Doc Willoughby on country-style pork ribs

Feb 9, 2018

What is a country-style rib and why does Doc Willoughby love this underappreciated cut? He and Francis Lam disucss.

Try Doc's recipe for Soy-Braised Country-Style Pork Ribs.

Francis Lam: You are super into country-style pork ribs.

Doc Willoughby: I am. I think they are an underappreciated cut that is perfect for this time of year when we're making stews and braises, and in addition, it is usually the cheapest cut of pork in the supermarket meat counter, so it's got a lot going for it and people don't know it.

FL: I have to admit, I'm a little confused because every time I've seen country-style pork ribs, there doesn't seem to be a rib involved, and I'm like, that's how you do it in the country—there are no ribs in our ribs. That's how you do it out here?

DW: Well, this is a cut of pork with a little of an identity crisis because it isn't really a rib, it's just called a rib, and the reason for that is it's basically a made-up cut. What it really is is a blade chop, which is a chop that comes from the area between the loin and the shoulder. But the blade chop was always very difficult to sell because it's a little bit fatty and gnarly compared to loin chops, so butchers had a lot of trouble selling it. They generally ground it up for sausage, or if they were a little sneaky, they'd put it under a bunch of loin chops in a wrapped package of chops.

FL: And so, the loin chops are the classic, beautiful pork chop we typically think of…

DW: They're from the center, they're finely grained, not much fat, very pretty and even. Country-style, or the blade chops, are a little fatty, a little gnarly, not so regular—they're hard to sell.

Back in the '60s or '70s, I'm not quite sure when, a butcher in Chicago thought, well, ribs are popular, so what if I take these blade chops and butterfly them, lay them open, cut through the rib, and call them “ribs”? If you do that and then you turn them on the bone side, you've got what looks like a nice fat giant rib, which it actually isn't, but it’s very attractive when you arrange it that way. He started selling them and they became super popular. So, country-style ribs were born, and now you can get them all over the country. It's a little confusing because there are a couple of things people also call country-style ribs, and just to make it simple, they tend to cut a little further down into the shoulder, so there's more fat and a little more gnarl. But, whichever one of these you have, they have enough fat and gnarl that they're perfect for braising and stewing, and they have light and dark meat on them. You get different textures and different flavors, and they're super easy to cut up.

If you're going to make a pork stew, you shouldn't buy what's labeled pork stew meat, because that’s just little bits and pieces from all over the animal that they had leftover. What you usually do is buy a pork butt and butcher that, but that's a pain. If you buy the country-style ribs, they're these small, elongated pieces of meat, and you cut them into cubes and you're done, ready to go. They're ideal for that, and great for braising because they brown easily, fit into a pot very easily, and they love long, slow cooking. And, as I said, they're the cheapest pork you can buy. I love them. You have to pay a little attention to what you're getting. I was looking for them in a supermarket and I finally found them, but they were labeled blade end ribs for barbecue, country. I am not sure where that nomenclature came from, but they were good.

Butchery is really complicated, and it's different in different countries. It's different in different parts of the country, and the same cut has different names in different parts of the country. You have to educate yourself and know what you're looking for.

And then, there are also the cuts that are invented, like country-style ribs, or the tri-tip. The tri-tip is a muscle on the sirloin that was always cut as part of the sirloin until back in the '50s when a butcher in Oakland, California started cutting it out as a roast, and it became well-known as a roast in California, but not until recently on the East Coast.

It's an evolving art. The more you know about how people are butchering things and why they're naming different things, the better shopper you are, and the better food you have.

FL: Right on. Well, thanks for this little lesson in meat cutting and meat marketing.