6. Wood vs. charcoal
The primary flavor of BBQ comes from the smoke. Hardwoods like hickory, fruit woods like apple, charcoal, and mixes of wood and charcoal all have vocal proponents. Never cook in a pure gas or electric oven and try to call it barbecue.
One of the biggest factors that makes Memphis barbecue so unique is the number of restaurants still using charcoal-fired pits. Even places that have converted to gas-fired pits still add wood for additional flavor. And the best flavor tends to come from burning charcoal as the primary fuel, with wood added for extra smoke. Hickory wood will always be what's most strongly associated with Memphis barbecue, but Shotwell said that “fruit wood is growing in popularity. People usually still mix it with hickory, but people starting to use peach wood by itself.”
Within the realm of charcoal, there's an extra distinction: natural lump charcoal or briquettes. “For a kettle-style grille I love briquettes. They tend to burn evenly,” Shotwell notes. The more efficient ceramic-style cookers and competition rigs have tighter seals that allow lump charcoal to burn at a slow, steady rate despite the variations in the sizes of the charcoal pieces. “For that I love lump,” he said. “It's clean burning. It doesn't have any binding agents. All briquettes, even if they say all natural, have binding agents holding them together.”
The verdict: The most pure Memphis flavor comes from adding chunks of hickory to the briquettes. That's what you'll find used everywhere from the Rendezvous to Tops to Payne's.