Aaron Franklin, the acclaimed Austin pitmaster, has been widely celebrated for his mastery of slow-smoked beef brisket—but that's not actually his favorite meat.
“If I had to name my own personal favorite cut of barbecue,” writes Franklin in his bestselling book Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, “it would probably be beef ribs...the most decadent, succulent, and flavorful cut of beef you could put on a smoker.”
Franklin’s not alone. Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly has called them the “ultimate carnivore trophy” and “a succulent symbol of the Texas obsession with beef.” He might have said “the American obsession with beef,” for these days you can find massive beef ribs everywhere, from street corner barbecue trailers out in Seattle to brick-and-mortar joints in Brooklyn.
And what makes it all the more remarkable is that, until just a few years ago, no one had ever heard of the things.
The Lowliest of Ribs
For decades, beef ribs languished in the shadows of smoked brisket and pulled pork. You could find them in a few joints down in Texas, but nobody paid them much attention. When it came to barbecued ribs, pork was the undisputed king.
The beef ribs you did find were almost always “back ribs”—ribs number six through 12 as you move down a cow’s spine, and the ones that are part of a standing rib roast. Trimmed away from the choicer meat, they make for a rack with impressively large bones but only a modest amount of beef in between. In other words, a lot of work to cook and to eat for a relatively small payoff.
Just a few years ago, though, beef ribs’ fortunes started to rise, boosted by a few pitmasters seeking a new barbecue delicacy with which to wow diners. By switching to a different cut, they almost overnight transformed beef ribs into a major barbecue star.
Franklin’s Rise and Mueller’s Move
You could say it all started with Aaron Franklin himself, who in the space of a year blew up on the Texas scene. In December 2009, he started selling barbecue out of an old Aristocrat Lo-Liner camper in downtown Austin. Within two months there was a line around the corner every day. A year later he moved into the brick-and-mortar restaurant Franklin Barbecue still occupies today, and soon after Bon Appétit declared it “the best BBQ in America.”
Brisket, not beef ribs, launched Franklin to unprecedented fame, but his instant stardom left other cooks itching for the limelight. One was Wayne Mueller, the third generation pitmaster at the famed Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, about 30 miles northeast of Austin. “Franklin had taken the flagship brisket and sort of launched it into the stratosphere,” Mueller recalls. “The only way to get out of that shadow was to create something equally or more impressive.”
Louie Mueller’s had been serving beef back ribs since the 1940s, and in the early 1990s, Wayne’s father, Bobby, had switched to the meatier chuck ribs, which are taken from bones two to five on a carcass and have a rectangular slab of well-marbled meat attached. But Wayne Mueller knew there was an even bigger cut out there: plate ribs, bones six through eight, sitting just above the rib eye.
A single plate rib can weigh as much as two and a half pounds and feed three hungry people—an impressive hunk of meat that, thanks to lots of collagen and fat distributed evenly throughout the meat, is rendered juicy and silky after long hours on a smoky pit.
“It made for great food porn,” Mueller says. “It hit all of the right notes—the taste notes, the Texas notes, the beef notes. It had it all.”
Beef Ribs Take Texas
Mueller’s wasn’t the first Central Texas joint to serve plate ribs—Kent Black of Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart told Eater he started selling them around 2008—but Mueller was instrumental in popularizing them.
“I had had them maybe once or twice at Louie Mueller,” says John Lewis, who at the time was pitmaster at La Barbecue in Austin. He was impressed enough to seek out the big plate ribs and start cooking them on his own pits. Todd David at Dallas’ Cattleack BBQ put them on the menu when he transformed his catering operation into a regular barbecue restaurant in 2013. Other early adopters include Cooper’s in Llano, Stanley’s in Tyler, and the Granary in San Antonio, where Tim Rattray has been lauded for his pastrami-cured variant.
The barbecue world often gets a bad rap for being tradition-bound and slow to change, but beef ribs are a prime example of pitmasters’ embracing novelty. And what barbecue item could be better suited for our buzzy, social media-driven times? Big, bold, eminently Instagrammable—beef ribs are a sort culinary thrill ride, the cronut of barbecue, if you will.
Big, bold, eminently Instagrammable—beef ribs are a sort culinary thrill ride, the cronut of barbecue.
And they’re not that hard to cook, either. “It’s impossible to screw up,” John Lewis says. “There’s so much marbling in it. There’s no way it won’t be juicy.”
It’s not surprising that the massive ribs quickly migrated beyond the Lone Star State. When John Lewis headed east to open Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, he brought beef ribs along with him. They can now be found in Texas-inspired joints like Hometown Barbecue in Brooklyn and all over the South at places like Mac’s Speed Shop in Charlotte and Fox Brothers in Atlanta.
Even Melvin’s Barbecue—an old South Carolina restaurant that’s been known for pulled pork and mustard sauce for more than half a century—recently added beef ribs as a Saturday special. “They’re so rich, huge and so expensive,” owner David Bessinger says, “I felt that Saturdays would be a good day for men and women to pig out.”
BBQ’s Loss Leader
As Bessinger notes, there is one catch when it comes to beef ribs: They’re really, really expensive. It’s hard for restaurateurs to make a decent margin on them, and the prices keep going up. In 2012, as the big rib’s vogue was just taking off, they cost $3.25 per pound wholesale. A year later, they topped $5 a pound. These days, Todd David at Cattleack says, “we pay $4.75 a pound for brisket and $6.25 or $6.50 for beef rib.” And that’s for a cut that will lose half its weight during cooking,
“It’s our gallon of milk—our loss leader,” Wayne Mueller says. He would love to charge more than his current $24 a pound price, but he can’t see going any higher. “If we have a one and three-quarter pound rib, we could be pushing $40 for a single unit. It’s a bit of a sticker shock for many people.” But he has no plans of dropping them from the menu—they bring customers in the door.
When beef ribs first took off, many wrote them off as an over-the-top fad that would soon fade, but the pitmasters I talked to disagree. “The first time people buy them is as a novelty,” says Todd Davis of Cattleack. “They’ve never seen such a thing. The second one they buy is because it’s probably the best cut of meat they’ve ever had.”
I don’t think foie gras is ever going to get old. This is like the beef version of it.
John Lewis agrees. “It’s ten times better than brisket,” he says. “It’s the ultimate indulgent beef barbecue. I don’t think foie gras is ever going to get old. This is like the beef version of it.”
And to put the price in perspective, Wayne Mueller encourages his customers to think about beef ribs not as a single-serving item like sliced brisket or a sandwich but more along the lines of a Thanksgiving turkey—or a whole hog, perhaps. “It’s communal,” he says. “It’s meant to be shared.”
As for the future of the barbecue delicacy he helped launch into the world, Mueller remains bullish. “I think it’s now a staple,” he says. “I think it’s here to stay.”