Here's What Actually Sets Rib Tips Apart From Riblets

If you are a Chicago barbecue lover, then you doubtlessly know what rib tips are. These flavorful, meaty nuggets of pork are a staple of the Windy City smoking scene. Cooked until achingly tender and generously doused in a sweet, tangy sauce, rib tips are to Chicago what burnt ends are to Kansas City. But if you aren't from the Chicagoland area, you may wonder what all the hubbub is about. Or, still, you may be asking whether they are the same thing as riblets.

The answer, in short, is no, but it gets more complicated as topics in the culinary world so often do. To start, you need to understand that ribs aren't the monolith they seem to be. There are the hulking slabs of pork ribs, the sleeker St. Louis-style racks, and the meatier, but smaller baby back ribs. If you're scratching your head and wondering how so many ribs come from an animal with one rib cage, you're not alone. The difference lies in where the ribs come from on the animal and how they are butchered.

What are rib tips?

Spare ribs are the largest cut of pork ribs, hailing from the animal's side with the term spare referring to these side ribs. They are richly marbled with connective tissue and fat making them the preferred rib among connoisseurs and competitive barbecuers. But the spare rib cut isn't all bones. There is a strip of meat that surrounds bits of cartilage that is removed when converting spare ribs into the smaller St. Louis-style rib rack. Frequently this meat is not sold directly, but rather used to make ground pork and sausage after the cartilage is removed.

Enterprising barbecue chefs saw the potential value, so they tasted these rib tips and began giving them the smoke treatment. When sold as a standalone dish, rib tips are often cut into chunks, seasoned, and smoked until tender. This gives the rib tips tons of surface area for the smoke and rub to penetrate and for the sauce to cling to. While some may complain that rib tips aren't ribs, the meat is so clearly rib adjacent that the lack of a bone shouldn't put one off. 

What are riblets?

Riblets are a bit harder to pin down than rib tips. That's because there is no technical definition of what a riblet is, just a generally agreed-upon understanding. Because of this, you'll see lots of different definitions of riblets — some even say it is merely another term for rib tips. Most chefs and butchers draw a clear distinction though.

Riblets are often another trimming from rib butchery, the result of making a rack of ribs look more presentable. That means evening them out, and what is excised becomes riblets. They take the appearance and shape of small racks of ribs, with squat bones surrounded by morsels of meat. With riblets being somewhat popular — thanks, Applebee's — there is a touch more demand for these easy-to-eat and quicker-to-cook mini ribs, so some butchers make them by cutting a rack of ribs into smaller strips. There are also button ribs, which some claim Applebee's actually uses — that come from the small area between the baby back ribs and the spine. Though not riblets to some, the effect is the same.

Rib tips have no bone

If you're a fan of gnawing your food off the bone, rib tips may not be the thing for you. While they are full of rich flavor, they are not full of bones. But what they lack in bones, they make up for in fat, connective tissue, and cartilage. As the rib tips slow smoke, that connective tissue and fat renders down and melts into the meat as it does in cuts like pork shoulder and beef chuck roast.

What it lends is a sumptuous mouthfeel and a much deeper flavor than that found in leaner, less-worked cuts of pork. The cartilage doesn't render, and though some folks find it less than pleasant to encounter, it is easily worked around. Some folks like to hold the rib tip and bite around the cartilage, and some like to pop the whole rib tip nugget in their mouth and strip away the meat, discarding the cartilage much like an olive pit. There's no wrong approach when you're enjoying such a delicious, yet overlooked cut.

Riblets can be many things but are always bone-in

Rib tips are what they are. They are cut from one specific section of the pig's ribs. Riblets, as discussed, can be one of many different cuts from the general rib vicinity. As such, riblets can vary in their consistency quite a bit. Starting at the top, if the riblets in question are actually button ribs, expect a dainty strip of bones and meat that, if cooked properly, will eat much like a regular rib. But these will be lean compared to spare ribs, St. Louis-style ribs, or rib tips. The flavor here should come from the smoke, rub, and sauce. Riblets cut from sections of the adjacent baby back rib slab will be much the same but with a bit more fat to the meat.

Riblets may be rib tips themselves, and if so, they will eat like the above-described rib tips, but will likely be left in one long piece rather than cut into individual tips. Or, they may have been butchered off the end of the spare rib slab, in that case there will be standard rib bones throughout and a full meaty, pork-forward flavor thanks to the extra fat and connective tissue present.