Maple Barbecue Ribs
Long time readers of my recipes and reviews know that I'm a fan of spicy-sweet barbecue. Very few, if any, of my past creations venture into the purely sweet category, so when I decided to do a recipe in that vein, it went against my instincts. In crafting a primarily sweet smoked rib, I didn't want to give up the complexity that makes barbecue so good though, so I built up multiple layers of sweetness to make these maple barbecue ribs continue to deliver on that hallmark depth of flavor.
The sauce recipe isn't overly complex and doesn't stray far from standards, but I made sure the everything in the somewhat minimal ingredient list all counted in the final flavor. In the sugar department, sautéed onions, ketchup, brown sugar, apple cider, molasses, and maple syrup all came together to create both a unified, but also complex, sweetness. While this recipe is labeled "maple barbecue," and the maple flavor is well accounted for, it's also not over-the-top since I find that maple can quickly become overly distracting if used in too high of a ratio. To add depth to that base sweetness, I used garlic, vinegar, mustard, and Worcestershire. Then I couldn't help but add a little heat as a needed contrast with light amounts of back pepper and chipotle powder.
If I'm using a sweet sauce on my ribs, my inclination would normally be to pair it up with a spicy rub to get that spicy-sweet flavor I'm often after in the end. I resisted that urge though and, just like with the sauce, put together a sweet rub that relied on mainly the standard players, like paprika and brown sugar with garlic, onion, cumin, and mustard powders. Here too, I added in black and chipotle pepper for the slightest touch of heat, mainly for contrast.
Once the rub was done, I trimmed up four racks of St Louis-style cut ribs and applied the rub on each in a generous manner. At this point the ribs can go straight to the smoker, but I was going to start cooking them early the next morning for an afternoon event, so I wrapped these racks up in foil and placed them in the fridge overnight.
The next morning I got my smoker up and running at 225°F and placed the ribs in. I usually start checking on how they're cooking about three hours in because it's around then that the rub can sometimes start to darken, and to avoid it from blackening, I'll spray the ribs with apple juice or cider to help preserve the more ideal mahogany color. On this particular day though, that step wasn't needed as the ribs never overly darkened in the five hours they took to be done.
I test doneness by lifting the ribs from one end and judging how they bend—they should have a slight bend, but not fall apart when doing this. Once they've reached that ideal state is when I apply the sauce. If I have a grill going, I like to take the ribs there for sauce application because the high heat will set the sauce quickly and create extra caramelization that you can't get with a low temperature smoker. If I don't have a grill fired up though, I just sauce them on the smoker and let them sit another 30 minutes or so for the sauce to bake down effectively.
These ribs were cooked pretty perfectly in the end, coming out juicy and tender with a light smoke ring around the edge of the meat. What I was more interested in though was whether they would leave me satisfied being mainly sweet, with the absence of the heat that usually makes me rave about something. To my surprise, I was quite taken with these ribs. Yeah, I did feel the missing spiciness, but that didn't inhibit my ability to enjoy these fully. The primary reason for that was because these still delivered on barbecue complexity with the layers of sweetness and supporting players all coming through—they definitely were not one-note sugary ribs. The maple syrup helped a lot here and had a good representation without being overpowering. I imagine that some folks who try out this recipe may find the maple flavor not forward enough, but that's by design to craft a sweet rib that fulfills on the complex barbecue promise, and these certainly succeeded in that.
Maple Barbecue Ribs
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 45 Minutes
- Cook 5 Hours
- Total 5 Hours 45 Minutes
- For the Barbecue Sauce
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 cup diced yellow onion (about 1 medium)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 1 1/2 cups ketchup
- 2/3 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1/2 cup apple cider
- 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
- For the Rub
- 1/4 cup paprika
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup turbinado sugar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon mustard powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 racks St Louis cut pork ribs
- 2 fist-sized chunks of medium smoking wood, such as oak or pecan
- 1 cup apple cider in a clean spray bottle
- To make the sauce: Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and browned around the edges, about 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in ketchup, brown sugar, maple syrup, apple cider, vinegar, molasses, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, and chipotle powder. 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 refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the rub: In a small bowl, mix together paprika, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, onion powder, chipotle powder, and cumin. 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 cider and continue smoking, spraying the ribs with apple cider 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, and serve immediately.