Pork and apples are a classic combination, and one that takes on new life when combined with a savory hit of smoke. That’s why apple juice turns up in so many rib recipes, whether it’s used as a marinade ingredient or a simple spritzer.
However, if you don’t have any apple juice on hand, you still have options. That’s what we’re here to discuss.
Apple Juice Substitute for Ribs
As a substitute for apple juice, you can use citrus, pineapple, or white grape juice. Depending on what you have in mind, you might be able to swap in apple cider vinegar, chicken stock, leftover cooking juices, honey, beer, or even plain water.
Why Use Apple Juice When Making Ribs?
Apple juice serves a variety of purposes, depending on how you use it.
When added to a marinade, apple juice complements the pork with its sweet-tart flavor. Because it’s not as acidic as common marinade ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar, the ribs can stay in the solution for longer periods. Depending on what else you add to the mixture, you might even be able to leave the ribs in the marinade overnight.
Of course, not everyone opts to marinate their ribs. You can use apple juice to contribute flavor and moisture in other ways.
For example, adding a bit of apple juice to the foil wrapper will help to create steam, which will promote tenderness and speed up the cooking process. You could also use apple juice when spritzing or “misting” the ribs during the smoke.
If the rib recipe includes apple juice, sometimes the chef will add a bit more to the sauce or glaze in order to thin it out. This intensifies the apple flavor and makes the texture of the dish more appealing.
Apple Juice Alternatives for Ribs
What happens if you’re following a recipe that calls for apple juice and you don’t have any on hand? The answer varies, depending on the situation. We’ll get into that more in Things To Be Aware Of, below.
If you were planning on adding a bit of liquid to the foil, or if the recipe called for just a small amount of apple juice, you should be able to substitute any of the following ingredients:
- Orange juice
- Pineapple juice
- Apple cider vinegar
- White grape juice
- Chicken stock or broth
- Leftover pork cooking liquid
Things To Be Aware Of
The aforementioned substitutes won’t work in all cases. Here are some potential issues you might face when swapping out apple juice for another ingredient.
Citrus Juices, Pineapple Juice, and Vinegar
If you’re marinating the ribs overnight, orange or pineapple juice might be too acidic. There’s also a chance that their flavors could overpower the rest of the ingredients in the marinade. This is the case with apple cider vinegar as well.
If you want to swap out the apple juice for pineapple, OJ, or cider vinegar in a marinade recipe, try reducing the marinating time. For the juices, a 2-3 hour marinating time should work well. When using vinegar as the main marinade ingredient, it’s best to limit the soaking time to 20-30 minutes.
White Grape Juice
The mild, slightly sweet flavor of white grape juice makes it a superb substitute for apple juice. You can use it in the same quantities, no matter what the recipe, and it should yield similar results.
Assuming you like grapes, there are only a couple of reasons we can think of not to use this ingredient: It might not tenderize the meat as much as apple juice would. It’s also not exactly a pantry staple, and can even be difficult to find, depending on where you shop.
Water, Stock, and Cooking Liquid
Water, leftover cooking juices, and chicken stock aren’t acceptable substitutes for marinades. They don’t have the same tenderizing qualities, and they won’t be as effective at helping the meat retain moisture, either. It’s best to substitute these only if you want to add moisture to the foil wrapper, or to spritz the ribs as they cook.
Beer will work in a marinade, but the flavor will be slightly different. It’s not as sweet as apple juice, so you might want to add a tablespoon or two of brown sugar to the mixture when using beer as a substitute.
Of all the options listed, beer might be the most versatile. You can add it to the foil wrapper, brush or spritz it on the ribs during cooking, or mix it in with the barbecue sauce to thin it out. And when the ribs are done, beer makes an excellent accompaniment to the meal.
While honey can work as a meat tenderizer, that’s true only if the honey is raw and unfiltered. Store-bought honey is often pasteurized, which destroys most of the enzymes that would tenderize the meat.
If you’re going to use raw honey as an apple juice substitute in a marinade recipe, scale back on the amount you use. If the recipe calls for 3 cups of apple juice, 1/2 to 1 cup of honey should be sufficient, depending on the size of the rib rack.
You can also smear a small amount of honey on the inside of the foil before wrapping the ribs. In this case, you can go ahead and use processed honey. The goal is to contribute flavor and moisture, so it doesn’t matter as much if the product is pasteurized.
Can You Use Soda as an Apple Juice Substitute for Ribs?
Carbonated beverages—such as Coke, Dr. Pepper, root beer, and Sprite—have become popular marinade ingredients. The carbonation, coupled with the introduction of citric acid, works to tenderize the meat, just as lemon juice or vinegar would. Because it’s not as acidic as these ingredients, though, you can leave the meat in the marinade longer.
That said, you should still be cautious when using soda in a marinade. These beverages are very high in sugar, which means they could make the ribs taste sweeter than you intended. Sugar also burns easily, so the bark could wind up with a bitter flavor if you’re not careful.
Do You Have To Use Apple Juice On Ribs?
Before we sign off, we should mention that it’s not really necessary to use apple juice—or even a substitute—when making smoked ribs.
While it’s fine to marinate ribs if you want to experiment with different flavors, the meat should be tender enough after the long cooking process. A good seasoning rub—or even just a blend of kosher salt and black pepper—is all you really need.
Spritzing the meat is another optional step. We don’t do it often, because every time you open the lid of the smoker, you’ll lose some of the heat and smoke. That will make the process take even longer. As long as you’re smoking the ribs at a low temperature, the meat should retain plenty of moisture.
The Bottom Line
The next time you line up your ingredients to make smoked ribs, don’t worry if there’s no apple juice in the fridge. There are plenty of other options that will give you the results you’re looking for. Improvisation is one of the pleasures of good barbecue, and pork ribs go well with a whole host of flavors.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!