What is a Riblet?
There is still some debate in the meat cutting world over the true definition of a riblet. The popular pork appetizer served by Applebee's and other "fun food" outlets may be called a riblet, but many professional meat cutters would actually call it a feather cut, carved from the thin outer tips of the lower ribs. Others would call the meat and bone portion nearest the spine, a section often scrapped when cutting ribs, the true riblet or baby back rib.
When the rib section of a pig is first trimmed for processing, there are several distinct sections. The thick bone closest to the spine does contain some edible meat and cartilage, but butchers routinely cut this part out to create a flatter rack of ribs for cooking. Because this section still contains usable meat, albeit more difficult to prepare, many restaurants purchase this "scrap" meat at a low price and trim it into riblets. The riblet meat is often steamed to soften and pre-cook before a slow roasting process.
When processing ribs in the St. Louis style, butchers also trim off the curved tips of the ribs, leaving a straight line of pork loin ribs for barbecuing. These tips can also be steamed and slow cooked to yield an inexpensive alternative to full ribs, although the meat is often marbled with tough cartilage. The tips of the thinnest ribs, generally left in a connected rack, constitute what Applebee's and other restaurants promote as riblets.
There is a third candidate for the title of riblet, although it is not strictly a cut of meat. Trimmed pork loin meat can be ground into a paste and formed into the shape of a small rack of ribs. This type of rib cutlet or riblet is completely boneless, although it may still have some traces of cartilage and sinew that provide texture. The popular McRib sandwich served at McDonald's restaurants is one example of a formed riblet. Frozen riblets of this type, usually packed in a barbecue sauce, can also be found on grocery store shelves.
A vegetarian form of the pressed riblet patties can also be found in many health food stores and larger grocery stores. A meat substitute such as tofu or texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is flavored with traditional rib spices and served in an authentic barbecue sauce.
I was still working at a fast food restaurant when the first riblet sandwich was introduced. I thought it was pretty good, but it wasn't going to fool anyone who knew what real barbecue tasted like. Those sandwiches sold well for a while, then disappeared from the menu. I didn't realize what a cult following those bbq riblets had until I saw a huge line when the restaurant finally brought the sandwich back.
Every once in a while, I'll go to the grocery store and buy a package of frozen riblets in barbecue sauce. They are surprisingly affordable, and will definitely feed a large family.
One of my favorite local barbecue places used to serve what they called "rib tips", which I think were actually the ends of the ribs trimmed off before cooking. They were usually cut up into bite-size pieces, but I suppose they would be considered bbq riblets if they were still in slab form. The owner would put at least a pound of those riblets or rib tips in a basket for each order.
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