After decades as an American comfort-food staple, barbeque ribs have leapt dramatically in popularity here in Australia. But there’s still conjecture over the right way to cook them: finding the right balance between spice and spicy, and the best way to make sure the meat is juicy and falling off the bone.

“It’s just balance, basically,” says Brenton Philp, head chef at The Pier Bar in Cairns. “When it comes to cooking, many chefs overdo it. They use too many ingredients. Simplicity is key.”

This unfussy approach has proven to be successful, with the dish recently being labelled one of the country’s best pub pork ribs by Yak Brewing. The nationwide pub quest crowned champions in five categories: chicken parma or schnitzel, steak, burger, pork ribs, and fish and chips. The campaign will culminate with the country’s best pub meals being served from October 30 to November 6 at a Melbourne pop-up called The Hungry Yak.

The Pier Bar’s take on the meat lover’s staple leans into a straightforward four-ingredient sauce that blends barbeque sauce with orange juice, seeded mustard and whiskey. The rub mix follows suit with a common yet careful stack of spices, sugars and chilli powders.

But of course, the meat itself is key, which is why Philp opts for meaty pork riblets (he’s also a butcher by trade). “They’re a meatier, fattier rib, so they use that moisture,” he says. Philp introduced the new version of the dish to The Pier Bar’s new menu in January.

“It’s been absolutely phenomenal. The pork ribs have been one of the most popular items on the menu,” says Philp, who started as a comme chef in late 2016 at the aptly titled dining-and-drinks hub in Cairns’s airy The Pier Shopping Centre. He’s been head chef for 18 months now, and has enjoyed seeing the response to this dish in particular.

“We want good quality food on the plate, and a lot of it,” he says.

The key to great pork ribs, he says, is to make sure when you put the ribs on the tray to be cooked they’re wrapped “nice and tight”. Any opening or splits in the foil, and they start to dry out. “The aim is to get that steam going,” he says. “Once the meat starts to cook, it starts to release its own juices, and that in turn returns moisture back to the meat.”

The same principles apply to the delicate dance of sweet, sour and spice at play. “If you use something that’s really sweet, you want to use something really tart and try to find that neutral ground in-between,” says Philp. “That orange juice brings it back down from being too sweet. With all the spices and herbs on the dry rub, it does the same thing – meets in the middle.”

To cut through the rich flavour of the pork, pair the dish with something fizzy like Rusty Yak ginger beer. Here’s how to make the ribs at home.

Whiskey Smoked BBQ Ribs
Serves 2
Time: 3 hours and 20 minutes

1.2kg meaty pork riblets (pork ribs cut in half lengthways by your butcher)

Rub mix:
50g smoked paprika
10g ancho chilli powder
10g chilli powder
15g brown sugar
15g caster sugar
25g onion powder
25g garlic powder
50g table salt
50g cracked black pepper

280ml smoky barbeque sauce
40ml orange juice
8g seeded mustard
8ml whiskey

Pre-heat oven to 110 degrees.

Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Then combine all wet ingredients in a separate bowl.

Cover top of pork ribs with an even coating of the dry-rub mix ensuring there are no clumps of rub because this will be overpowering.

Place on a baking tray, cover with a sheet of baking paper, then wrap with one sheet of aluminium foil. Place a second sheet of baking paper on top of the foil, and then wrap again in one more sheet of foil. This is to create a tight seal around the tray to trap in as much moisture as possible. It also means that if one sheet splits there is a backup. If there are holes in the cover you need to start again.

Cook at 110 degrees for 3 hours depending on your oven.

Once cooked, ladle 45ml of sauce over each rack and place under the grill or back in oven to caramelise the sauce.

Here are the other shortlisted items from Yak Brewing’s pub meal quest.

The Royal Hotel Leichhardt, NSW: BBQ-Glazed Pork Ribs

The Royal Hotel Leichhardt came runner-up in the contest for its baby-back ribs that are first brined in bourbon and then doused in a Carolina-style barbeque sauce that’s made in-house. The ribs are served with dill slaw, pickles and a spicy chipotle corn sprinkled with coconut.

Rose of Australia, NSW: Louisiana-Style Sticky Pork Ribs

This NSW pub boasts that its ribs are “famous”. Available in half or full racks, these are the kind of sweet, sticky ribs that will require a napkin or 10. They’re served with crunchy beer-battered chips and slaw.

Brackenridge Tavern, QLD: Maple-Bourbon Spare Ribs

At Brackenridge Tavern the ribs are covered in sweet sauces and cooked for a minimum of 12 hours. When they’ve reached peak tenderness, they’re paired with coleslaw, waffle fries and Mexican-style corn.

Old England Hotel, VIC: BBQ Pork Ribs

This award-winning pub first coats its pork ribs in a spice rub and then slow-cooks them for 20 hours. Then the rack is topped with barbeque sauce and served with red coleslaw and chunky chips.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Yak Brewing. To try these pub meals, book your table at The Hungry Yak Restaurant pop-up at Riverland Bar, running from October 30 to November 6.