ribs.  Typically, the bones on the longer side are about 6 inches in length and the bones on the shorter end are about 3 inches in length, with the bones getting progressively shorter as you move from the long side to the short side.

Each bone in a baby back rib slab is slightly curved, with almost a hockey stick style shape on the side where the ribs met the backbone on the pig.  A typical slab of baby back ribs weighs about 2 to 3 pounds, about half of which is the weight of the bones.  Most times, a slab of baby backs is enough to feed 2 adults although I’ve seen some hungry gentlemen take down an entire rack in one sitting.

St. Louis Style Ribs

St. Louis ribs are the cut just south of baby back ribs on the pig’s rib cage.  It’s important to point out that a sparerib cut actually includes both the “St. Louis” section and the rib tip section.  So St. Louis style ribs are also the same thing as spareribs with the rib tips sliced off.

These cuts of ribs also have about 11 13 bones in them, and each bone is typically about 5 to 6 inches long.  Aesthetically, St. Louis ribs are trimmed up very tidily, so they appear quite symmetrical and are aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

The bones in St. Louis racks are typically wider and straighter compared to baby backs, with minimal to no curve in them.  This feature makes St. Louis style ribs ideal for any sort of rib recipe or preparation method that calls for the rib rack to be browned in a pan.

A typical cut also weighs between 2 to 3 pounds, with about half or more of the weight coming from the bones.

Baby Back vs St. Louis Ribs – Flavor

At the end of the day, these two cuts come from the same animal and are close in proximity to each other – so the flavors found in each naturally share a lot of similarities.  However, there are a few marked differences between the two.

Baby back ribs are more tender and less meaty between baby back vs St. Louis ribs.  It’s because the cut comes from a place very near to the loin section of the pig.  In fact, many cuts of baby back ribs will feature a half inch or so section of loin meat on the top the rack for a little bit of extra flavor and tenderness.

On the other hand, St. Louis style ribs are a little tougher and meatier, but feature generous amounts of fat and marbling.  Because of that, a properly prepared rack of St. Louis style ribs has the potential for some spectacular flavor.

How to Prepare Baby Back vs St. Louis Ribs

Baby back and St. Louis pork ribs are most often prepared on a smoker, where smokey wood flavor can be added to your ribs to enhance their tastiness.  Cooking ribs low and slow on a smoker allows for the fat to render and the meat to tenderize over time.  You can also cook ribs in the oven if you don’t own a smoker!

Since baby back ribs are more tender by nature, you can get away with cooking them on higher temperatures for shorter periods of time compared to St. Louis.  And since St. Louis cuts are a little tougher, it’s best to cook them on a lower temperature for a longer period of time to allow the meat to completely tenderize and achieve those fall off the bone results we all love.

As far as seasonings go, there’s not a ton of difference in terms of which is best for baby back vs St. Louis ribs.  You can use your favorite BBQ rub to season your ribs, or keep things simple and just rub with a generous amount of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.  From there, you can combine with your favorite BBQ sauce for dipping.

As mentioned before, St. Louis ribs are a little bit more versatile in the sense that you have the option to brown them in a pan.  Since the bones are so straight and the slab is symmetrical, you get an even surface contact with the pan for an even browning.  Since baby back ribs are curved, it’s almost impossible to properly and safely brown them in a pan.

The bottom line?  Baby back ribs are more tender, yet a little less flavorful.  They also take less time to cook on average.  St. Louis ribs are a little tougher but have more flavor, and need a little bit more cooking time to achieve tender and juicy results.

Note – check out our article on the best wood for smoking ribs next for ideas on which type of wood you should use to prepare your ribs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s Better, St Louis Ribs or Baby Back?

This all comes down to personal preference. St Louis-style ribs tend to be meatier than the baby back versions. The belly of the pig is cut out, and then the ribs are cut from the belly area. They are then trimmed down so that the cartilage and breastbone are removed.

They are relatively flat which makes them easier to brown during the cooking process. This marbling of fat also provides a richer and more intense flavor profile.

Baby back ribs come from the meeting point of the spine and ribs of the pig. They are cut out after the loin has been separated from the carcass. They are referred to as baby back ribs as they are shorter than spare ribs. They tend to range in length from around 3 to 6 inches.

Why are Baby Back Ribs More Expensive?

The main reason that baby back ribs are so expensive is that they are in high demand. Everyone wants a little bit of the rib rack, and there are just fewer baby back ribs to go around.

Baby back ribs are tender and lean. They are also smaller than spare ribs. A rack of baby back ribs tends to contain between 11 and 13 ribs, about enough to satiate one person. In comparison, a rack of spare ribs can satisfy 2 people.

What are the Meatiest Ribs?

The meatiest type of ribs is country-style pork ribs. These are taken from the loin of the pig, or near to the shoulder of the animal. They tend to be slightly tougher than other ribs and are best when you cook them slowly for a long time, over low heat. This area is the same place the meat for carnitas and pulled pork comes from.

These ribs have the highest ratio of meat to bone. They are commonly eaten using a knife and fork instead of your hands. You can also purchase boneless country-style ribs.

These are long sections of the muscles found in the loin, along with the intercostal meat. They typically do not contain cartilage, meaning that you get a lot more meat for your money.

It is recommended that you cook these ribs in a smoker, oven, or crockpot for the best results. In an oven, they are likely to take around 3 hours to cook properly. They are cheap to purchase and super easy to cook.

You can often purchase country-style ribs for as little as $2 per pound. They are marbled with a lot of fat, which helps to keep the ribs moist and succulent throughout the long cooking process.

What Type of Ribs is the Most Tender?

Baby back ribs are the most tender, which partially explains their higher price point. There are ways to improve the tenderness through the cooking process.

The first thing that you need to do is cook the ribs slowly over low heat. This helps to lock in the moisture and keep the meat tender. The best way to do this is at a temperature of 275 degrees Fahrenheit for between 2 and 2 and a half hours.

Some people may tell you that it is a good idea to boil your ribs before cooking them. They say that this enhances the moisture content but all it will really achieve is a loss of flavor.

It is a good idea to seal your ribs in an aluminum foil package when you are cooking them. This traps the moisture inside and keeps the meat tender and juicy. You should season the ribs well before cooking.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article has helped to clear up the air about the similarities and differences of baby back vs St. Louis ribs.  At the end of the day, both of these pork cuts make some incredibly delicious BBQ – you’ll likely have leftover ribs to reheat for later!  However they are different enough you might definitely prefer one style over the other.

So the next time you are at the grocery store or your local butcher, pick up a rack of each and cook them side by side to taste the difference!  You’ll learn a lot by tasting and feeling the difference between the two cuts all at once.