Texas vs. everyone else: the great beef vs. pork BBQ debate
Barbecue is a controversial food, but nothing in the canon of smoked-meat history lights the fires quite like the age-old question of beef vs. pork. Although “combination plate” is always a good answer, we asked a panel of barbecue luminaries to weigh in on which is the superior barbecue meat and why.
Not surprisingly, this fell largely across geographic battle-lines. Texans and those heavily influenced by the Lone Star State went beef (with one notable exception), and the rest of the Deep and mid-South voted hog. Read on to learn what the pros think, then leave your own thoughts in the comments.
The case for beef
"After being in the barbecue business for most of my life in Texas, I would definitely say that in Texas we spell barbecue "b-e-e-f." Other people in the country may spell barbecue "p-o-r-k," but if you ask any Texan what they're gonna have when they say barbecue, they will say it's beef. 25 million Texans can't be wrong." - Kent Black, Black's Barbecue (Lockhart, TX)
"Beef brisket is the heart of Texas barbecue. Beef is less forgiving than pork, which makes it more challenging for pitmasters to perfect. Between brisket and beef short ribs, they always bring a good bull fight for the cook. A perfectly cooked brisket or short rib tastes just as good as a well-marbled prime ribeye." - Doug Pickering, D.W.P. Grill M.D. (Dallas, TX)
“In my opinion, beef is harder to execute and shows the skill of the pitmaster... much more than pork. With that being said, I don't think barbecue is totally about the choice of beef or pork, but more often about the quality of the animal, the choice of cut, and execution of the cooking process.” - Tiffani Faison, Sweet Cheeks Q (Boston, MA)
"Beef, because cows don't wallow in their own s**t. I grew up eating beef. In Texas, pork is new to the game. I just like beef better. It's more flavorful. That's why when I do cook pork, I glaze it up. You don't have to do that with beef." - John Mueller, John Mueller Meat Co. (Austin, TX)
"Ferrari vs. Lamborghini, Bordeaux vs. Burgundy, blonde vs. brunette. Which is best comes down to personal preference, but when comparing the two best barbecue meats on the planet and having to choose, for me, it’s beef. Barbecue beef is more desirable, transcending, and quite frankly magical, because of two things: collagen and fat.
"Genetic factors in cattle, and the fact that it is typically raised to an older age, means it has inherently more collagen. When cooked correctly, this collagen converts into gelatin. The gelatin and fat create a magical combination of mouthfeel, flavor, and that stick-to-your-ribs feeling. You can hit beef hard with wood fire and it’s resilient in the beginning, but at a certain point you really need to know how to back off and handle it correctly. So many people have a hard time cooking with it because it requires a more conscious effort. Don’t get me wrong, pork is incredible, but I have not heard of people waiting six hours in line for it. At least as of yet. Have you?" - Adam Perry Lang, Serious Barbecue (Los Angeles, CA)
"Brisket gets all the attention here in Central Texas. It is a tough and ornery piece of meat. Done right, you end up with a piece of buttery, perfectly-rendered bovine beauty. Done wrong, you have a piece of meat that is so tough that you could pull a truck with it. I prefer to smoke brisket, because I love the challenge of doing something most folks just can't do." - Bill Dumas, Smokey Denmark Smoked Meats (Austin, TX)
"Although I have a love affair with cooking both, it's beef for me. There is no smell quite like white oak and beef wafting through Red Hook every morning. I think something magical forms when fat renders in beef. It creates this sugar-like bark that you just don't get with pork." - Billy Durney, Hometown Bar-B-Que (Brooklyn, NY)
"To me this is like asking which is more important, air or water. We need both! Pork is a fairly neutral-tasting meat that provides a great canvas for the flavors of barbecue. The smoke, the spice, the sweetness, the tang... all assimilate beautifully with pork, which is why you'll see it in virtually every barbecue shop in every part of the country. Even areas with a rich beef history will feature pork ribs or pork sausage, even if they don't do traditional pork BBQ seen in other regions. Pork may be the quintessential BBQ meat.
"But beef, with its inherently rich flavor, brings something special to the equation. It has a depth of flavor that stands on its own, but which is transformed into a delicacy when properly infused with smoke and layered with spice. In some parts of the country like North Carolina, beef may not even qualify as barbecue. But there's no denying the virtues of a well-smoked brisket, beef rib, or even tri-tip. Beef barbecue is simply amazing!
"My favorite barbecue cuts are beef. In my mind, great brisket is as good as barbecue gets. But, that said, when I walk into a barbecue joint, I'm getting the combination platter!" - Barry Sorkin, Smoque (Chicago, IL)
The case for pork
"I would say pork. The practice of cooking whole hogs was easier than doing a whole steer or cow, and traditionally you could use more of the pig's parts. Yes, people have grilled steaks for years, but in terms of true barbecue I just feel the hog reigns supreme. From whole shoulder to ribs to pork bellies, even smoked loins and tenderloins. The price of beef was prohibitive for many to even use it in barbecue. Brisket used to always be a very cheap cut of meat, but the rest of the cuts were always out of the common person's budget." - Ken Hess, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Que (Decatur, AL)
"For taste, I actually prefer pork. Since it can be more mild, it's the perfect vehicle for flavor, and it has more marbling than beef, unless you're using something like Wagyu. There's also much less of a chance that you'll mess it up, because it's easier to cook. That said, the perfect slice of brisket is usually more exciting than pulled pork, but in terms of what's superior, I've gotta say pork. But, the real question for me is the quality of the meat." - John Lewis, La Barbecue (Austin, TX)
"I'm from Mississippi, so I can cook all of them, but when it comes to sanctioned barbecue competitions, beef usually just has one category and pork has two or three (ribs, shoulder, whole hog). The Memphis BBQ Network doesn't even acknowledge a beef category. So figure who's the boss.
"Despite their love of beef, Texas actually has more wild hogs than any other state. One thing that beef has the upper hand on though is that cow s**t definitely smells better than pig s**t." - Brad Orrison, The Shed BBQ and Blues Joint (Ocean Springs, MS)
"For me it seems obvious that pork is the best meat to barbecue. Pork shoulder is a big, square piece of meat beautifully shaped and marbled on the inside with a serious fat cap on top. This is what God intended a piece of barbecue meat to look like. When you cook it in the pit low and slow over a wood fire, the fat cap renders and self-bastes the pork while the internal fat melts and tenderizes the meat in a fatty torrent. At the same time, the outside slowly browns and accepts the smoky flavor while drying and caramelizing into an intensely flavored bark, much like the development of a roux.
"When cooked properly, the whole thing will fall apart with the slightest push. You discard the bone and the remaining fat cap, then pull the meat into chunks or shreds. As you pull the meat, you toss it all together combining the soft, unctuous inside meat with the smoky, salty outside bark and the combination is the thing that foodie dreams are made of." - Ray Lampe, "Dr. BBQ" (Saint Petersburg, FL)
"To me, pork barbecue is king. Whether it's cooked in Southern Illinois, Memphis, Kansas City, or the Carolinas, it always has a distinct regional flavor profile that depends on the wood, dry rub, and sauce. Ribs, bellies, shoulders, hams, tenderloins, the whole hog itself -- all make outstanding barbecue. Don't get me wrong, I like beef ribs and I like brisket. But the pig? Now that's a holy animal." - Mike Mills, 17th Street Barbecue (Murphysboro, IL)
"First, I just think smoke takes to pork better than it does to beef. Secondly, I think pork is the original barbecue because ribs were always a byproduct of the choice meats during the old days. The slave owners always relegated those cuts. It began predominantly as an African American product, and the South and East were settled far earlier than Texas was. I think pork is original, pork takes to smoke better, and that's what we do at the Rendezvous. That's not to say that both aren't good. I don't want to get into a war with Texas, but my choice is pork." - John Vergos, Charles Vergos' Rendezvous (Memphis, TN)
"Barbecue is a food that is defined by geography, so I think the beef or pork question is determined by where you grew up. I'm not one of those guys that says my barbecue is superior to everyone else's. I've had really great barbecue and really terrible barbecue of all styles, including some of the best beef there is.
"So, I am of the opinion that barbecue should be the best meat you can afford to buy, cooked the purest way possible. Obviously, pork is my favorite because it's what I was raised on, and it's also how we make our living, but to say one is better than the other is simply a matter of opinion and personal preference. So I've got to stay neutral."- Samuel Jones, Skylight Inn (Ayden, NC)
"Comparing beef and pork is like white wine and red wine. I love them both, very much, and I rarely turn either one down!" - Mike Emerson, Pappy's Smokehouse (St. Louis, MO)
"Texans or Carolinians would have no problem answering this question. But here in Kansas City, to ask such a question is like asking a mother which child is her favorite. Which is superior for barbecue, pork or beef? The answer is yes." - Doug Worgul, Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que (Kansas City, KS)
To call this debate based on a simple tally of votes would be disingenuous, but, for the record, beef had eight supporters, while pork only had six, plus three 'Qers sat squarely on the fence.
The general consensus was that beef is a more difficult meat to cook, but this fact was divisive as to deciding whether it makes for a superior meat. Some pitmasters relish the challenge of beef, others see it's temperamental nature as more of a fault. The same dichotomy exists over whether it is better to have a subtler vessel for which to convey smoke and sauce (pork), or if the intrinsic taste of the meat itself should be most celebrated (beef).
In terms of history, there is an argument to be made for hog as the original barbecue meat, but much like any other merits of pork, that reasoning renders into a steaming pile of fat as soon as you hit the Texas border. Perhaps Doug Worgul put it best when responding that the correct answer to the question of beef versus pork will always be "yes".
Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He resides in Austin, TX, so on the question of beef vs. pork, he stands with the steers. Follow him to Internet beef at @Dannosphere.