Known for its pulled pork, tangy and sweet sauce, and dry-rubbed ribs, Memphis-style barbecue has devotees all over the country thanks to the passion and prowess of local pitmasters. With tailgating season in full swing, we asked Jimmy Stovall, pitmaster at the legendary Corky’s BBQ, to share his time-tested tips for delivering delicious barbecue in the Memphis tradition. Whether you’re a meat-smoking novice or a seasoned pro, prepare to take your barbecue game up a notch.
Know the lingo. First off, there is a definitive difference between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is when you use direct heat and fire to cook a steak or burger (what people typically think of as a “backyard barbecue”). Real barbecue, Stovall explains, is a much more time-intensive—but not necessarily difficult—method that involves indirect heat and smoke. It’s also important to know what the locals mean when they’re talking about a regional-specific style of barbecue. In Stovall’s case, “When you’re talking about Memphis-style, the meat is always pork, and it’s always pulled, instead of sliced or chopped,” he says. Dry pork ribs are the other trademark of Memphis-style barbeque. “That doesn’t mean the ribs are dried out,” Stovall explains. “It’s really they’ve been rubbed with our rub and they’re served without sauce.”
Rub it in. Everyone has their own secret add-ins when it comes to making a rub (including Corky’s), but Stovall says the key elements are usually paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, and brown sugar. You don’t need to apply the rub very far in advance, he notes; generally, the amount of time it takes for the meat to come to room temperature before you put it on the pit—30 minutes or so—is enough. “Some people do it 24 hours in advance, but there’s really no point to that,” Stovall says. “It doesn’t impart more flavor in the end. That happens during your slow cooking.”
Choose your wood. According to Stovall, the key to a good smoke is a combination of wood and charcoal. “In Memphis, we use hickory wood,” he says. “But in Texas, they use oak or mesquite.” The wood you choose really comes down to personal preference, but Stovall stresses that you don’t need to add wood continuously while you smoke. “The first couple of hours is when the wood smoke is going to penetrate the meat and absorb flavor,” he says. “After that, additional wood chips will only make the outer part darker.” If you need to add something to keep your heat in the right range, opt for charcoal.
Be patient. “The most important thing is that you can’t rush it,” Stovall says. “You have to go low and slow.” For many, the all-day ritual of smoking meat is often the allure. When smoking a pork shoulder or butt, you want to keep the smoker at 115 to 235 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 18 hours. For pork ribs, you want the temperature at 235 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for four to five hours. “You know it’s done when the meat falls apart or off the bone,” Stovall says, adding that cooks should resist the urge to take a peek at the meat, as that will only lower the temperature in your smoking chamber. Instead, keep an eye on your temperature gauge and add more charcoal through the fire box if needed.
Select your sauce. Each region (Texas, Carolina, Kansas City, etc.) is particular about their sauce, and that’s often what differentiates the barbecue styles. “Memphis-style is more of a tomato-based sauce,” Stovall says. “It’s tangy and sweet, with the perfect kick and a little bit of a burn on the back end.” While Stovall acknowledges that Kansas City-style sauce is similar to Memphis’s, Memphis-style sauce isn’t as sweet. Stovall notes that that a little bit of honey or brown sugar give it a sweetness that’s the perfect foil to the heat.
Finish strong. Once your meat is done, remove it from the grill, wrap it in foil, and let it rest for a few minutes. For optimal control and the quickest method, Stovall prefers to hand pull the meat, but you can always use two forks for a cleaner job. “The most important thing in this step is not to mix your sauce into the meat,” Stovall shares. “The barbecue sauce is not what makes the barbecue. The real star is the meat and the flavor of the meat. If you mix sauce into pulled pork, you’ve masked the flavor of the meat that you’ve worked so long to get.” Instead, treat the sauce as a light topping.