Continuing with our series on the four primal cuts, today we’ll take a look at the rib, home to famous steaks, beefy flavor, and a some belly-area muscles that might be less familiar. As noted in the loin article, the primal cuts refer to the four main sections of the steer, into which a butcher divides a side of beef with the very first cuts, making the sections easier to handle (they can still weigh more than one hundred pounds each), and allowing for sections to be sold wholesale. The rib is the second from the front, butting up against the chuck (shoulder) to the front and the loin to the rear.
While the rib section takes its name from the ribs that form its foundation, it is not the only primal with ribs. In fact, the rib section doesn’t even begin until the sixth rib (counting from the front of the animal), leaving the first five within the chuck section (chuck ribs). If this sounds familiar, you may have read our piece on chuck eye steaks, the steak cut from the chuck ribs. Across the imaginary line between 5th and 6th rib, you’ll find chuck eye facing its brother steak, the rib eye. They are cut from the same muscle group, on opposing sides of the traditional chuck/rib divide.
Wagyu skirt steak displays its meaty marbling.
The main divide: belly vs. ribs
Also mirroring the loin primal, the rib has two quite contrasting sections, one found in the belly area, and the other comprised of the gigantic rib bones that reach around the animal, and the muscles holding everything in place. As we learned with the loin, the muscles found in the belly section are often highly dense with connective tissue, making them less tender, and therefore cheaper, but also increasing their ability to hold onto bold flavors that can’t find a home in the lean, tender cuts. When a muscle works hard during the life of the animal, the body compensates by lending it a hand — developing stringy, coarse fibers that mechanically assist the muscle in its tough work. In the case of the belly muscles, this means holding up the entire viscera of the animal (and, remember, that’s four stomachs). The coarse fibers that help the skirt muscles do their job are the same that chefs invariably warn home cooks to identify and cut against. Every time the fibers are made shorter, the bites get more tender. Skirt steak makes for the perfect fajita meat, cooked fast over a hot fire.
Texas-style short ribs, a modern barbecue favorite
The Rib Bones
Main article: Beef Rib overview
After removing the skirts and the navel (another messy, coarse bunch of fibrous muscle that requires slow cooking), the butcher has the ribs — long, Flintstone-esque bones that are hard to handle in their full form. So, the division is made (with a saw) between the belly end of the ribs (the rib “plate”), and the spinal end, which will become the rib roll, perhaps the most prized subprimal section of the animal.
Short Rib Plate
The rib plate is a rectangular section of short ribs, available in the “Texas-style” (cut into groups of three of four ribs, not cut against the bone), and as well “English-cut,” where the bones are separated lengthwise as well as cut into small square sections across the bone. The English style is ideal for hearty winter braise recipes, while the Texas version are a slow-smoked favorite at barbecue joints.
English-Cut short ribs are cut across the bone
Main article: Ribeye overview
What’s left after the short rib plate is removed is the most prized section of the rib primal. The rib roll, which can be cut down into the familiar “standing rib roast” (prime rib), with the bone attached or removed. For smaller portions, the rib roll is cut down into ribeye steaks, the “eye” of the muscle being the central portion that runs along the spine. As far as steaks go, this is the richest, beefiest you can find.