You could easily take a rack of ribs, drown them with a bottle of your favorite barbecue sauce, set the slow cooker to low, and come back to tender, juicy slow-cooked ribs in five to six hours, but those ribs wouldn't hold a candle to the ribs that come off the smoker or a grill.
I make smoked or grilled barbecue ribs only once a year because they take almost a full 24 hours to prepare. But following a hunch that I could take some key steps from BBQ ribs and use them for ribs destined for the slow cooker, I found that these slow cooker ribs taste just as good in their own right as barbecued, and that I'd actually make them more than once a year and now you can too.
What's the Deal with Slow Cooker Baby Back Ribs?
Traditional barbecued ribs are made by slowly smoking ribs — sometimes other cuts but primarily baby back ribs — over a low-temperature fire until this once-tough cut of meat is tender and juicy. In many ways, their traditional cooking method is what makes ribs so well-suited for the slow cooker. Now you can absolutely put plain ribs into the slow cooker with your favorite barbecue sauce and cook them on low until tender, but you'll miss out on a deep flavor that proper preparation, a homemade sauce, and a quick broil will bring out to really make these the best slow cooker ribs.
For Your Information
- You'll want two racks of baby back pork ribs for this recipe, about four pounds of ribs total.
- The ribs cook on low for a total of six to eight hours; you'll want to be close during the final hour of cooking to add the sauce and monitor doneness.
- Make sure you have some heavy-duty aluminum foil on hand for broiling the ribs after slow cooking.
Why Are These the Best Ribs
Taking a cue from their barbecued cousins, these ribs are rubbed with a dry spice mixture before slow cooking and cooked only with a small amount of water to prevent the ribs from being braised rather than slow cooked. The result is a deeply flavorful rib before any sauce gets involved. But don't worry! There's still sticky, finger-licking-good sauce to be added — the first portion goes in during the final hour of cooking, while the last half is broiled onto the finished ribs until slightly charred and candied on top.
The Key Steps for the Best Slow Cooker Ribs
- Remove the rib membrane. I admit that I've been lazy about this step in the past, and the resulting ribs are edible but aren't as delicious. Removing the membrane is as easy as finding it and using your finger strength to pull it up and off.
- Use a dry rub for seasoning. You can use your favorite spice rub or the one below, but this step really sets these ribs apart from other recipes, since we aren't just relying on a sauce to season the ribs at the end!
- Make your own sauce. I like making my own barbecue sauce because it's inexpensive and gives me complete flavor control. If you skip this step, you'll need two cups of your favorite bottled brand.
- Broil before serving. This is the magic step, not only because it really gives these slow cooker ribs the flavor of grilled or oven-cooked ribs, but also because you can use this step for reheating the ribs if you've made them ahead.
Serving Slow Cooker Ribs
Luckily, a lot of the serving work will have been done during preparation and cooking. By then, you've already cut the ribs into four to five rib servings to fit into the slow cooker, and you've already broiled them to sticky perfection. You can further slice the sections into single ribs (the ribs will be tender so this will be incredibly easy), or just make sure your guests have steak knifes and plenty of napkins to enjoy your (easy) work.
How To Make the Best BBQ Baby Back Ribs in the Slow Cooker
Serves 6 to 8
What You Need
For the rub:
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup Dijon or brown mustard
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 pounds baby back pork ribs (about 2 racks)
For the barbecue sauce:
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
Measuring cups and spoons
Knife and cutting board
6-quart slow cooker
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
Rimmed baking sheet
- Make the spice rub. Place the brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, black pepper, chipotle pepper, onion powder, and thyme in a small bowl and whisk with a fork to combine. Transfer 2 tablespoons to a small saucepan for the sauce and set aside. Measure out your mustard and salt for the ribs before you start dealing with the raw meat.
- Remove the membrane from the ribs. Removing this chewy membrane will make for more tender ribs. Flip the racks over so that the bones are facing up. Pry a finger between the silvery membrane and the ribs to start pulling up the membrane — I like to do this between two of the rib bones. Once you have a piece of membrane pulled up, you should be able to easily pull the whole membrane off.
- Cut the ribs into 4 rib sections. Flip the ribs back over and cut them into 4 to 5 bone sections with a sharp knife. To do this, carefully hold the rack upright and guide the knife through the meat between the bones. This makes them easier to fit into the slow cooker and portions them into individual servings at the same time.
- Salt the ribs and coat with mustard. Sprinkle the ribs all over with the salt. It's okay if you have some leftover. Using a pastry brush or your fingertips, brush the ribs on all sides with mustard — this helps the spice rub stick.
- Rub the ribs with the spice rub. Evenly sprinkle the ribs with the spice rub, and then press it into the fleshy part of the ribs.
- Transfer to the slow cooker and add 1/2 cup water. Transfer the sections of ribs to a 6-quart or larger slow cooker, standing them upright with the meatiest part of the rib down. Add 1/2 cup of water.
- Cook on low for 6 to 7 hours. Cover and cook the ribs on the LOW setting until the ribs are just becoming tender but not falling off the bone yet, 6 to 7 hours. If you pick up a section of ribs with tongs, it should easily bend but not fall apart. Cover and keep slow cooking while you make the sauce.
- Make the barbecue sauce. Add the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, and liquid smoke if using to the spice rub in the saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to combine. Simmer until darkened in color and thickened just a bit, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer half the sauce to a small bowl — no need to be exact, but it should be about 1 cup.
- Add 1 cup of barbecue sauce and cook for 2 hours more. Transfer the remaining sauce from the saucepan to the slow cooker, pouring it as evenly over the ribs as possible. Don't worry if they don't seem evenly coated or that there's a bit of liquid in the bottom of the slow cooker. Cover and cook for 2 hours more.
- Heat broiler to high. When the ribs are very tender (you'll know because picking up the ribs will result in more cracking than bending between the bones), arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Transfer the ribs to the baking sheet meaty-side up.
- Broil ribs for 7 to 8 minutes. Coat the ribs with the reserved sauce. Broil until the sauce is sticky and charred in spots, 7 to 8 minutes.
- Make ahead: The ribs can be cooked in the slow cooker until tender, cooled and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance. Broil with the remaining barbecue sauce to reheat just before serving.
- Purchased barbecue sauce: Your favorite store-bought barbecue sauce can be substituted for the homemade sauce here. You'll need 2 cups.