There is a difference, a gap, between what the average eater and the KCBS competition judge want in their ribs. Much of the populace at large want ribs that are completely fall-off-the-bone tender, while KCBS calls for a bite that stays on the bone. In truth, I find tremendous value in both styles! What isn’t to like about a rib that is so tender it falls from the bone when you try to bite it? The chase is half the fun! Yet the satisfaction from that clean, tender bite that holds on to the bone is special in its own way.
Just as divisive, in many ways, is the decision to make dry ribs or sauced ribs. Dry rib purists consider sauce a needless abomination, while sauce lovers just think that sauce is tasty, fun, and adds enjoyment to the ribs. Again, I can’t argue with either camp. Do good ribs need sauce? No! A good rub and a proper smoke are all the flavor that ribs need. But then, isn’t life about more than just what we need? I don’t need a classic 1966 MG roadster, but that doesn’t mean I sure as heck wouldn’t enjoy one! Variety, they say is the spice of life—perhaps extravagance is the sauce.
Here, we’ll give you a great recipe for some extravagant zesty, sticky, spicy ribs with a sauce made from a concentrated classic cherry soda, Cheerwine, from none other than Danielle Bennett—Diva Q®. Grab your basting brush, Thermapen®, and Smoke X™ and get cooking!
Brushing up on ribs
We’ve written pretty extensively about the basics of cooking both St. Louis style and baby back ribs in the past, and you can look at those posts for a deeper dive, but we can cover the basics here pretty quickly.
First, you’ll need to trim and season your ribs, even if you’re going to sauce them. Most pitmasters recommend removing the membrane from the back of the ribs first, as we did. Give the ribs an easy coating of rub, or even just salt and pepper. Heavy seasoning isn’t as necessary here as it is on dry ribs.
Next, start them in a smoker at 250°F (121°C) for the initial part of the cook. Remember that ribs are high in connective tissue and collagen, meaning they’ll need to be cooked to a higher temp than the minimum food-safety temperature recommended by the USDA of 145°F (63°C). Ribs are done between 195 and 203°F (91 and 95°C), a final temperature that can be achieved rather quickly if you wrap them when they reach 160°F (71°C). Use a leave-in probe thermometer like the Smoke X to track the temps as you cook, ensuring the best, repeatable results.
Once wrapped, the ribs go back on the heat—now raised to 300°F (149°C)—until they reach an internal temp of 200°F (93°C). (Final finish temps can vary based on your tenderness preference. A higher finishing temp in the foil will yield more tender ribs. Drop a few degrees for more of a stick-to-the-bone bite.) Use your Thermapen to check both the final temperature and the final tenderness of the ribs. Unwrap them and cook them in the smoker for a few minutes to re-firm the bark, and dive it.
And that’s basically the rundown on ribs. Of course, saucing them adds another step, so we’ll take a look at that now.
How and when to sauce ribs
You should sauce your ribs after the wrap. Once they reach their final temp, remove them form the wrap, sauce them, and cook them in the smoker until the sauce sets. You can apply mulitple coats, if you like. We did. But no matter how many coats you apply, you want to get the sauce where you want it to be, and that means using a good brush, like our silicone basting brush.
This sauce is a real winner, too. The cherry flavor of the Cheerwine isn’t very strong, even though the soda is reduced by half before you use it, but the sweetness it gives is deliciously balanced by plenty of red pepper and vinegar. 2 The sauce is thickened by reduction, but also by the addition of ground mustard and lots of smoked paprika, which rehydrate in the sauce, adding body. Zesty hardly begins to describe its flavor. Zingy would be better, I think. Saucy? Yes. Definitely.Print
Based on Cheerwine ribs, by Danielle Bennett at Diva Q.
You can cook this recipe with either St. Louis style or baby back ribs. We opted for St. Louis.
- 2 12-oz bottles of Cheerwine soda (other cherry soda will do if this sin’t available in your area)
- 1/4 C apple cider vinegar
- 1 C ketchup
- 1/4 C minced onion
- 1/4 C brown sugar
- 2 Tbsp hot sauce (Cholula, Frank’s, etc.)
- 2 Tbsp smoked sweet paprika
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 1 Tbsp ground mustard powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp chipotle powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
2 racks of ribs, and a rub you love.
Prepare your ribs
- Preheat your smoker to 250°F (121°C)
- Trim, de-membrane, and season your ribs.
- Place the ribs in your smoker with a leave-in probe in them. Set the high-temp alarm on your Smoke X to 160°F (71°C). Spritz them as needed with apple cider vinegar.
- Smoke the ribs until the high-temp alarm sounds and the rib bones are begin to be exposed by the meat pulling back.
- Wrap each rack of ribs in a layer of foil with a few pats of butter and another spritz of vinegar.
- Put the wrapped ribs back in the smoker, re-insert the probe through the foil, adjust the ribs high-temp alarm on the thermometer to 200°F (93°C), and increase the smoker temp to 300°F (149°C).
- While the ribs continue to cook, prepare the sauce.
Prepare the sauce
- Pour the bottles of soda into a wide pot or a sauté pan. Measure the depth, turn on the heat, bring the soda to a boil. (See note below about measuring the soda.)
- Continue to reduce the soda until it is reduced by half.
- While the soda reduces (it will take some time), sauté the minced onion in the butter in a saucepan.
- Pour the vinegar into the sautéed onions, then stir in the reduced Cheerwine.
- Whisk in the remaining ingredients, and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the sauce reaches a good, barbecue sauce-y consistency, about 10 minutes.
Sauce the ribs and finish
- Once the ribs reach the target 200°F (93°C), as verified with a Thermapen Mk4, unwrap them and put them back on the smoker for a couple minutes while the surface dries out a little bit.
- Use a good BBQ brush to slather the sauce onto the top surface of the ribs. Continue cooking them until the sauce sets, then add another layer of sauce and let it set.
- Remove the ribs from the smoker and serve them to people who are prepared to get messy. Be kind and provide paper towels.
To measure the depth of the soda in the pan, we used a disposable bamboo chopstick. We measured the depth and then cut a notch at the line the soda came up to. To check the reduction, we’d periodically place the chopstick back into the pan and compare the depth in relation to the notch we’d cut.
If you love sauce ribs, you’re sure to love this version. And I suspect that even if you are a dry-rib devotee, you’re going to have a hard time arguing that while this sauce isn’t necessary, it certainly is delicious. Proper temperature control with the Smoke X and the Thermapen® will let you get the texture you want, and this sauce will bring it all together. Ribs should be fun, and these absolutely are.
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