Texas barbecue: a user's guide

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Make no bones about it – Texas barbecue is an obsession. It’s the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, from national press to regional favorite Texas Monthly. Some of central Texas’ smaller towns – Lockhart and Elgin, to name only two – maintain perennial reputations for their smokehouse cultures, and routinely draw dedicated pilgrims from miles around.

No self-respecting Texan would agree with another about who has the best barbecue, since that would take the fun out of it. However you like it – sliced thick onto butcher paper, slapped on picnic plates, doused with a tangy sauce or eaten naturally flavorful right out of the smokehouse barbecue pit – be sure to savor it…and then argue to the death that your way is the best way. Like a true Texan.

Cooking

Most folks agree on the basics: slow cooking over a low-heat wood fire. A cooking time of up to 12 or 16 hours isn’t unheard of – anything less and you’re just too durn impatient. It allows the meat to be infused with a rich smoky flavor of usually hickory or pecan in the eastern part of the state, oak in central Texas and mesquite out west.

The Meat

Texas barbecue leans heavily toward beef – a logical outgrowth of the state’s cattle industry. The most common is beef brisket; with a combination of patience, experience and skill, a seasoned pit boss can transform this notoriously tough meat into a perfectly smoked, tender slab of heaven. Carnivores seeking a more toothy challenge can indulge in beef ribs – huge meaty racks that would do Fred Flintstone proud. Word to the wise: if you need to stay presentable, think twice about the ribs, which tend to be a full-contact eating experience.

Related article: A field guide to barbecue in the American South

The noble pig makes appearances in the form of succulent ribs, and occasionally chops and sliced loin. In recent years, chicken has shown up on the menu boards, mainly to provide beginners with a non-hoofed barnyard option. If there’s something more unusual on the menu, such as barbecued boar or venison, we suggest you go for it: if the chef is breaking from tradition, there’s usually a good reason for it, and you are probably in for a treat.

Every self-respecting barbecue joint will also serve sausage. Texas hot links, the peppery sausage of regional renown, is created with ground pork and beef combined with pungent spices. Because of the variations in everything from the meat mix to the seasonings to the cooking method, sausages can be as unique an experience as any rub mixture might bring, and almost everyone claims theirs are the best.

Brisket, sausage and beer

The Rub

Everyone knows that the word ‘barbecue’ is usually followed by the word ‘sauce.’ But not so fast, there. The other key component is the rub, which is how the meat is seasoned before it’s cooked. There are wet rubs and dry rubs. A dry rub is a mixture of salt, pepper, herbs and spices sprinkled over or painstakingly rubbed into the meat before cooking. A wet rub is created by adding liquid (e.g. oil, vinegar, lemon juice or even mustard). Applied like a paste, a wet rub seals in the meat’s natural juices before cooking. This key step is just as important as the slow cooking in getting the flavor just right.

The Sauce

Wisdom about barbecue sauce varies widely from region to region and joint to joint. There’s huge debate over what kind, how much or whether you need it at all. In Lockhart, Kreuz Market’s meat is served without any sauce at all, and it’s so naturally juicy and tender you’ll agree it’s not necessary. But excellent sauce-heavy barbecue is divine as well. Stubb’s Barbecue in Austin has made quite a venture of selling its signature sauce. To sauce or not to sauce? We’ll leave it up to you to make up your mind.

Sides

Side dishes naturally take second place to the platters of smoked meat. Restaurant-style side dishes usually include pinto beans, potato salad or coleslaw, while markets sometimes opt for simpler accompaniments like onion slices, dill pickles, cheese slices or tomatoes.

Kreuz Market signEtiquette

The first question that comes to most people’s mind is, ‘How do I eat this without making a mess?’ You don’t. Accepting the fact early on that barbecue is a messy, messy venture will give you the attitude you need to enjoy your meal. One coping mechanism is to make a drop cloth of your napkin.

Whether you eat with your hands or a fork depends on the cut of the meat. Brisket and sausage are fork dishes, while ribs are eaten caveperson-style. (It also depends on the restaurant. Kreuz Market doesn’t offer forks. As the owner famously says, ‘God put two of them at the end of your arms.’)

How does one dress for barbecue? First off, don’t wear white. Or yellow, or pink, or anything that won’t camouflage or coordinate with red. At 99% of barbecue restaurants (the exception being uppity, nouveau ’cue) you will see the most casual of casual attire, including jeans (harder to stain) and shorts, and maybe even some trucker hats.

A final thought on etiquette. If you’re at a restaurant that uses a dry rub and you don’t see any sauce, it’s probably best not to ask: it would be a bit like asking for ketchup to put on your steak.

WHERE TO FIND IT

Austin & Hill Country

Dallas and Central Texas

East Texas

  • Country Tavern (www.countrytavern.com; Kilgore)
  • Joseph’s Riverport BBQ (903-665-2341; Jefferson)
  • New Zion Missionary Baptist Church (936-295-2349; Huntsville)

Gulf Coast

West Texas & Panhandle

[Photos: Brisket and beer by Paul Lowry; Kreuz Market sign by Carlos Lowry]