Barbecue in Texas

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A plate of Central Texas Style BBQ. Potato salad is ubiquitous in Texas barbecue as a side dish. Pinto beans are also served on the side (not shown).

Barbecue is a traditional style of preparing beef unique to the cuisine of Texas. It is one of the many different varieties of barbecue found around the world.

Texas barbecue traditions can be divided into four general styles: East Texas, Central Texas, South Texas, and West Texas.[1] The Central and East Texas varieties are generally the most well-known.[2] In a 1973 Texas Monthly article, Author Griffin Smith, Jr., described the dividing line between the two styles as "a line running from Columbus and Hearne northward between Dallas and Fort Worth".[3]

Additionally, in deep South Texas and along the Rio Grande valley, a Mexican style of meat preparation known as barbacoa can be found. In Spanish, the word barbacoa means "barbecue", though in English it is often used specifically to refer to Mexican varieties of preparation.

Generally speaking, the different Texas barbecue styles are distinguished as follows:[1]

  • East Texas style: The beef is slowly cooked to the point that it is "falling off the bone." It is typically cooked over hickory wood and marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce.
  • Central Texas style: The meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood.
  • West Texas style: The meat is cooked over direct heat from mesquite wood.
  • South Texas style: Features thick, molasses-like sauces that keep the meat very moist.

The barbacoa tradition is somewhat different from all of these. Though beef may be used, goat or sheep meat are common as well (sometimes the entire animal may be used). In its most traditional form, barbacoa is prepared in a hole dug in the ground and covered with maguey leaves.[4]


Main article: Barbecue § Etymology

European meat-smoking traditions were brought by German and Czech settlers in Central Texas during the mid-19th century. The original tradition was that butchers would smoke leftover meat that had not been sold so that it could be stored and saved. As these smoked leftovers became popular among the migrants in the area, many of these former meat markets evolved to specialize in smoked meats.[4] Many butcher shops also evolved into well-known barbecue establishments.[5]

With the ending of the American Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves in 1865, the East Texas barbecue tradition, which was largely a product of the African-American community, was born.[4]

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted a state dinner featuring barbecue for the Mexican president-elect in Johnson City, Texas. It is generally considered the first barbecue state dinner in the history of the United States.[4]

By 2000, many old-fashioned barbecue smokers in Texas had been replaced by gas-fired ovens due to pollution concerns and ease of use.[5]

Regional styles[edit]

Central Texas[edit]

Central Texas-style barbecue was established in the 19th century in central Texan towns such as Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor. These towns were established by German and other European immigrants. In their early periods, the towns had meat markets that served cooked meat on red butcher paper. This tradition continues to this day in many central Texan towns. Its popularity has spread considerably; Griffin Smith, Jr. of Texas Monthly described the name "Central Texas barbecue" as an underestimation of the geographic extent of this cuisine.

Today, many barbecue events are held on Saturdays, and many establishments are closed on Sundays. Many barbecues are held at noon.[3]

At a central Texas barbecue restaurant, the customer takes a tray. One staff member serves the customer the meat and often also carves it, while another server provides side dishes. Slices of packaged white bread are often included with the barbecue. Barbecue, sold by the pound, often includes beef ribs, brisket, chicken, pork ribs, and sausage. Some establishments serve clod (beef shoulder).[6]

The emphasis of Central Texas barbecue is on the meat. If sauce is available, it is usually a side dip.[3] Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, said that people who discuss central Texas barbecue do not talk about the piquancy of the sauces, or the tastes of side dishes such as beans; the discussions tend to center around the quality of the meat.[6] In many restaurants, barbecue sandwiches are not served. The customer may take a piece of bread and roll it around the meat, or the customer may not use bread and instead use his or her fingers to eat the meat. Some orders may include saltine crackers, onions, jalapeños, and pickles.[3] Pickled vegetables like carrots, onions, and jalapeños may also be available.

Smith posits this theory on why sauces are not a focus of Central Texas style: in the style's early days, the noon meat markets were dominated by the upper classes, who could choose among the highest-quality cuts of meat. Consequently, they had little interest in sauces. Smith describes many sauces in Central Texas barbecue as "bland" compared to the flavor of the meats themselves.[3] The sauce is typically thinner and less sweet than other barbecue sauce, such as the sauce made in the South Texas or Kansas City styles (which rely heavily on molasses, sugar, and corn syrup to provide thickness and sweetness).

Central Texas was settled by German and Czech settlers in the mid-19th century. They brought with them European-style meat markets, which would smoke leftover cuts of pork and beef, often with high heat, primarily using native oak and pecan. The European settlers did not think of this meat as barbecue, but the Anglo farm workers who bought it started calling it such, and the name stuck. This style is found in the Barbecue Belt southeast of Austin, with Lockhart as its capital.[citation needed]

Jayne Clark of the USA Today said in 2010 that the "Texas Barbecue Trail" is a "semi-loop" including Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor. Barbecue eateries in this loop, like Louie Mueller Barbecue, are within one hour's drive from Austin, from the northeast to the southeast.[7]

East Texas[edit]

East Texas barbecue is usually chopped and not sliced. It may be made of either beef or pork, and it is usually served on a bun. Griffin Smith, Jr. of Texas Monthly described East Texas barbecue as an "extension" of barbecue served in the Southern United States and said that beef and pork appear equally in the cuisine. He also said that the "finest manifestations" of the East Texas style are found in restaurants operated by African-Americans. Unlike other versions of Southern barbecue, Texas barbecue does not include cole slaw.[2]

Smith further described East Texas barbecue as "still basically a sandwich product heavy on hot sauce."[3] In his writings, Smith also explains a theory regarding the origins of East Texas barbecue's heavily sauced and chopped style. According to the theory, the barbecue was originally an African-American method for handling poor-quality cuts of meat, as African-Americans were unable to receive higher quality cuts of meat. Thus, hot sauce was emphasized in the cuisine, as it covered the flavor of poorer cuts of meat.[3]

East Texas style often uses cuts such as pork shoulder and pork ribs. They are indirectly slow-smoked, usually over hickory wood. The sauce is tomato-based, sweet, and thick.

East Texas barbecue is the most common urban barbecue in Texas, spread by African-Americans when they settled in big cities like Houston and Dallas.[citation needed]

Other styles[edit]

West Texas barbecue, sometimes also called "cowboy style," traditionally used a more direct heat method than other styles. It is generally cooked over mesquite, with goat and mutton in addition to beef.[citation needed]

However, this traditional style has become harder to find in West Texas. (In fact, arguably the most famous example of West Texas barbecue, the Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que chain, began in Central Texas).[8][unreliable source?]

The Texas Panhandle generally offers a style of barbecue similar to Central Texas barbecue. However, Panhandle style features the frequent inclusion of onion rings as a side dish and apricot puree as a condiment, usually intended to be spread on Texas toast.

Barbecue in the border area between the South Texas Plains and Northern Mexico is mostly influenced by Mexican cuisine. Historically, this area was the birthplace of the Texas ranching tradition. Often, Mexican farmhands were partially paid for their work in less desirable cuts of meat, such as the diaphragm, from which fajitas are made, and the cow's head. It is the cow's head which defines South Texas barbecue (called barbacoa). The head would be wrapped in wet maguey leaves and buried in a pit with hot coals for several hours, after which the meat would be pulled off for barbacoa tacos. The tongue would also be used to make lengua tacos. Today, barbacoa is mostly cooked in an oven in a bain-marie.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b San Antonio, Austin, & the Hill Country. New York: Fodor's. 2008. p. 151. ISBN 978-1-4000-0718-9. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Smith, Jr., Griffin (1973). Texas Monthly. p. 38. ISSN 0148-7736. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Smith, Jr., Griffin (1973). Texas Monthly. p. 40. ISSN 0148-7736. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d Walsh, Robb (2002). Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-8118-2961-8. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Walsh, Robb (2000-08-24). "The Art of Smoke". Houston Press. Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  6. ^ a b "By Meat Alone". The New Yorker. 2008-11-24. Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  7. ^ Clark, Jayne (2010-05-27). "Hot on the trail of some smokin' Texas barbecue". Usatoday.Com. Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  8. ^ "Sam's Bar-B-Que (Midland) | Full Custom Gospel BBQ". 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2015-11-17.