The Definitive Texas Barbecue Style Guide
From East Texas boudain to South Texas cabezita.
Don’t expect Texas to have a single style of barbecue. That would be like French winemakers hawking a single grape varietal. Like Champagne, Central Texas brisket might be our most recognized brand and most popular export, but we’ve got plenty more to offer.
Barbecue changes pretty significantly across the state. It is 857 miles from Orange to El Paso, after all. There are, however, some common threads. You’re much more likely to find the larger, meatier pork spare ribs instead of dainty baby backs. Beef ribs can be found throughout the state, but massive beef short ribs are a relatively recent phenomenon. Texas also has one of the few American barbecue styles where sausage-making is an integral part of the tradition.
Whether it’s the hot guts of Central Texas, the grease balls of Beaumont/Port Arthur, or the East Texas smoked boudin, meat in casings is as revered as anything else on the menu.
We’re technically the South, but here, white bread trumps cornbread, and tortillas make a strong case too. The pickles are dill, the onions are raw, and sauce comes on the side. Don't expect your beans to be sweet... but the potato salad might be, and it’ll probably have some mustard in it. Add some slaw, and you have the traditional trio of Texas-style barbecue sides. For your Lone Star barbecue tour, bring along cash, just in case. There are still plenty of rural joints that don’t take kindly to plastic, and no decent barbecue hound would pull out a credit card for a $2.50 sausage wrap, anyway. Weekend barbecue tours are popular for obvious reasons but keep in mind that Sunday is still a day of rest for many Texas barbecue joints. More recently, Mondays are creeping in as the most popular day to take off, so plan accordingly.
Before we dive further into the modern definition of Texas barbecue, let’s look back to the 19th century when all American barbecue was essentially the same. From South Carolina to Texas, whole animals were doused with a mop sauce while cooking directly over a trench filled with hot coals, and the labor was usually done by the enslaved. The only things that varied were the type of wood and the selection of animals that were immediately available for cooking. These events were for large groups to celebrate momentous occasions, local accomplishments, or lure politicians to town, and the food was usually free. There were no identifiable regional styles until a decade or so after the Civil War, when barbecue was first made available for sale. Once it became restaurant food, the preferred proteins, methods of cooking, and the seasoning and sauces diverged depending on the region.
The area west of Austin is known for its direct-heat cooking. While the joints here don’t have a history that goes as far back as their Central or East Texas brethren, their cooking style is closest to the old way of cooking over a trench in the ground. Rather than smoking meat, the barbecue here is cooked directly over hot coals. Wood, usually mesquite, is burned down into coals in a feeder fire, and those coals are shoveled into large, metal boxes, often referred to as flat pits.
Robb Walsh is a Texas barbecue authority who authored Legends of Texas Barbecue, an explanation of Texas’ various barbecue styles. He recognizes that this style, which he refers to as Cowboy Style, “harkens back to the Southern roots” of barbecue. This style also has the most unique flavor. Instead of getting the flavor of the wood smoke, the meat captures the smoke from the fat as it hits the fire below. Because of the fast cooking times, thinner meats like ribs, chops, sausage, half-chickens, and pork steaks rather than whole shoulders are more successful with this method, but brisket is still always on the menu. Just don’t expect it to be as juicy as other styles. This isn’t low-and-slow cooking.
Unfortunately, the number of restaurants where you can get this kind of barbecue is dwindling. The requirement of having a large pit for the feeder fire, and another for the meat—not to mention all that wood required to produce coals—make it costly. Having to keep track of two fires also makes it more difficult. Thankfully, you can still see this type of cooking done at community barbecues all over Texas, where they favor direct-heat fires instead of the more modern offset smokers.
This style of direct heat cooking has less in common with other versions of Texas barbecue, and more with Southern barbecue from other states, like the pork shoulders of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, spare ribs in Alabama, and the whole-hog barbecue traditions of the Carolinas and Western Tennessee, which are cooked in the same manner.
If the Hill Country style of barbecue is endangered, South Texas barbacoa is nearly extinct. There’s only one place left in the state—and probably the country—where you can get it, or at least the authentic version of it. Mando Vera at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas still cooks whole cow heads in the ground with mesquite coals. He offers it up Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings only. Barbacoa made with any method is traditionally a weekend food.
Barbacoa cooked en pozo, or in the ground like at Vera’s is often made with whole goats, whole lambs, and other cuts of beef, but in South Texas, it’s all about the cow heads. They remain one of the cheapest cuts of meat on the market, yet after spending about 12 hours in a warm, earthen pit, they’re transformed into the best taco stuffing you can ask for. It’s still pretty good out of the oven or the steamer, which is usually how barbacoa is made these days.
You can find meat cooked this way in plenty of Texas backyards. A pit is dug and lined with stones, bricks, or even a section of concrete pipe, and a large mesquite fire is started in the bottom. Once the wood burns down to a thick bed of coals, agave leaves are placed on top of the coals to form a protective layer. The meat and/or heads are laid on top of that, the leaves are folded over, then the lid goes over the pit. Dirt usually covers the lid of the pit for insulation purposes. When the lid is taken off the next morning, the meat is so tender that it falls off the skull. Cheek meat, or cachete, is the most popular portion of the head. Everything is used, including the tongue and the eyes. In a commercial setting, the shredded meat is generally served up by the pound along with salsas, cilantro, onions, and tortillas. Be sure to salt the meat in the tacos, because it was probably cooked without seasoning.
Here are a few key terms to remember about barbacoa:
- barbacoa de cabeza: barbacoa made with whole beef heads instead of just cheek and tongue
- cabezita: the head of a goat cooked as barbacoa
- descarnando: the act of removing meat from a carcass or skull for barbacoa
- tatema: an Aztec word used specifically to describe barbacoa cooked in the ground with wood coals. You won’t find the word used often these days, but it signifies that your barbacoa isn’t steamed.
While whole beef heads in the ground is more traditional, beef cheeks have become a popular cut on their own in Texas barbecue. They’re often smoked like a brisket, then wrapped in agave or even banana leaves to mimic the flavor and moisture of a pit in the ground. The cheeks are cooked until tender enough to shred, and have a smokier flavor than traditional barbacoa.
Barbacoa gets all the attention in South Texas, but let’s not leave out fajitas, mollejas (beef sweetbreads), and cabrito. For the latter, whole, young goats are cooked over coals, or roasted on a spit over charcoal. A particular portion of the cabrito is usually requested by the diner, like the shoulder, the rib, or the leg portion, which will come with tortillas, beans, and various garnishes.
This is where Texas barbecue as we know it began. When Anglos first settled Texas they brought their traditions from parts east, and plantation owners brought their enslaved workforce. The enslaved had already developed barbecue cooking skills because they were generally the ones forced to perform the real work of large barbecue events on the plantations and in the communities. The population of Texas, including the enslaved, at the time of the Civil War was concentrated in the counties east of Dallas and Austin. Those skills were passed down through generations of East Texans who developed the barbecue style we know today.
Whole hog cooking never took hold in the barbecue joints of East Texas like they did in the Carolinas and Tennessee, but pork barbecue is on par with brisket at many barbecue joints in the region. The pork ribs are cooked until more tender, and homemade sauces are an important component of the barbecue. Black pepper is also less popular, especially a heavy coating of the stuff, than in Central Texas. Smoked chicken is popular in East Texas, as well as pulled pork, and the tenderness of the brisket is of utmost importance. A saucy chopped brisket sandwich with pickles and onions would go onto the East Texas coats of arms rather than the picture perfect slices of brisket found in Central Texas and in the big cities (see below). This is also the region where you’ll find the Cajun influence of boudin, sometimes spelled boudain in Texas. Here it contains more rice and less offal than its Louisiana cousin, and at barbecue joints you better bet it will be smoked.
Another style of sausage, an all-beef variety in a beef casing better known as links, can be found only in Beaumont, Port Arthur, and the surrounding southeast Texas region. Rather than the simple seasonings of a Central Texas sausage, these links are loaded with chili powder, paprika, and garlic. Their high fat-to-meat ratio has given them the nickname “greaseballs,” but don’t let that keep you from enjoying their rich flavor.
If you’ve heard about the German and Czech butchers who “created” Texas barbecue, that’s the story of Central Texas barbecue. While Texas barbecue’s development began in East Texas, the meat markets in towns like Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Elgin, and Bastrop developed their own brand of commercially available barbecue around the same time. In the days before refrigeration, beef was only available to markets as a whole carcass, and they needed something to do with the meat that didn’t sell. They could either smoke the whole muscles to prolong their sellable life, or they could grind the meat and stuff it into casings for smoked sausage. The heavy seasonings in the sausages helped mask any off flavors, and that sausage making tradition continues, although with more choice cuts.
In the mid-’60s, beef processing transformed, and boxes of individual beef cuts became available for the first time. Brisket became the popular cut of beef to smoke, and eventually began to dominate all discussions about Texas barbecue. Some folks outside the state think it’s the only thing we cook, but Central Texas barbecue joints don’t stop there. Other meats from the forequarter are also popular, like the shoulder clod, and chuck short ribs, larger short ribs from the beef plate that have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the last 15 years.
These days, the meat market operations have mostly changed over completely into barbecue joints. The barbecue is still carved in front of the customer, sold by the pound, and served on butcher paper. All these modern joints using butcher paper to line their plastic trays are really giving homage to the old meat markets.
Barbecue in Central Texas is done in offset smokers fueled with oak, usually post oak. It’s a wood prevalent in the region. Meat seasoned simply with salt, black pepper, and sometimes other spices is laid within a smoker chamber, and the fire is built in a firebox to the side. An exhaust on the opposite end pulls the heat and smoke from the fire across the surface of the meat, cooking it, and adding the great smoke flavor.
Sides and desserts are an afterthought in this style of barbecue. Some joints offer up whole avocados, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and hunks of cheese to take the place of prepared sides, harkening back to what might have been available on the store shelves of those old meat markets. You might have heard that they don’t serve barbecue sauce around these parts, but every Texas barbecue joint I’ve been to serves at least one barbecue sauce. It’s just usually served on the side, or offered on the table.
Big City Barbecue
That brings us to the most recent style of barbecue within Texas, which is centered in cities like Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. The meats are prepared as they are in Central Texas, using all wood, in large offset smokers, often made from reclaimed propane tanks. It marks a rejection of technological advancements in barbecue like gas-assisted rotisserie smokers. But unlike traditional Central Texas barbecue, where the meat options might stop at the Texas trinity of smoked brisket, spare ribs, and sausage, this big city version of barbecue values variety like smoked turkey breast, beef cheeks, quail, and pork belly. And premium versions of all of it like Prime grade beef brisket is the norm, leading some to label this as the “craft barbecue” movement. I think most pitmasters, no matter their style, are practicing a craft, so I prefer not to use that label, but it’s fair to say that this big city style of barbecue represents modern barbecue trends.
The new restaurants in big cities across Texas, and Texas-style barbecue restaurants throughout the country, have latched on mainly to the Central Texas style of cooking meat, causing some to worry that other distinct styles are losing ground. “There’s a homogenization of Texas barbecue that’s coalescing around Central Texas style,” says J.C. Reid, barbecue columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He thinks pitmasters could do more to advance more distinct regional styles rather than adhere so much to the meat-on-butcher-paper aesthetic.
The basic trio of barbecue sides you’ll find across Texas is pinto beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. At the big city barbecue joints, they’ve branched out considerably. Sightings of sweet corn elotes, creamed spinach, and Brussels sprouts are not uncommon in big city Texas barbecue joints. Soul food sides that are common in East Texas, like greens and macaroni & cheese, and are also popular in these joints. The desserts go far beyond cobbler and banana pudding into multi-layer cakes, smoked crème brûlée, and bread pudding made from croissants. Texans a couple decades ago would be floored to see a barbecue restaurant with a “bar program” that went beyond beer, but craft cocktails are as much a part of big city barbecue as the house made pickles.
Time will tell if the big cities begin to shift toward a more localized barbecue identity, but that’s my hope. Maybe in a decade we’ll be able to better define a modern San Antonio style of barbecue versus a modern Fort Worth style, and so on.
Texas barbecue has changed dramatically over the last decade. A food that was revered and valued is now scrutinized and sometimes fetishized. Barbecue fans have little patience for sub-optimal barbecue at the barbecue joints considered the best in Texas. The ten year transformation seemed fast, but feels relatively gradual when judged against how rapidly Instagram-fueled trends are adopted and discarded in Texas barbecue today.
It almost feels outdated to discuss Tex-Mex barbecue as a trend considering how entrenched the style already is within Texas barbecue culture. Salsas and tortillas are as common at new barbecue joints as barbecue sauce and white bread. A well-made barbecue taco served at a barbecue joint seemed novel before Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ opened in 2013, and now the option is almost expected at a newly opened barbecue joint.
Variety and innovation are encouraged in Texas barbecue, which helps broaden its appeal. Smoked brisket finds its way into pho, ramen, and curries regularly. A barbecue banh mi is as common as barbecue gumbo, and smoked brisket burgers might share a menu with brisket birria tacos. A growing number of pitmasters are even bringing vegetarians into the fold by offering smoked jackfruit, beets, and mushrooms. The state that popularized bacon burnt ends is now doing the same with cauliflower burnt ends. In a state this size that’s so rich in cultural diversity, a simple definition of Texas barbecue has always been hard to pin down. Thankfully, that effort isn’t getting easier.