If you had to sum up Memphis Style Barbecue in a single dish it would be dry rub ribs. These delicious baby back ribs are slow smoked over a low hickory fire and coated in a paprika based spice rub to be served without sauce or with sauce on the side. Of course no barbecue tradition is this simple and there are no rules, so what you get in Memphis, the Pork Barbecue capital of the world as they say, is a collection of great barbecue, mostly pork, frequently without sauce, and with enough variation to keep you coming back time and time again only to find something new every time you do.
As the host of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition and home to one of the largest concentrations of barbecue restaurants in the world, Memphis is one of the capitals of barbecue. Here you will find almost every tradition in barbecue, but pork is king and you will find it at its best here because the old Memphis pitmasters know that first and foremost it is about the meat. As Charlie Robertson of Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q says, "We don’t baste [the pork shoulders]. We don’t touch them. Now, this is the big secret. You’re fixing to hear the big secret, and this is real. You put them in there, and you leave them alone"(1). This philosophy is the cornerstone of those dry rub ribs. While Memphis has its own style of barbecue sauce, a slightly sweet vinegar and tomato sauce, it is and always has been about the flavor you get when you combine meat and smoke.
Memphis style flavor starts with the dry rub.
While there are a number of variations, at the heart of most all Memphis style rubs is paprika. This gives these ribs that rich, red color without ever having to drip a drop of sauce on them. Add in some salt, some little heat, and a good deal of savory and you have Memphis flavor. Many rubs used in BBQ joints across Memphis contain well over a dozen ingredients and there are sauces down here with as many as 48 ingredients.
While Memphis barbecue doesn't rely on too much sweet or too much heat, it is a complex flavor, sprinkled on thick. See my Memphis Rub for ideas.
When sauces are used on Memphis barbecue they are neither too sweet or too spicy. What these barbecue sauces are is a wonderful combination vinegar and tomato with a hint of mustard. Of course every BBQ Joint in Memphis has their own recipe and they tend to keep them very secret. If you get your ribs with sauce they are "wet ribs" and that's how you order them in Memphis, "wet" or "dry". The truth about Memphis Barbecue sauce is that it is a hard thing to nail down. I offer up my version of the Memphis Barbecue Sauce and invite you to send me your ideas on the subject.
While the debate about Memphis Barbecue seems to always come down to whether you like your ribs wet or dry, most people serious about barbecue in the River City will tell you that it is really all about the pork. Here pork gets chopped, topped with a vinegar and mustard slaw, and piled high on the cheapest white bread bun you can find. It is elegant, sophisticated, and amazingly simple, though not necessarily simple to make. Whole pork shoulders (no butts here) are smoked low and slow until the outside is almost black, definitely crispy and the center moist and tender.
Equal parts of these two give you the texture that makes this sandwich interesting. Usually pork is mopped with a simple mop of vinegar and spices. It is, after all, about the pork and it is that purity that makes Memphis Barbecue special. The truth is that there is no one flavor, one sauce, or one way to make the quintessential Memphis Barbecue. Keep true the the flavor of the meat, use generous amounts of Hickory, and enjoy it with a side of Blues. After all, Memphis is as much an attitude as it is a place.