Black Pepper Baby Backs with Whiskey Vanilla Glaze Recipe

Smoke roasting, indirect grilling.

article image
Getty Images
3 to 3-1/2 hours. COOK TIME
20 minutes. PREP TIME


  • 4 racks baby back ribs, each 2 to 2-1/2 pounds, with membranes removed
  • 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
  • 4 hardwood chunks or 3 cups hardwood chips (the latter soaked in water)


  • 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 extract


  • Place the ribs on a sheet pan.
  • In a small bowl, combine the peppercorns, paprika, salt, brown sugar, and celery seed, 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, using about 3 tablespoons per rack. Store any leftover rub in a sealed jar away from heat and light.
  • Make the glaze by combining the whiskey, brown sugar, butter, and vanilla in a saucepan, and boiling until syrupy, about 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 with some vegetable oil. 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. During 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 immediately.

If 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 them, 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 loins 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 rib recipe keeps 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 scent of vanilla extract.

Grill/gear: If you want a pronounced smoke flavor, cook these ribs on a charcoal grill. You’ll also need 4 hardwood chunks, or 3 cups hickory or other hardwood chips (the latter soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained). If you want to grill 4 racks of ribs for a party on the standard 22-1/2-inch kettle grill, you’ll want a rib condominium — a rib rack, which allows you to stand the ribs upright. A rib rack also helps drain off the fat.

Shop: 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’re 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 at the big barbecue competitions, such as Memphis in May and the American Royal. No, a proper rib is supposed to have a little chew to it.

Ribs have a papery membrane (the pleura) on the concave side. I like to remove it for aesthetic reasons. Slide the blade of a butter knife under the skin and pry it away from the bones, then grab one end of the membrane 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.

Note: For sizzling crusty ribs, brush the racks on both sides with glaze, and move them directly over the heat zone for the last few minutes of cooking. Direct grill for a couple of minutes per side.

Direct vs. Indirect

Direct grilling. Spread hot coals in a single layer, and place the meat directly above them.

Indirect grilling. Arrange coals around outside of grill, and place meat in the center, away from heat.

Excerpted from Project Fire: Cutting-Edge Techniques and Sizzling Recipes from the Caveman Porterhouse to Salt Slab Brownie S’Mores by Steven Raichlen, published by Workman Publishing. Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Matthew Benson.

Project Fire

Drawing on a combination of classic and boldly contemporary techniques, Steve Raichlen presents 100 inspired recipes that capture the full range of what grillers want to cook today. Project Fire offers a radically righteous new take on live-fire cooking from the man who reinvented modern American grilling. Order from the GRIT store or by calling 800-234-3368.