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What Is Texas Barbecue?
Texas barbecue refers to the segment of Texan cuisine that specializes in grilled and smoked meats, as well as the many side dishes that traditionally accompany them. Beef brisket and various pork products are considered the state specialty. In some instances, Texas-style barbecue has merged with another state mainstay, Tex-Mex cuisine. It's quite plausible to find a barbecue restaurant that offers tacos alongside spare ribs and brisket sandwiches.
A Brief History of Texas Barbecue
Texas BBQ traces its origins to German and Czech immigrants who settled in the state in the mid-nineteenth century. German and Czech communities took hold in central Texas in the region between Austin and San Antonio. In fact, some Texas towns like Fredericksburg maintain a heavy German character to this day.
The central European traditions of these immigrants placed a heavy emphasis on meats and sausages. These were sold fresh in markets, but the merchants were aware that meat could be preserved far longer if it was smoked. They began smoking and slow cooking meats that did not promptly sell, and the rich, smoky flavor of these meats became desirable in and of itself.
Over time, the popularity of barbecued meat spread throughout the state, and while central Texas remains its epicenter, you can easily find BBQ joints from Tyler in the east to El Paso in the west, to say nothing of big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio.
4 Styles of Texas Barbecue
Any Texas pitmaster will tell you that there isn't one single style of Texas barbecue. Texans from all over the state have their own distinctive preferences, which is why a barbecue joint or smokehouse in Austin's Hill Country might serve something very different from a BBQ stand in Laredo. As a general rule, there are four main styles of Texas barbecue:
- Central Texas barbecue: This is where Texas barbecue began. Central Texas BBQ generally has a very simple dry rub—usually just salt and pepper—but certain pitmasters have proprietary rubs. The meat is smoked for many hours at low temperatures, typically over mesquite, pecan, or oak wood. The meat rarely comes on sandwiches—it's usually presented on a plate or on a piece of butcher paper—although white bread may be served as a side dish.
- East Texas barbecue: Like Central Texas BBQ, East Texas BBQ involves slow smoking via indirect heat. However, East Texas BBQ is known for its "falling off the bone" quality, which means very long cooking times, almost always over hickory wood, which grows readily in the state. It tends to come marinated in a sweet tomato-based sauce. Beef and pork are equally popular in East Texas—including pulled pork, which is not a Texas original but has taken hold in the state. Both pulled pork and beef brisket are served on a bun with pickles and hot sauce.
- South Texas barbecue: This style features a sweet sauce, but unlike the tomato-based sauce of East Texas, it favors a molasses-based barbecue sauce that locks in moisture from the meat. South Texas barbecue is heavily intertwined with Mexican cuisine, and it is regionally known as barbacoa. It often features cuts of meat such as tongue and cow's head.
- West Texas barbecue: Unlike other varieties of Texas barbecue, the West Texas style is traditionally cooked over the direct heat of an open flame. This makes it most like traditional grilling as opposed to smoking. West Texas barbecue is specifically associated with mesquite wood, as mesquite is one of the few tree species that thrive in the arid West Texas climate.
What Are Common Texas Barbecue Side Dishes?
The Texas barbecue experience goes beyond grilled and smoked meats. Nearly all of the best BBQ joints in the state offer a wide array of side dishes to complete the meal, which include:
- White bread
- Potato salad
- Sliced onion
These dishes complement the smoky flavors of beef ribs and brisket, pulled pork, sausage, and chicken. Together—with perhaps a cold beer and a little live music in the background—they comprise the full Lone Star BBQ experience.
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