Do you happen to know what state is best known for BBQ? Almost every state has its own signature cuisine and several places are known in particular for barbecue. The four most common types of barbecue in the United States come from:
- Kansas City
- North Carolina, and
But who has the best BBQ in the world? Texans, and many outside of Texas, will argue that hands-down theirs is the absolute number one.
So why exactly is Texas famous for BBQ? How did it come to be known as one of the BBQ capitals of the world? What are the regional variations within Texas and how is the meat prepared and cooked differently? Why are Texans so fiercely proud of their barbecue and willing to debate it with anyone?
History of Texas Barbecue
Barbecue has long been a part of Texas history and, because the tradition is so old, it’s sometimes hard to know just how it got started. The first barbecue shop that has been documented was found in a newspaper from 1878. However, cooking meat by smoking it may have been a popular practice prior to this.
History of Texas Barbecue
It is thought that German and Czech immigrants were some of the first to bring meat-smoking to Texas in the mid-19th century. Cooking meat by smoking it over a fire was a common practice in Eastern Europe and served as an effective way to keep leftover meat from spoiling. Some of the immigrants also opened up butcher shops and later started selling smoked meat to the public.
Local Texans found this way of cooking meat to be so delicious that it caught on and became a part of the mainstream culture. When the popularity of their barbecue outmatched the need for butchering, their shops turned into barbecue joints over time. The tradition of selling meat by the pound, wrapped in red butcher paper, has been kept alive throughout the decades.
Mexican and Cowboy Influence
Other outside influences have affected the current status of Texas barbecue as people shared recipes and methods throughout the years. Mexican farm workers closer to the border brought barbacoa to the region while some of the sauces featured in East Texas barbecue are thought to originate from recipes brought by African-Americans who settled there.
Texas is also known for cattle ranching and has a long history of cattle drives, cowboys, and ranches. The wide open spaces in the Lone Star State allowed for huge cattle farms spanning many acres and cattle ranching was essential for economic development. Early cattle drives in the 1850s meat transporting cattle from Texas to California where it was worth considerably more. This practice of driving cattle meant cowboys were camping along the trail with their herd and would cook over fires. This method of cooking resulted in West Texas barbecue being referred to as “cowboy barbecue.”
After the Civil War, cattle became predominant within the state and beef became the most popular meat, replacing pork, veal, goat, and mutton. Cooking an entire steer became the ultimate in Texas barbecue and big civic barbecues were often held in the 1800s that could feed hundreds or even thousands of people. Now brisket is one of the most popular cuts and allows people to opt for the fatty or lean pieces depending on preference. However, the fattier part which comes from the point is full of flavor and loved by the majority of people.
Because the meat was slow-cooked for a long time, even the cuts that were traditionally considered inferior could still be used. This made barbecue meats an affordable option for those who weren’t as wealthy such as cowboys and migrant workers. It is thought that barbecue started out as being something eaten primarily by poorer people until it gained mainstream popularity. Over time, barbecue became so well-known that it was even served at state dinners and restaurants specializing in it have spread all across the country.
Varieties in Texas
Within Texas, there are regional variations in the types of barbeque each area prefers. These four styles are Central, South, East, and West. When many people think of Texas barbecue, they are probably thinking of the more popular East and Central Texas styles.
If you’re looking for grilling steak tips from Texans, be prepared to get a wide variety of answers depending on the region. When you round up a group of people from across the state and ask them what is the best way to grill a steak, prepare yourself for a heated debate.
Central Texas barbecue features meat that all about the dry-rub which is usually just salt and pepper, although some chefs do incorporate additional spices. The meat is then cooked indirectly over pecan or oak wood at a low heat. This style of barbecue does not feature sauces as a predominant part of the meat cooking process and they are only used for dipping on the side, if at all.
Some think that the saucier varieties of barbecue originate from regions where the poorer classes were cooking the cheaper cuts of meat. In order to mask the flavors after the meat was slow-cooked and became tender, a sauce was put on it to make it taste better. This is in contrast to other areas where more affluent people could afford better cuts of meat that were delicious on their own. In fact, some people caution you not to eat barbecue if it’s served already in a sauce as this may be an attempt to disguise the quality or cook when prepared improperly.
East Texas barbecue features a sweet, usually tomato-based, sauce and is slow-cooked until the meat starts to fall off the bone. West Texas barbecue is cooked on a high heat over mesquite wood while South Texas prefers to marinate the meat in a thick sauce to keep the meat moist while cooking.
As you can see, it’s not easy to get a consensus or easy answer if you’re wondering at what temperature do you grill a steak. Some regions prefer a higher heat, sometimes hundreds of degrees, while others cook indirectly and use the smoke to do the majority of the cooking. Texas barbecue can even take upwards of 24 hours or more to cook as slow heat results in tender, juicy meat.
Traditional Grilling Methods
Pitmasters will never be found wondering which charcoal grill is best or what is the best grill to buy because these types of stoves aren’t used for true barbecue. Instead, traditional barbecue pits in Texas place the meat on a grill at one end of the structure while a wood fire is lit on the other side. Then the heat and smoke are pulled across the meat when the wind blows or by using a fan to aid in convection. In short, the process cannot be rushed and the skill to properly cook barbecue has been passed down through the generations, making it something Texans take very seriously and are proud to keep in their families. Nowadays the secret to good barbecue has been elevated to an art and will be fiercely defended.
To find the best barbecue, look for a place that specializes in it versus a restaurant that might prepare it in advance, refrigerate, and reheat it. Instead, look for a place where you can smell smoke or see wood burning to ensure you’re at an authentic barbecue joint. For the best experience, it should be cooked fresh and then kept warm over the pit where it was cooked before being carved as you order it.
The Texas Trinity
If you ever get the chance to experience a Texas backyard BBQ, recipes are sure to feature sides that complement the star of the event: the meat. Hosts will undoubtedly never need to question what to include serve because the “Texas Trinity” or three-meat plate of:
- Pork ribs, and
…is a given. Some historical accompaniments to the smoked meats include white onions, cheap white bread, and pickles that should be provided for free.
Although poorer people ate whatever they could find on their shelves with their barbecue, these have now become so connected with barbecue culture that it’s hard to thinking of eating it without them. Nowadays though, restaurants might feature fancier pickles, cherry peppers, pickled jalapeno peppers and other savory condiments but the concept still hasn’t changed.
If you want to recreate history, some backyard BBQ menu ideas should definitely include pickled sides to accompany the meat that should absolutely be cooked over wood. However, a modern BBQ dinner party menu may feature many more sides, ranging from the staples:
- Baked beans
- Potato salad, and
In recent days other sides have become favorites and added to the menu such as:
- Mac ‘n cheese
- Fried okra
- Collard greens
- Creamed corn
- Cheese grits
- Fries, and
- Onion rings.
Dessert will usually feature a cobbler that can be made from a variety of fruits such as peaches, cherries, or apples and is served warm with ice cream on top.
Texas currently has the most places selling barbecue in the United States with over 3,000 restaurants and independent operations. This number may even be higher than when it was last calculated as more and more people have come to love this cuisine and even barbecue food trucks have started to open. With a rich and varied history, Texas barbecue has certainly made its mark on the country as a whole and is sure to continue evolving well into the future.