Cherry-sauced and Smoked Ribs
If you've been following along at home, you already know what feels like an endless onslaught of rain here in Durham has drastically reduced my grilling efforts as of late, and as a result of that, I'm pulling recipes from a collection of items from the past that were left to be forgotten for one reason or another. This recipe for cherry-sauced ribs was taken from there, originally cooked in 2011 and let sit since then not for any flaw in the recipe—in fact, these were among some of the tastiest of ribs I've made—but because I thought the sauce recipe was so good that I was going to hold onto it as one of my "secrets." Well, last summer I decided to hell with it and released my cherry-chipotle barbecue sauce recipe out into the wild, so there really was no reason to hold the resulting rib recipe any longer, and it just so happens the right rainy day to do so finally arrived.
I personally haven't done a ton of fruit experimentation with my sauces, but from now having reviewed over 200 barbecue sauces, I know that cherry is one of my favorite compliments to the sweet, tart, and spicy barbecue profile. I think the fact that cherries themselves have that sweet and tart balance makes them a good fit from the get go, but their unique fruitiness also pairs really well with a tomato base the way other fruits don't always do.
While I've already let go of the recipe for the sauce, that's really only half the equation with these ribs—I also developed a new rub meant specifically to pair with the cherry-chipotle sauce. It's not that big of a deviation from a standard barbecue rub, but some of the spices were chosen for how they would meld with the sauce, like substituting the usual chili powder for earthy and fruity ancho chili powder in particular, and opting for the harsher bite of white pepper to really stand out against the already spicy chipotle.
With resurrecting this recipe, I've realized it's been many, many years since I've smoked baby backs instead of spares. I like the meatiness, fattiness, and forgiving qualities of spare ribs, so they're always my go to, but I do think baby backs were an apt choice for this particular recipe because their slightly lighter flavor would later allow both the rub and sauce to play and even larger starring role, and it's well deserved.
The thing to remember with baby backs though is that they take less time to cook, and if you over cook them, you're more likely to end up with a drier end product than with the more fat-rich spare ribs. So it's important to keep a close eye on the cooking, and luckily my usual method allows me to do that easily.
I like to let my ribs smoke undisturbed until the exterior reaches a beautiful mahogany color. This clocks in between two to three hours, at which time I begin spraying the ribs with apple juice about every 45 minutes to help preserve that color and not allow the bark to turn into and overly chewy, blackened crust. So if I'm already opening the lid on a regular basis, I can easily check on the doneness, which I test by lifting the ribs from one end and seeing if they have a slight bend to them.
When they seem almost done—baby backs will usually take between four to five hours total when smoked at 225°F—I brush on the barbecue sauce. In the 30 minutes or so of cooking left, the sauce will bake down into a glistening glaze. If I have a grill going at the same time I'm smoking, I actually prefer to sauce the ribs once completely smoked and then toss them over the hotter heat on the grill, which creates a deeper, and more flavorful, caramelization.
Once these racks were done, they were truly beautiful with a dark maroon crust that shined in the strong afternoon light. All that was left was to slice and serve, and one plus for baby backs is it's usually easier to see the bones, making slicing more straightforward—I'm notoriously bad at cutting my spare ribs right between two bones, but don't usually have any issues with baby backs.
Now you put together one great rub, an even grater sauce, add tender, smoky pork, and I don't have to tell you that you're in for one outstanding barbecue experience. The sauce and rub meld to be a crowd-pleasing mixture of sweet, spicy, earthy, and fruity that packs more of a punch than with your everyday ribs. There's also that nice smokiness of chipotles that is further enhanced by the smoke that becomes embedded in the meat. I'm glad I finally had an excuse to share these ribs with you, and if you're anything like me, this post is leaving you with a strong desire to leave your computer, fire up the smoked, and cook up a few racks of these beauties as soon as possible!
Cherry-sauced and Smoked Ribs
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 15 Minutes
- Cook 4 Hours
- Total 4 Hours 15 Minutes
- For the Rub
- 1/3 cup paprika
- 2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 racks baby back ribs
- 2 fist-sized chunks of cherry smoking wood
- 2 cups apple juice in a clean spray bottle
- 2 cups cherry-chipotle barbecue sauce
- To make the rub: Mix together paprika, ancho chili powder, white pepper, salt, brown sugar, granulated garlic, onion powder, mustard powder, and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
- Remove membrane from back of each rack of ribs and trim meat of excess fat. Generously season ribs all over with rub mixture.
- Fire up a smoker or grill to 225°F, adding chunks of smoking wood when at temperature. When the wood is ignited and producing smoke, place the ribs in smoker or grill, meaty side up, and smoke until the ribs have turned a deep mahogany color, 2-3 hours. Spray ribs with apple juice and continue smoking, spraying the ribs with apple juice every 45-60 minutes, until they bend slightly when lifted from one end, about 2 hours longer. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, brush top of each rack with barbecue sauce.
- Remove ribs from smoker, slice, and serve immediately.