Chasing BBQ: Memphis Meats & Spices
with Samuel Garrett
BBQ Spices Chasing BBQ Memphis BBQ Ribs
Memphis BBQ can trace its roots back to Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer and conquistador, who led the first European expedition into what is now the heart of the United States. De Soto and his crew brought hundreds of pigs from Spain when embarking on their 1539 exploration of North America. Ever since then, swine has been a staple protein throughout American cuisine—specifically Memphis BBQ.
Situated on the mighty Mississippi River, Memphis has a deep history as a port city. Due to their location, many imported products have been integrated into Memphis’ regional cuisine, specifically molasses. Memphis BBQ is known for sweet, tomato based sauce, in which molasses is a primary ingredient.
Memphis, Tennessee has become synonymous with barbecue. Memphis BBQ is so popular, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (held in Memphis every May) is known as the “Super Bowl of Swine.” Memphis-style BBQ is primarily pork based, focusing on ribs and shoulders, but you will also find beef and chicken on many menus. Pork ribs can be ordered basted with sauce (“wet”) or seasoned with rub (“dry”). If you get a chance to visit Memphis, your best bet is a rib platter with half wet and half dry.
When it comes to ribs, you’ll hear terms like baby backs, spare ribs, and rib tips. Rib tips are a part of the spare ribs, while baby backs are from a different section of the rib cage. Each one is unique and has a flavor and texture all its own, we are focusing on baby backs and rib tips. We will also touch on “meat & cheese,” a Memphis specialty.
A typical Memphis-style rub is based around white and brown sugars, with additional spices like paprika, salt, and pepper. By using a sweetened rub during the smoking process, a decadent crust is formed, caramelizing and encasing the meat in BBQ goodness.
If you follow our spice advice below, we are sure you can create some fantastic Memphis-style barbecue right in your own backyard!
Baby Back Ribs
These ribs are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. When compared to spare ribs, baby back ribs are curved, shorter, and sometimes meatier. The inner surface of the ribs is covered with a layer of connective tissue which is usually removed before cooking as it is difficult to cook tender.
Dark Brown Sugar
Unlike white sugar, brown sugar contains molasses. The molasses provides a deep, rich flavor and noticeable sweetness.
This paprika has a sweet taste and a remarkable color that provides an exceptional look to everything that it is applied to. No one pepper is used to make paprika; it is made from a variety of different peppers.
Not often thought of as a traditional barbecue spice, rosemary has a piney flavor and a tea like aroma that pairs well with pork. Rosemary is an herb from the mint family and is the pine needle-like leaves of a small evergreen shrub.
Memphis BBQ Rub
This is a classic Memphis rub, emphasizing spiced flavor with a base blend of brown and white sugars. The city of Memphis has a distinctive style of barbecue rub, although every family’s recipe can vary slightly.
Platte River Rib Rub
This rub might not be as sweet as the Memphis BBQ Rub, but it’s definitely not lacking in flavor! This rub was created for ribs but is great to use for a sauce: mix 1 to 2 Tbsp. with 1 cup tomato sauce or ketchup, add molasses for sweetness.
These are the short, meaty sections of rib connected to the spare ribs. In contrast to spare and baby back ribs, rib tips contain no actual bones—only meat and cartilage. Rib tips are often cheaper than an order of spare ribs or baby back ribs, as they are smaller. Due to the cartilage, they are often chewier than the other types of ribs.
Hungary is renowned for their paprika, so we are proud to feature it as a premier spice for outstanding BBQ. Sweet capsicum peppers (similar to red bell peppers) are dried, ground and sifted through a variety of screens to produce a bright red flavorful powder called paprika.
Salt & Pepper Tableside Seasoning
While sugar forms the base of many Memphis-style rubs, salt and pepper are also key. This balance of kosher salt and coarse black pepper is great for seasoning before cooking. It’s easy to use so keep it in reach whether at the kitchen counter or tableside.
Medium Chili Powder
Medium chili powder is a great barbecue rub ingredient as it can add depth and balance. This chili powder has a heat level of 4-5 on a scale of 1-10. While this blend is salt-free, the bold flavor comes from various dried chiles as well as garlic, paprika, cumin, and Mexican oregano.
Mt. Elbert All-Purpose Seasoning
Add an extra kick of flavor to your barbecue rub by substituting this seasoning for salt. Mt. Elbert All-Purpose Seasoning, best described as a seasoning salt, packs in great taste as well as adding a splash of color.
Coastal Bay Seasoning
This seasoning has a pepper and paprika base so it’s surprisingly good for barbecue. While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of barbecue, Old Bay Seasoning is flavor filled. This is our version of that Maryland classic, with bold flavor like mustard and aromatic spices like celery seed and cloves.
Meat & Cheese
A meat & cheese plate is a staple at just about every BBQ joint in Memphis, most often as a side or appetizer. The meat is usually smoked sausage or bologna and the cheese is normally a block cheese, such as cheddar or pepper jack. Pickles, pepperoncini, and saltine crackers are often accompaniments. The spices we suggest here are really for the DIY sausage maker. If you want to do meat & cheese but want to skip making your own sausage, simply pick up sausages from your favorite butcher. Be sure to sprinkle the whole plate with your favorite BBQ rub and serve with a side of BBQ sauce.
This salt has a comparably larger surface area than most other types of salt, which helps it to absorb more moisture than most salts. That’s exactly why kosher salt is perfect for sausage making.
Fine Black Pepper
Fine pepper will blend thoroughly into the meat when making sausages, so this is the ideal grind to use. This pepper has an unmistakably bold and well-rounded flavor.
Granulated onion adds a pungent, yet slightly sweet flavor to meats and will also pair great with a plate of meat & cheese. Use granulated onion in a pinch for everyday use, but especially in your BBQ rub.
Using garlic and onion together will add depth of flavor. In the same way that salt and pepper are the perfect pair, garlic and onion are good on their own but together they are great.
Hickory Smoke Flavoring
Hickory smoke flavoring is not intended to be sprinkled on food, but instead as a flavoring when making meats, as 1 ounce will flavor 35-50 lbs. of meat. You can also use a pinch of hickory smoke flavoring to add smokiness to BBQ sauces and dry rubs…use sparingly!