For cooks with a backyard pit and plenty of time, there's nothing as pleasant as a lazy afternoon spent slow-cooking pork or beef ribs over a bed of hot coals. Unfortunately, those days are few and far between, and there are times when letting the short ribs cook unattended in a slow cooker is a much more practical option. This indoor method is easy and fuss-free, and the ribs' flavor and texture can still be memorable.
A Short Introduction to Short Ribs
Beef ribs are much too large to be sold intact, so they're usually cut into separate portions. Beef back ribs are the part cut away from the standing rib, to leave a tender and costly rib-eye roast. The remaining portion, filled with tough but flavorful meat similar to the chuck or brisket, becomes short ribs. These can be cut in several ways at the butcher shop, from flat strips to rectangular slabs to thick-cut individual ribs. Meaty, rectangular slabs -- sold as racks, or individual ribs -- are commonly known as English-cut or country-style short ribs.
Taking It Slow
Country-style short ribs are meaty and richly flavored, but don't pop them on your grill and expect to eat them any time soon. They're cut from a tough section of beef, and they're full of dense muscle fibers and stringy connective tissue. To bring out the best in short ribs, they must be cooked for a long time at low temperature so the meat becomes tender and the chewy connective tissues melt into moist, soft, natural gelatin. A countertop slow cooker provides one of the easiest ways to bring them to that stage.
To prepare your ribs, cut them into serving-sized portions and load them into your slow cooker's stoneware crock. They cook best when they're simmering in a flavorful liquid, and a well-chosen barbecue sauce can create a reasonable simulation of real barbecue flavor. Thin your favorite sauce with a small amount of beef broth and pour in enough to completely immerse the short ribs. Let them cook until they're completely tender, and you can easily separate the meat from the bones with a fork. That takes approximately seven to eight hours on the cooker's low setting, or three to four hours on high.
Packing Some Extra Punch
Simply simmering the ribs in barbecue sauce gives them a rich flavor without any fuss, but you can up the ante with some additional effort. Searing the ribs first on a grill or in a hot skillet intensifies their beefiness, and gives them a richer flavor. Most sauces can be improved or varied by adding flavorful ingredients, such as crushed tomatoes, hot or dried mustard, beer, cumin and fresh or dried chilies. Choose flavorings that appeal to you and won't conflict with the flavors in your chosen sauce.