When my family decided to get together for the first time in over a year and half this past Memorial Day for a cookout at my house, I told myself I wasn't going to make any new recipes that weekend. This wasn't for any lack of ideas, but there's a big difference in the effort that goes into creating a new recipe instead of cooking old ones since I am constantly tinkering and altering my notes, taking photos, and then spending more time plating and evaluating the result in order to put together the best recipe I can. Because that would all be time and attention taken away from the primary purpose of being with the fam, I planned to just stick with some classic and time-tested recipes, but the draw of the new is always hard for me to resist and I ended up making these honey-jalapeño ribs, but since they relied of my prior rib knowledge and lot could be prepped in the days ahead of our get together, they really didn't draw me away from family time much at all in the end.
The main reason I wound up making a new rib recipe was the desire to try to make a jalapeño-based barbecue sauce. I've come across a few really stellar jalapeño barbecue sauces in the past year or so and that just left me wanting to try my hand at making my own version that centers the fruity and spicy jalapeño, which is contrasted by a hit of sweet honey. I've used jalapeños in my sauce recipes before, but they always played more of a background role, so to take them front and center this time around, I began with a lot more than I normally use.
I added them into the mix after first sautéing an onion until it was lightly browned, which is my preferred way to add onion to barbecue sauce since it adds a sweet flavor that melds really well in the barbecue profile. This is opposed to using onion powder, whose harshness is more likely to stand out.
When building up the remainder of the sauce, I took a lesson from some jalapeño wings that required many attempts to perfect. I could never get a strong jalapeño flavor out of those wings until I finally started layering in that base pepper in multiple ways. For this barbecue sauce, I did that by also adding in jalapeño jam, jalapeño hot sauce, and chipotle powder in addition to the fresh peppers. After letting the sauce simmer for a bit, I gave it taste and it certainly had a strong fruity and spicy jalapeño character, but it was also a tad too spicy and also missing some brightness too. That had me upping the honey content even more and tossing in a little lime juice to make everything taste in balance and in sync.
While the sauce had a good amount of sweetness, the heat was still pretty intense, which led me to use the rub to bring more sugars into the equation. I kept this rub relatively simple with a combo of brown and turbinado sugars serving as the base along with salt and paprika. Then it was just a small handful of common rub players that built a light complexity with earthy cumin, sharp onion and garlic powders, pungent mustard powder, and black pepper and chipotle powder for a mellow heat.
Next I took that rub and spread it liberally all over two racks of St. Louis-cut ribs. I then wrapped those ribs in foil and placed them in the fridge, and with that, I had the sauce, rub, and ribs all prepped before the family even made it into town.
After spending our first night together enjoying a Shabbat dinner at my Mom's place, I fired up my smoker and got a 15-pound brisket smoking overnight. The next morning that brisket had already been cooking for about ten hours when I added more coals to the fire and placed the ribs on.
At this point I wasn't trying to test or change up my rib cooking procedure at all as to keep my recipe development efforts minimal, so I used my tried and true method that lets the racks cook until they turn an attractive mahogany hue. When they do, I begin to spray the ribs with apple juice about every hour. The purpose of this is mainly to preserve the color—each time the racks are misted in juice it creates surface moisture that needs to dry out before the ribs begin to brown again. Without using this spritzing method, the ribs will still taste fine, but they often will darken so much that they look blackened or burnt—If you go back to some of my oldest rib recipes, you'll see some examples of this.
After about five hours of cooking, I begin testing doneness by lifting the ribs from one side and judging how they bend. I'm looking for an ease in the bend paired with a good curvature, but not to the point that the ribs are falling apart. From years of rib cooking, I have a good sense when the ribs are about 30 to 60 minutes from being ready, and its during this window that I apply the sauce, which gives it time to bake down and become glistening glaze before serving.
One more thing I ended up using in that successful jalapeño wings recipe was a finishing garnish of cilantro, fresh jalapeños, and garlic. That ended up being so key in bringing through the jalapeño flavor, as well as adding a fresh touch, that I thought it would be apt to use here too. So I made this mixture while the racks were cooking and then sprinkled it onto the ribs after they were done, sliced, and plated for photos.
It was a good thing I added it because with the heaviness of the flavor of pork, that garnish was definitely needed to get the jalapeño taste through. Without it, these would have merely been some killer sweet and spicy ribs. These actually ended up being some of the best ribs I've cooked in many years, with the meat being pretty perfectly done—juicy and just tender enough to pull clean from the bone with minimal effort. I used hickory as the wood of choice that day, which gave these ribs a hearty smokiness that melded very well with the sauce that was heavily sweet and spicy. The spiciness was diminished when paired with the sweet rub, and that was by design as my family isn't all into spicy, so these struck a balance everyone could enjoy. I put more of the garnish on the ribs for those that do like a bit more heat because it was the fresh jalapeños that added the extra kick to satisfy a spicy food lover like myself. While this represented some of my finest rib work, it wasn't my best plating or photography efforts because in that moment I was more inclined to spend my time and attention on my family and it was just a bonus that something came out of that day to share with y'all.
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Cook 5 Hours
- Total 5 Hours 45 Minutes
- For the Sauce
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups diced onion (about 1 medium)
- 1/3 cup finely minced fresh jalapeño (about 3 medium peppers)
- 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
- 1 1/2 cups ketchup
- 1/2 cup apple juice
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup jalapeño jam
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons jalapeño hot sauce
- 1 tablespoons yellow mustard
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- Kosher salt, to taste
- For the Garnish
- 1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh jalapeño
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
- For the Rub
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup turbinado sugar
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chipotle powder
- 2 racks St Louis cut pork ribs
- 2 fist-sized chunks of medium smoked wood, such as pecan or oak
- 1 cup apple juice in a clean spray bottle
- To make the sauce: Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and browned around the edges, about 7 minutes. Stir in jalapeño, garlic, cumin, and chipotle powder and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in ketchup, apple juice, honey, brown sugar, molasses, jalapeño jam, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, mustard, and lime juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened, 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Puree sauce with an immersion blender, or transfer sauce to the jar of a standard blender, and process until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the garnish: In a small bowl, mix together cilantro, jalapeño, and garlic. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the rub: In a small bowl, mix together brown turbinado sugar, salt, paprika, garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, mustard powder, cumin, and chipotle powder. 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 2-3 hours longer. During the last 30 minutes of cooking, brush top of each rack with barbecue sauce. Remove ribs from smoker, slice, top with the garnish, and serve immediately.