Although they're a perennial summertime favorite, barbecue ribs aren't limited to picnic-fare pairings. Your options range far and wide -- from classic, tried-and-true dishes -- to modern sides and beverages that buck tradition. While the smoky flavor of the meat does come into play, the real key to pairing food with barbecue ribs lies in accenting the sweet, sharp flavor of the sauce.
Comfort Food Sides
Crisp and cool coleslaw serves as a tried-and-true pairing for ribs, but put a twist on the dish with variations such as apple yogurt slaw, fennel slaw or peanut coleslaw. Like slaw, green beans complement sweet sauce with their cool, subtle flavor. Try citrus-butter sauce or garlic and thyme seasonings to break the mold. Roasted or smoked corn always contrasts nicely with tangy ribs; for a little extra zip, add lime juice to your corn salad.
Greens and salads typically work with barbecue ribs because they temper the zest and smoke of the meat with their soothing flavors. However, don't fear mildly tart, nontraditional salads such as radish salad or marinated kale. To cool down particularly spicy barbecue sauce, pair your ribs with watermelon and pecan salad or romaine lettuce with bleu cheese or tomato and feta salad. Opt for fruit dressings -- such as mango chutney or pomegranate drizzle -- on traditional salads. On the flip side, spicy-sweet candied jalapenos also set off a mild rib sauce.
Beverages, of Course
Beer goes hand-in-hand with barbecued ribs; use your sauce as the deciding factor in your selection. Malty lagers and dark ales pair nicely with rich, flavorful sauce, while more hoppy brews make for a nice contrast against sugary sauce with lots of tomato flavor. White pinot gris from France serves as a mild, versatile pairing for virtually all kinds of ribs, while Spanish rose complements sweet sauces. Serve South American reds with vinegar-rich ribs.
More to Consider
Food pairings don't have to meet five-star dining standards; good old-fashioned potato chips, dill pickles, potato salads, deviled eggs, hush puppies, kabobs and fries virtually always fit the bill for barbecued ribs. Bread, from classic rolls to exotic flatbreads, helps sop up stray sauce, but don't fear flavor. Garlic and cheese bread add a savory accent to sweet sauces. Feel free to experiment with pairings; barbecue is all about traditions, and traditions have to start somewhere -- it might as well be at your table.