With their slightly fatty consistency and deep, rich flavor, ribs are a standout choice for cooking low and slow. While you can achieve favorable results on the grill or in a smoker, why not let your slow cooker do all the work for you? Add smokiness by using a smoky seasoning or sauce and finish the slow-cooked ribs in the oven to give them a perfectly crunchy exterior.
When it comes to buying ribs, you have several options, including beef short ribs and pork ribs such as baby backs, spareribs and country-style ribs -- all of which can be roasted in your slow cooker. In their book, Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann suggest buying approximately 1 pound per person, or more if you want leftovers. Some types you might consider include the following:
- Baby back ribs are among the least meaty of your choices. These ribs typically come from the same part of the animal as the loin pork chop, but with most of the boneless meat trimmed off. Although the meat is tender, you need a whole slab just to feed 1 or 2 people.
- Spareribs are one of the most popular types of ribs, thanks to their full, rich flavor and overall meatiness. These ribs come from the lower rib cage area -- right near the belly in the same vicinity as bacon. Spareribs are typically sold in slabs that weigh approximately 2 to 3 pounds, which is enough to feed 2 or 3 people.
- Country-style ribs represent a super meaty type of rib that are more like small loin chops. These ribs have a high ratio of meat to bone. Because they are generally inexpensive and have so much meat, these ribs are not only well suited to slow cooking, they also make a fairly budget-friendly option.
- Beef short ribs come from the lower abdomen, right below the prime rib. These richly flavored ribs have full beef flavor and a tender texture. Hensperger suggests looking for the meatiest, leanest ribs you can find, preferably buying ribs cut from the end of a standing rib roast for optimal flavor.
Prepping the Ribs
Because you're using the slow cooker, you don't need to worry about precooking the ribs in boiling water. Simply cut the rack into portions that can fit in the cooker or into individual servings, if desired. Trim any excess fat and cut the silvery-looking membrane from the ribs, if it's still intact -- some butchers remove it while they are cutting the ribs. Known as silver skin, this membrane takes on an unpleasant rubbery texture during slow cooking, so it's worth taking the extra time and effort to cut it off.
To remove silver skin, lift one edge and slide a knife beneath the membrane, lifting and loosing it until you have a large enough piece to grab with a paper towel. Then, peel it off the ribs and discard it.
At a minimum, season the ribs with salt and pepper before adding them to the slow cooker. For more complex flavor, apply a commercial dry rub to the exterior. Alternatively, make your own dry rub by combining ingredients such as brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder and black pepper.
Additionally, this method works best when you include some liquid to help tenderize and flavor the meat. Use your favorite commercially prepared barbecue sauce, or make your own sauce or glaze. For example, make a sticky, sweet molasses glaze by combining Dijon mustard with molasses, apple cider vinegar, dark brown sugar and a few dashes of hot sauce.
How to Roast Ribs in a Slow Cooker
Cut large racks into smaller portions that fit in the crock of your slow cooker. If needed, trim excess fat and the silver skin from the ribs.
Season the ribs as desired, rubbing the chosen seasonings lightly into the meat before adding the ribs to the bottom of the slow cooker. Optionally, layer the ribs with aromatic vegetables such as sliced onions, if desired.
Pour or spoon your chosen sauce or glaze over the ribs. Stir the mixture, if needed, to make sure all the ribs are sauced.
Put the cover on the slow cooker, set the cooker to low and let the ribs slowly roast for 8 to 9 hours, until they are very tender and nearly falling off the bone.
To achieve a caramelized exterior reminiscent of grilled ribs, transfer the slow-cooked ribs to a baking sheet, baste them with additional sauce and broil them approximately 10 inches from the heat source for 5 to 10 minutes, flipping them occasionally.