Everything You Need to Know About Texas BBQ
Beef over pork. Always.
As anyone can attest who’s ever taken Geography 101 or put together a wooden puzzle of the United States as a kid: Texas dwarfs all but one other state. (And we’re pretty sure nobody’s making pilgrimages to Alaska for their BBQ.) In fact, the Lone Star State is so big that even within its borders you’ll find several distinct styles from east to west. But it’s Central Texas style that, for good reason, has become the benchmark for evaluating the very best of slow-smoked meats. We know it can be hard to understand what makes the state's barbecue unique if you haven't spent time in Central Texas, here's everything you need to know to devour barbecue like a true Texan.
When people say “Texas-style,” they mean “Central Texas-style”
South Texas focuses on barbacoa, East Texas serves chopped beef, and West Texas cooks over direct heat in a style more akin to grilling. The food varies depending on where you are in the state, but when people use the term “Texas barbecue” it almost always translates the Central Texas-style of cooking brisket low and slow over indirect heat. Because you'll rarely see the other varieties unless you're road-tripping to remote corners of the state, most of this article concerns the style associated with Central Texas.
Beef reigns supreme
The first thing that makes Texas the iconoclast of the ’cueing world is a worship of beef over pork. The preference dates back to the cattle industry, but culturally you can chalk it up to bigger-in-Texas palates and the arguably higher-quality beef available in the state. Debate all you wish about proteins, but it's tough to convince a Texan that the other white meat packs more flavor than a well-cooked piece of beef, especially in places that serve Prime or Wagyu cuts that elevate the BBQ experience even higher.
The two types of brisket are moist and lean
A brisket has two distinct portions, the leaner "flat" and the fattier "point." Some menus list both types, but even those that don't will happily cut from whichever side of the brisket a customer prefers. So much like in New Mexico you’ll be questioned whether you want red or green sauce on your enchiladas, most BBQ joints will ask you whether you want it moist (aka marbled with fat) or lean. Fatty is by far more popular because it’s loaded with flavor. The lower fat content of the lean side makes it harder to cook perfectly, but it's by no means a second-class barbecue citizen—it's still served with a tiny sliver of fat.
There’s truly no place like Texas when it comes to barbecue. You’ll find various styles of its signature slow-smoked, pit-style brisket, pulled pork, and ribs at festivals, food trucks, and restaurants across the state — which means you’re going to need to stay awhile to try them all. Plan your Texas vacation now and travel when you’re ready to have a barbecue experience that’ll blow your mind (or at least your taste buds).
No combo plate is complete without brisket
Pork ribs, sausage, turkey, beef ribs, and pulled pork typically round out a menu, but no plate of Texas barbecue is complete without brisket. The collagen-packed chest muscle is king and how it's cooked is considered the true measure of a pitmaster’s skill. If Texas had a list of barbecue commandments, Thou Shalt Order Brisket would be No. 1. Followed closely by Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Place at the Front of the Line.
Be prepared to wait
Good things come to those who stand outside a Texas barbecue joint for two hours. The best barbecue restaurants in Texas are so popular that lines can exceed four hours on busy weekends and people often show up early in the morning to “tailgate” while awaiting the restaurant to open. This practice of waiting has been so ingrained in the experience that the lines of famous spots like Franklin Barbecue develop their own micro-economies. People rent out chairs and even sell their place in line (a practice that Franklin has now banned). Luckily in many of those lines you won't be thirsty, because...
Beer is free (sometimes!)
Since many of the best Central Texas barbecue operations are trailers that can't secure official alcohol licenses, the workaround is to hand out free beers to people waiting in line as a little present for their patience. And often it’s OK if you bring your own if a place indeed can’t sell it. (But still, a good idea to be stealthy if you don’t know for sure. Just look to others ahead of you in line for hints at what’s allowed).
White bread, onions, and pickles are free
Condiment stations are almost always loaded with quartered white onions, pickles, and cheap white bread. There might occasionally be a charge for more premium bread or fancy pickles, but the standards should definitely come for free.
Wood is favored over charcoal or gas
Smokers with a gas-assist function have gained popularity in higher-volume restaurants, but most masters still do it the old-fashioned way: a hardwood fire that's watched carefully overnight. The most common wood used in Central Texas is post oak, but you'll also see mesquite, pecan, and hickory.
The fires burn low and slow
One of the hardest parts of barbecuing is the meticulous management of fire. If you cook too hot and fast, the collagen won't have time to render and the inherent toughness of the cut of meat will prevail. Pitmasters subscribe to a low-and-slow philosophy that can take up to 20 hours or longer for each brisket.
Many of the most legitimate barbecue institutions operate outdoors
Based on regulations on indoor smokers, spatial considerations, and the low startup cost of trailers, cooking is often done outside. This further complicates the fragile ecosystem inside the smoker and tests a pitmaster’s abilities. But the smell of the meats slowly doing their thing offers a form of far-reaching advertising that can’t be ought.
The ribs aren’t loaded with secret spices
One of the primary distinctions of Central Texas BBQ is simplicity. Many pitmasters will sneak in a hint of garlic powder or cayenne, but the traditional rub for brisket is a fistful of salt and black pepper to amplify the flavor without complicating or overpowering the inherent greatness of the flavors.
Sauce is frowned upon
Although most restaurants offer several varieties of tomato-based table sauce, brisket is almost always served nekkid. Purists and snobby food writers will say that sauce overwhelms the meat and liken it to squirting ketchup on a steak. We recommend trying it both ways and deciding for yourself because technically, there’s no wrong way to eat BBQ.
Sausage is historically important
German and Czech immigrants have had a big influence on the state, earning sausage an important place on any Texas barbecue menu. Elgin is the state’s sausage capital and the the birthplace of “hot guts,” an all-beef sausage that the originators at Southside Market proudly sell wholesale to many restaurants. Pitmasters who make their own will often offer more than one variety, from staples like jalapeño cheese to more creative styles that incorporate flavors from other global cuisines.
Meat is served market-style
In a throwback to the meat market roots of the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas, most barbecue restaurants in the state sell meat by the pound. It's ordered and sliced at a counter, then presented on a plastic tray covered in butcher paper. Expect to use that tray as a communal plate and build your own sandwich with a couple of slices of that cheap white bread.
It’s a lunch thing
When the primary product takes upwards of 15 hours to cook and space inside a smoker is finite, supplies can be extremely limited. As a result, many of the state’s premier barbecue spots are only able to cook enough meat to last through a lunch rush, so not many people visit BBQ joints for dinner. It’s also a heavy meal, so lunch reduces the guilt a bit. Of course, any leftovers you might end up with make for great next-day meat-and-egg breakfast tacos.
Traditionalists eat with their hands
Although not everyone likes to get down and dirty, traditionalists will tell you to ignore forks and knives and grab that slab of moist brisket with your hands. You'll occasionally even find old-school joints that don't offer any cutlery whatsoever, like Kreuz Market in Lockhart. So pack a contraband fork if you absolutely must.
Offering a sample bite of brisket is polite pitmaster etiquette
Hour-long lines make for high levels of anticipation, and a customary reward for the wait is a tiny slice of brisket as soon as a customer reaches the counter. This also helps you quickly decide whether you’re on Team Moist or Team Lean.
Few people can eat a whole beef rib
Beef ribs have become the darling of the barbecue world in recent years thanks to their intense flavor, as well as an appearance that looks straight out of The Flintstones. Most beef ribs clock in at around two pounds, so anticipate leftovers—or a trip to the antacid aisle at CVS.
Steven Lindsey is a Thrillist contributor.