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Deep In The Heart Of Texas Barbecue

A Texas-inspired meal features slow-cooked beef brisket — with sauce added after cooking — and sides of pinto beans and coleslaw.
Henry Polmer for NPR
A Texas-inspired meal features slow-cooked beef brisket — with sauce added after cooking — and sides of pinto beans and coleslaw.

It's the Fourth of July and time for a barbecue. Like many Americans, I thought "barbecue" meant throwing a few hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. Then I moved to Texas.

The word "barbecue" has a whole different meaning there. For one thing, it is a noun, not a verb. "Let's go out for some barbecue," therefore, makes perfect sense.

In Texas, barbecue is not just a food — it is an icon, an ideal, a way of life. If you're not a Texan, the assumption is that you just don't get it.

The process is pretty simple: Get a huge slab of meat covered in fat, get the coals ready, slap the meat on the grate, cover and cook for a couple of days.

Finding the right combination of heat and time, however, is an art. The coals and/or wood must be replenished, so "pitmasters" (usually men) tend the meat. They are the celebrity chefs of the barbecue world, and their domain can be anything from a charcoal grill to something that looks like a small train engine.

In a state that's bigger than France and that has a strong independent streak, though, it's hard to reach agreement on recipes and styles. Does oak or mesquite work best? Should the meat be cooked for 10 hours or two days? These are still raging controversies in the Lone Star state. There are, however, some undisputed facts:

Pork is not the star, unlike in a lot of Southern barbecue. In Texas, untrimmed beef brisket rules. That means a brisket covered in fat that melts into the meat over the long cooking process and makes the tough cut tender. While ribs and sausages often are included, the brisket holds center stage.

Preparation is minimal. While some cooks use rubs on the meat, most use uncomplicated seasoning such as salt and pepper. Whatever they do, however, they never put barbecue sauce on the meat before or during cooking. Some Texans use a "sop," a combination of beer, lemon juice and vinegar, to baste the meat and keep it moist. It's thrown out after the meat is cooked. A sauce is often served with the meat, but on the side. It's usually a sweet-and-sour ketchup-based mixture.

The meat is cooked low and slow. It's the smoke and the heat, not the flame, that cooks the meat. Because gas grills can't produce enough smoke, brisket is cooked with coals and/or wood. My husband soaks wood chips in water to produce even more smoke. And the flames never touch the meat. The indirect cooking method is used, meaning the coals are on the sides, not directly beneath, the meat.

Side dishes are pretty standard. They include beans, coleslaw, potato salad and Texas toast, a thick slice of toasted white bread. Dessert is usually pecan or lemon chess pie, though I often make a Texas sheet cake — essentially a huge brownie.

There is more than one kind of Texas barbecue, however — a diversity that developed over time. In the beginning, there was open-pit barbecue — a hole in the ground with hot coals, over which a variety of meats were cooked on a spit. Think old cowboy movies.

From that evolved four different styles of Texas barbecue, according to Robb Walsh, a Texas journalist and barbecue authority. The varieties are cowboy, meat market, East Texas and Mexican barbacoa, he writes in the Houston Press.

"Each has its own style, and each is associated with a major immigrant group," he writes. "The Central Texas meat markets were owned by Germans and Czechs. The West Texas cowboys were mostly Anglos. And the East Texas style is associated with Southern blacks. The barbacoa tradition began in cattle ranches along the border. ..."

We lived in central Texas and so learned a combination cowboy-meat market barbecue. Many of the state's most famous barbecue joints began as butcher shops run by German or Czech immigrants. They built smokers in which they smoked sausages made from meat scraps — hence the inclusion of sausages in Texas barbecue.

Barbecue culture is so strong in Texas, there is even an Emmy-nominated documentary about it, narrated by the late former governor Ann Richards. It includes commentary by newsman and Texan Dan Rather, who says, "If you want to be marked as an outsider for life, you just come to Texas and say 'I can't stand barbecue.' "

You don't have to go deep in the heart of Texas for good barbecue anymore, though. Some of the best Texas barbecue is now being served in — of all places — New York City, where barbecue joints have been rolling in like tumbleweeds.

This Fourth of July could be your moment. If you don't want to throw burgers on the grill, go ahead and take a stab at making real Texas barbecue. You don't have to feel like an outsider.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.
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