Spare Ribs vs. Baby Back Ribs: What’s The Difference?

Written by Mike Futia | Updated October 20, 2023

Quick Answer

  • Baby back ribs come from the upper rib cage and are leaner, smaller, and more expensive. They cook faster and are ideal for special occasions.
  • Spare ribs are larger, meatier, and cheaper than baby back ribs. They have more flavor but also contain more cartilage and small bones.
  • Baby back ribs are tender and lean, while spare ribs are flavorful and meaty.
  • Spare ribs offer more flavor and are cost-effective, making them a better choice for beginners. Baby back ribs are for those who prefer a leaner, quicker-cooking option.

What Is The Difference Between Baby Back and Spare Ribs?

Both baby back ribs and spare ribs offer tasty meat and an exciting grilling experience, but they aren’t the same. The more you know about the separations between the two, the easier it will be to select the next rack of ribs for your next outdoor grilling experience.

Baby Back Ribs

Baby back ribs, also known as “back” ribs, come from the upper portion of the rib cage. They are right above the spare ribs and shorter, which makes them simple to identify and offers a rationale for the “baby” nickname.

These ribs are much leaner than the competing spare ribs, which allows them to cook faster. A typical rack will have around 11-13 bones and weighs two pounds. It tapers off at the end of the slab, making it simple to see that this area of the pig comes from the area around the spine and upper ribcage of the animal.

ribs with mustard base

Each rib typically measures around three to six inches, enough to satisfy any hungry group. Two adults can share a single slab, or one adult who hasn’t had a full meal all day can probably eat one alone. Nowadays, many baby back rib slabs have a little piece of loin meat attached to the top.

Of course, baby back ribs are smaller than spare ribs, yet they cost more. They’re ideal if you have the budget to buy them or want a special rack of ribs for an exciting outdoor event. 

Spare Ribs

spare ribs raw

As we mentioned above, the spare ribs sit below the baby back ribs on the animal. It has a little more marrow but comes with small amounts of gristle, cartilage, and small bones. Typically, the gristle on the bone is known as the rib tip.

Spare ribs are much larger and flatter than a traditional rack of baby back ribs. The meat is marbled and textured, filled with flavorful, rich meat thanks to the connective tissue and additional fat. The USDA requires a rack of spare ribs to have at least 11 bones, which means a standard rack will weigh around three pounds, much heavier than the baby back ribs.

spare ribs on smoker

The additional cartilage and bones inside the spare ribs make them more affordable than the baby back ribs. They’re also cheaper because baby back ribs have grown much more popular than the spare rib rack. But of course, they aren’t quite as nice to eat either, making them less in demand. 

One rack of spare ribs is pretty large, so it’s great for two people. It would take a very hungry individual to finish a rack of spare ribs solo. 

What Should You Look For In A Good Rack of Ribs?

spare ribs

There are a couple of qualities you should look for in a solid hunk of ribs if you want to have the best grilling experience, whether by yourself or with your family.

Here are a few of the most critical things to search for in ribs while you’re shopping:

  • Avoid frozen ribs: It’s best to stay away from ribs that are frozen or have been frozen before. Although it might be tricky to tell sometimes, they’re better if they’re fresh.
  • Pick excellent meat coverage: You want a rack of ribs with maximum meat coverage. Look for ribs that aren’t cut too close to the bone and have a decent amount of meat.
  • Refrain from ribs with faults: Steer clear from ribs with obvious deformities or indications of freezer burn. They won’t taste very good and will be tricky to work with on your Traeger or similar grill.
  • Consider your size: Some people love to work with smaller racks, but others want something larger. It’s up to you to pick the right size rack of ribs for you.

Always get a size you’re comfortable with, and avoid deformed racks with a lack of meat coverage. It’s also a great idea to experiment with rib size and structure until you find something you love to work with and cook.

Can You Substitute Baby Back Ribs For Spare Ribs?

321 ribs

Maybe you want to cook baby back ribs with a specific recipe, but you only have spare ribs on hand. Is it possible to replace one with the other?

Luckily, there will be no trouble substituting spare ribs for baby back ribs on the grill. Although you’ll get a slightly different texture and flavor, they won’t be too different once seasoned, cooked (especially if you use our best rib rub), and coated in BBQ sauce. You can still eat them the same way, and they will both hold excellent flavor.

For our 3-2-1 ribs recipe, we specifically recommend a rack of baby back ribs, but we don’t see any reason you can’t try the same method with spare ribs.

Why Are Baby Back Ribs More Expensive Than Spare Ribs?

321 ribs

The biggest reason for the higher price tag on baby back ribs is their demand. In recent years, more and more people have shown they prefer baby back ribs over some spare ribs. Suppliers know this and raise the price significantly. 

The tenderness of the baby back ribs also contributes to the price point. The spare ribs have excellent flavor, but nothing comes close to the texture you will get a solid rack of baby ribs.

What Are St. Louis Style Ribs?

St. Louis ribs are also a popular selection, offering meaty cuts that come from the belly of the pig once the belly is removed. 

St. Louis style ribs are trimmed down, flatter than baby back ribs but much higher in fat content. They are chewy and delicious, excellent for grilling. St. Louis-style ribs are a top-notch competitor to spare, and baby back ribs and definitely one of our favorites.

What Is The Best Cut of Ribs for Smoking?

There is no winner when picking ribs for the grill. Ultimately, it’s up to you. Do you prefer fatty cuts? Leaner selections? What will your seasonings pair best with on the market?

St. Louis and spare ribs offer a hefty meat flavor. Baby back ribs are the most common at BBQ restaurants, providing a tender, lean texture and taste. All these ribs will taste incredible when cooked on the grill, so take the opportunity to experiment with all the meat varieties to figure out what you love.

The Final Verdict: The Ultimate Rib Winner

It’s tricky to pick the winner between spare and baby back ribs. There are definite perks to each of them, so it depends on what you want. Baby back ribs are more tender, but spare ribs have more flavor and tend to be larger and meatier.

When considering everything from price to flavor, the spare ribs are your best bet, especially if it’s your first time working with ribs. Of course, in time, you can test each rib to figure out your favorite.

Need help knowing when your pork ribs are done smoking? Check out our guide to pork rib internal temperature

Mike Futia

Hello, I'm Mike Futia, a passionate griller and BBQ enthusiast. I'm the creator of Grill Frenzy, and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge of grilling and smoking with you. I believe that BBQ and grilling should be accessible to everyone. Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out, I'm here to guide you on your grilling journey. Welcome!


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