Classic barbecue ribs require a smoker or at least a grill, as well as some degree of vigilance from the cook to make sure they come off the heat at exactly the right stage of tender doneness. On days when you’re not ready for that level of commitment, or when the weather outside is not suitable for grilling, you can also prepare ribs in a frying pan.
Different Kinds of Pork Ribs
There are several different kinds of pork ribs, and some are better suited to cooking in a frying pan than others. The two kinds you’ll see most often at a barbecue are baby back ribs and side ribs, or “spare” ribs. When butchers cut the loin away from the backbone to make boneless roasts or chops, back ribs are the part that’s underneath the loin and closest to the backbone.
Side ribs are bigger, and they make up the rest of the rib after the baby back ribs are cut away. You get big strips of meat between the bones, but the bones themselves are bigger so your ratio of meat to bone isn’t as favorable as it is with baby back ribs. Sometimes, side ribs are sold as “St. Louis ribs,” with the gristly rib tips trimmed away. You’ll see those sold under various names, including riblets, rib ends and, sometimes, “alehouse” or “pub-style” ribs.
“Country” ribs aren’t ribs at all. They’re actually thick pieces of pork loin with some fat on them, so they’re an odd-shaped pork chop for cooking purposes.
Fried Country-Style Ribs
Country-style ribs are your best stovetop option because they’re cut from the relatively tender loin, while real ribs are tough and stringy and need a longer cooking time.
The simplest way to cook country-style ribs is to sear them on all sides until they’re nice and brown; then reduce the heat under your frying pan and continue cooking until they reach at least the USDA-recommended minimum temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase the resemblance to regular ribs, you can simmer them in thinned barbecue sauce or simply slather them with sauce at the end of your cooking time; then, place them under the broiler for a moment or two so the sauce can caramelize.
You can also give them an Asian twist by simmering them in hoisin or teriyaki sauce or a Chinese restaurant-style garlic sauce. If you aren’t wedded to the notion of making them rib-like, you might even cook and cool them, then bread and fry them in shallow oil as you would chicken.
Ribs in a Skillet
Real ribs are pretty chewy, so you have a choice. You can fry them quickly, knowing and accepting that they’ll be chewy when they’re done, or you can slow-cook them in your frying pan for a long time until they become tender. The second option is better if you have time, and there are a few ways to approach it.
One way is to cut your ribs into portions of two to three bones if they’re baby backs ‒ individual bones for side ribs ‒ so they’ll fit in the pan and cook them under cover at low heat, turning regularly, for a couple of hours until they’re fork-tender. Another is to add broth, apple juice or some other liquid to the pan and simmer them gently until tender. You’ll need to top up the cooking liquid periodically so it doesn’t run dry, but at the end, you can boil down the juices to make a rich, flavorful sauce.
A third option is to start your ribs on the stovetop and cook them until they’re browned; then transfer them, pan and all, to a low oven, 275 F to 325 F, and let them slow-roast until tender.
Pan-Frying Pork Rib Tips
With back ribs or side ribs, you need to cut them down to fit the frying pan, and even afterward, their curved shape makes them difficult to sear and brown properly. That’s not an issue with rib tips, which come in small strips that are pan-ready right from the start.
It’s not unusual for a rib tips recipe to start with searing them on the stovetop regardless of the ultimate cooking method, and it’s simple enough to just finish them in your frying pan as well. Like regular ribs, you can finish them under a lid at low heat, or add liquid and braise them. Because they’re thin, the difference is that your cooking time can be as little as an hour or so.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.