Black Pepper Baby Back Ribs with Whiskey Vanilla Glaze

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These ribs will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, while still retaining some of its meaty chew from the smoke-roasting technique.
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“Project Fire” by Steven Raichlen provides boldly-flavored recipes and techniques for mastering the art of cooking with live fire.
3 hrs 50 min DURATION
3 hrs 30 min COOK TIME
20 min PREP TIME
4-8 servings SERVINGS


    For the ribs and rub:

    • 4 racks baby back ribs (each 2 to 2-1/2 pounds — membranes removed — see

    Insider Tip

    • below)
    • 3 tablespoons cracked black peppercorns
    • 3 tablespoons smoked or sweet paprika
    • 3 tablespoons coarse salt (sea or kosher)
    • 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar, dark or light
    • 1 teaspoon celery seed

    For the glaze:

    • 1/2 cup rye, bourbon, or other whiskey
    • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar, dark or light
    • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extractli
    • Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate


    • If you want a pronounced smoke flavor, cook these ribs on a charcoal grill. You also need: 4 hardwood chunks or 3 cups hickory or other hardwood chips (the latter soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained)
    • A rib rack (for cooking the ribs upright, optional)


    • The usual caveats apply here: heirloom pork when possible. A 2-1/2-pound rack will feed 1 to 2 people as part of a meal. Alternatively, use St. Louis style ribs, which are spareribs with the rib tips removed, trimmed to a rectangular shape. Because they are meatier and better marbled than baby backs, they may take longer to cook.

    Insider Tip:

    • "Fall-off-the-bone tender." Never have five words done more harm to the notion of what constitutes good eating. Fall-off-the-bone tenderness usually results from steaming or boiling ribs — a practice frowned upon in Raichlendia, just as it is at the big barbecue competitions, like Memphis in May and the American Royal. No, a proper rib is supposed to have a little chew to it — that's why God gave us teeth.


    • Place the ribs on a sheet pan. Combine the peppercorns, paprika, salt, brown sugar, and celery seed in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar. Sprinkle the rub on the ribs on both sides, rubbing it into the meat with your fingertips, about 3 tablespoons per rack. Store any leftover rub in a sealed jar away from heat and light.
    • Make the glaze: Combine the whiskey, brown sugar, butter, and vanilla in a saucepan and boil until syrupy, 4 to 6 minutes, whisking to mix. Set the glaze aside.
    • Set up your grill for indirect grilling and heat to medium-low. Brush or scrape the grill grate clean and oil it well. Add half the wood chunks or chips to the coals. Arrange the ribs on the grate, bone side down, away from the heat, and lower the lid.
    • Smoke-roast the ribs until sizzling, browned, and tender. When ready, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by about 1/2 inch and the ribs will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. Replenish the wood and charcoal as needed. Total cooking time will be 3 to 3-1/2 hours. The last 30 minutes of cooking, baste the ribs with the glaze. Baste twice more before serving. Pour any remaining glaze over the ribs and serve.
    Notes: For sizzling crusty ribs, brush the racks on both sides with glaze and move them directly over one of the fire zones for the last few minutes of cooking. Direct grill for a couple of minutes per side. So how do you grill 4 racks of ribs for a party on the standard 22-1/2-inch kettle grill most of us have in our backyards? The answer is a rib condominium, aka a rib rack. You stand the ribs upright in the rack (which also helps drain off the fat).

    More from Project Fire:

    You can purchase Project Fire from the GRIT bookstore. Excerpted from Project Fire: Cutting-Edge Techniques and Sizzling Recipes from the Caveman Porterhouse to Salt Slab Brownie S'mores by Steven Raichlen (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Matthew Benson.

    Project Fire: Cutting-Edge Techniques and Sizzling Recipes from the Caveman Porterhouse to Salt Slab Brownie S’mores, by Steven Raichlen is an indispensable guide for readers looking to master live-fire barbecue. Raichlen delivers readers step-by-step instructions to mastering essential techniques and provides 100 boldly-flavored recipes ranging from starters like bacon grilled onion rings, to grilled cocktails and desserts. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, “Pork.”

    You can buy this book from our store.

    Ribs have a papery membrane (the pleura) on the concave side. I like to remove it for aesthetic reasons, which is easily done with a butter knife. Slide the blade under the skin and pry it away from the bones, then grab one end with a dishcloth or paper towel and gently pull it off the ribs. If you can’t find it, it may have been removed by the butcher beforehand. There’s no great harm in leaving it on.

    If (for most people) ribs epitomize barbecue, the baby back epitomizes ribs. Cut from high on the hog (next to the backbone), baby backs have tender meat (more so than spareribs), abundant fat, and a convenient shape and size that makes one rack perfect for feeding one or two people. But don’t ribs require low and slow smoking for the better part of a day? Well, that’s one way to prepare ribs (you’ll find this technique in my book Project Smoke). But ribs can also be grilled using the indirect method — in particular, a technique I call smoke-roasting. Slow-smoked ribs are all about tenderness; smoke-roasted ribs retain some of the meaty chew that makes pork chops or loin so satisfying to bite into. You’ll still get plenty of smoke flavor thanks to adding hardwood chunks or chips to the fire. The following ribs keep the seasonings simple: pepper, paprika, salt, brown sugar, and celery seed. The emphasis is on the pork. And because we Americans like our ribs sweet, I’ve added a whiskey brown sugar glaze with an unexpected note: the perfumed scent of vanilla extract.