In their natural state, pork ribs are a thoroughly disagreeable cut of meat. They're rawhide-tough, and shot through with stringy pieces of chewy gristle. Yet, after a few hours of slow cooking, those same ribs become startlingly luscious, tender and tempting. The traditional place to work that magic is outdoors on a barbecue grill, but it isn't always practical. Countertop slow cookers are equally suited to creating these transformations, but they won't accommodate large racks of ribs. To use your slow cooker, you need to cut up the ribs into more manageable portions.
A Difference of Dimension
Your outdoor grill can readily accommodate the large surface area of a rack of ribs, and if necessary you can buy stands that hold the ribs vertically so you can fit more. Slow cookers aren't as obliging. Oblong modern models are often wide enough to handle small racks of baby back ribs, but large racks are out of the question. Smaller round slow cookers are at even more of a disadvantage. Breaking the racks of ribs into more manageable pieces is necessary if you're going to take advantage of the cooker's meat-tenderizing prowess.
Strategy for Oval Cookers
If your oval slow cooker is large enough, you might be able to stack half racks horizontally on its bottom, but that's rare. More often, you'll need to stand them vertically. Most cookers are deep enough to handle even large side ribs standing on end, though you might need to trim away the thin gristly ends of the largest racks. Cut your racks in halves or thirds, depending on the size of your cooker, and stand them up in the stoneware liner. If you have leftover ribs, or small pieces trimmed from the ends, use them to fill in any empty spaces around the edges.
Strategy for Round Cookers
Round cookers are more problematic, because they lack the width to fit large sections of ribs. It's more practical to cut the racks into individual ribs or two-bone servings, and pack them into the cooker that way. They can stack them loosely in a heap on the bottom of the cooker, but packing the ribs vertically will give you the greatest cooking capacity. Stand the ribs on end in the cooker, filling up the liner until you run out of ribs or run out of space.
Ribs can be cooked either dry or in a sauce, whichever you prefer. If you're cooking them dry, season them the night before with your favorite spice rub or seasoning paste. Load the ribs into your cooker, either as-is or with 1/2 cup of water at the bottom to add moisture. It's optional, not necessary. If you're cooking them in sauce, leave room between the ribs for the sauce to circulate and season flavor the meat. Thin the sauce with a little bit of water or broth if it's too thick. Cook the ribs on High for three to four hours, or on Low for eight to nine hours, until they're completely tender.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.
ITStock Free/Polka Dot/Getty Images