THE BLOG
05/30/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

Beef Ribs Make a Comeback

Steven Raichlen

Have you ever experienced the "brontosaurus" rib at Mighty Quinn's in Manhattan? How about the 8-inch-long beef plate ribs at La Barbecue Cuisine Texicana in Austin? I hope so -- you should.

After decades of playing backup to the omnipresent, uber-popular pork baby back and sparerib, the beef rib has finally achieved star status of its own.

It's about time. In the hands of a skilled pit master or mistress, beef ribs have no equal. (Triangulate brisket, tri-tip, and flank steak and you get an idea of the flavor.) Pork ribs, which famously outsell beef ribs, pale in comparison.

But which beef rib? You could start with beef back ribs. Unfortunately, you rarely see good ones at your butcher counter or in your supermarket's meat department. You're more likely to find what competition barbecuers derisively call "shiners" -- back ribs with so much of the meat removed that there's hardly anything left but shiny white bones with a few nuggets of protein connecting them. There's an economic explanation for this: Butchers can sell prime rib roasts and steaks at much higher prices than back ribs, so have little incentive to leave expensive meat on the bones.

But more and more restaurants are serving monster beef plate ribs. The short list includes Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn and the Pecan Lodge in Dallas. In San Antonio, The Granary's Tim Rattray cures beef plate ribs with pastrami seasonings, then smokes them over post oak (Texas' fuel of choice). See a similar recipe in my book Best Ribs Ever called Grandpa's Barbecued Pastramied Short Ribs.

2014-05-30-CutsOfBeef630.jpg

Use this handy chart to visualize where you can find all the best cuts of beef ribs. The percentage represents how much of the steer is used for each cut.

For all their growing popularity, considerable confusion surrounds what beef ribs are. And aren't. Even butchers squirm when pressed for precise information, as beef ribs can actually come from three separate locations on the steer.

  • The beef back ribs described above are known in butcher-speak as NAMP 124 (the acronym stands for North American Meat Processors, the organization responsible for standardizing wholesale cuts of meat). They are trimmed off the outside of prime rib (part of the rib primal behind the forequarters) and consist of 7 rib bones with the feather and chine bones removed. Usually, the bones are 6 to 8 inches long and are sold in racks. Some butchers sell individual bones. They sometimes go by the name dinosaur ribs.
  • Plate short ribs -- sometimes called plate ribs short and sweet—(the NAMP 123 series) are the biggest meatiest beef ribs, usually sold in 3-bone portions. A single rib can tip the scales at 1 to 2-1/2 pounds and will comfortably serve 2 to 3 people. They come from the plate primal behind the forequarters and near the belly of the steer.
  • Smaller, but still meaty, are chuck short ribs (NAMP 130 series), common in most supermarkets. They consist of ribs 1 through 5 under the neck of the animal and are usually 3 to 4 inches long. A well-marbled rectangle of meat rests on top of a wide bone; they are also available boneless. You can buy and cook them whole. When crosscut into thin strips or butterflied, they may be labeled "Korean-style short ribs" or "flanken." (Argentineans know them as "tira de asado." )

Though the aforementioned ribs have different characteristics, all make excellent candidates for the grill or smoker. Find out how to cook these cuts on BarbecueBible.com.

Try these three beef rib recipes to see what all the fuss is about:

SIGN UP for Steven Raichlen's UP IN SMOKE newsletter to learn more about barbecue!

READ MORE ABOUT GRILLING AT BARBECUEBIBLE.COM

Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
All the meal hacks and indulgent snacks. You’re welcome.