I didn’t grow up eating ribs. I don’t think I even knew about them. Ribs were somewhere in the category with headcheese (brains), bull testicles, and sweetbreads, some type of country food where you eat the entire animal with no waste that I, a member of the conservative middle class housing development clan, wasn’t part of. Besides which, who would want to eat a part of the animal that had hardly any meat on it?
I think everyone remembers the first time they ate ribs.
In my thirties, my boyfriend at the time, born in New Orleans, invited me out to lunch. I was living in Santa Cruz, California, at the time, which is a seaside community in Northern California. We were driving in his convertible Austin Healy sportscar on a picture-perfect day to Monterrey, more of a town known for seafood and upscale cafes on Cannery Row than for ribs.
I was pretty skeptical as we pulled up to a backstreet diner with less than 8 formica tables and a cloudy floor to ceiling front window. I walked up to the counter, looked at the blackboard, and decided BBQ chicken, baked beans, and coleslaw would be right for me and, well, safe to eat. There were quite a few salads like black eyed pea, lima bean, as well as potato salad.
Andrew got the rib plate, which looked like a charred pile of prehistoric fare if ever there was one. He asked if I wanted to try one, pushing on my resistance. Well, lo and behold, I took one bite of that succulent meaty rib and I don’t think I stopped until the bone was licked clean. And then I reached for another rib, then another, then another, until I was warned to stop. I had been initiated into the cult of the rib joint. My chicken was delicious, but now I wanted ribs instead.
So the skinny on ribs is that there is lots of bone, a little meat, and one never uses a fork. Ribs you eat with your fingers, just like our primal ancestors, tearing the ribs apart to get at the meat that holds them together and sucking the delicious glaze off the bones. Ribs are a food that combines heritage, style, atmosphere, and theatre all in one. Then I understood the motivation behind why people will travel all over America looking for the tastiest rib and even sort of have rib appreciation groups. Not only are they good eatin’ but there is some satisfaction in knawing on those ribs and feeling like tossing the bones across the room in satiated abandon.
Once a messy job on the outdoor grill or in the oven, the slow cooker method for cooking ribs is mess-free, except for the fingers and face during eating. The slow cooker excels at cooking ribs. This means you can make ribs any time, any season with no fuss or muss. It is a food that can be made with so little fuss, you might buy a big slow cooker just to make ribs. Every so often I see some spectacularly meaty ribs in the supermarket or butcher shop, and I know I have to make ribs.
Ribs are a food that cannot be cooked dry; they need a sauce and/or marinade to be properly cooked and tenderized. Slow cooking plus a good marinade/sauce translates into some really tasty, succulent meat. You can be as simple (just BBQ sauce) or as fancy (marinade plus sauce) as you want. While ribs cooked on a grill or roasted in an oven are chewy, slow cooked ribs are fall-apart tender. Ribs are naturally a bit fatty, so they stay nice and moist during the long cooking and they soak up whatever sauce you braise them in. You get maximum flavor for a minimum of work. While you won’t get that smokey flavor from outdoor cooking or soaked wood chips, you can use a smokey BBQ sauce if need be. There are so many yummy sauces to use, I guarantee you won’t miss it.
The sweet nature of the pork complements a wide range of tangy barbecue sauces that cook up into succulent, satisfying fare. So what is the skinny on pork ribs? What to choose? Ribs usually come in a slab of 2 to 3 pounds with varying amounts of meat and fat attached, feeding 2 to 3 eaters. You can cook your slab whole, divide it in one or two sections to stack in your round slow cooker, or divide the slab into portions. You don’t need to precook ribs in boiling water like when you barbecue; the slow cooker does the job perfectly with no fussy preparation. Just load up the cooker and go. Carefully inspect your slab so you can get one with plenty of meat and the least amount of fat.
When cooking pork ribs, you have three choices. The family includes spareribs, baby back ribs, and country-style ribs. With all three cuts, buy only USDA 1 graded pork and buy fresh for the best flavor. Spareribs are the most popular pork ribs to cook due to their meatiness and wonderful flavor; they are cut from the lower rib cage of the animal, down by the belly after the bacon is removed. Usually if you have a mental picture of a plate of ribs, they will be spareribs with a coating of tomato barbecue sauce. There is as much bone as meat, but the meat is good eating. They come in slabs about 3 pounds each containing 13 ribs.
Baby back ribs are a familiar part of upscale American restaurant rib culture, but they are by far not the meatiest ribs. Baby backs are ribs from baby animals, smaller and more delicate than a regular spare rib, often with the boneless meat separated off and what is left is only a small amount of meat. They show up as appetizers as they are very tender and small. A slab only feeds 1 to 2 people, so you will need to fill the slow cooker to the top to feed a group.
Country-style ribs are different than regular ribs. They are more like little loin pork chops since they are from the part of the upper rib that modulates into the loin. Often they have been butterflied or split. They have a high meat to bone ratio. They are very popular in the southern US and to most people the most tasty choice since they are so meaty. They are inexpensive for how much meat and are a favorite for braising in the slow cooker.
Serve ribs with plenty of big paper napkins (and maybe even one of those paper bibs if you have some in the drawer left over from cracking crab night) and foods like baked beans, half chickens or pieces, coleslaw, potato salad, pickled vegetables like okra, corn on the cob, and apple pie with a side scoop of vanilla ice cream.