Central Texas BBQ
To Texans, few topics are taken as seriously as high school football, their state pride and BBQ. Don’t believe me? Just ask a group of Texans who makes the best brisket and watch the ensuing debate.
While most Americans think Texas has only one style of BBQ, it is not true. Texas is the second largest state geographically and has many influences from settlers of different ethnicities. Texas’s BBQ is diverse and developed into four smaller yet distinct regions over time.
EAST TEXAS: Either pork or beef, usually chopped and served as a sandwich. Heavily influenced by the eastern and southern BBQ states.
WEST TEXAS: Resembles grilling, but is primarily characterized by more tender pieces over direct heat.
SOUTH TEXAS: Influenced by Mexican traditions, can be beef, pig or goat. Very similar to traditional barbacoa.
CENTRAL TEXAS: What most people think of when they think Texas BBQ. Heavily centered around beef and long, indirect cooking methods.
For this article, we’ll focus on the is Central Texas region. The central region is loosely defined as the area north of San Antonio, south of Dallas, west of Houston and east of Midland. I could, for the sake of this topic, easily label Central Texas BBQ as beef brisket and call it a day; but Central Texas BBQ has a deep history, a clearly defined main menu and a traditional cooking method. To only talk about beef brisket and ignore the other aspects would give you an incomplete viewpoint. Further, it would cheat you out of a great deal of information within the American culinary scene.
Central Texas BBQ style developed slowly in the 19th century along what is called the Chisholm Trail between San Antonio and Kansas. This is the route ranchers would drive their cattle from their fields to the meatpacking houses in the north. This trail became home to small pop-up towns, like Taylor and Lockhart, where German and other European settlers came to take advantage of the trail’s traffic.
In the early days the local BBQ joint was first and foremost the local butcher. They would slaughter and butcher the steer into workable pieces to sell to their customers. Whatever they couldn’t sell they needed to find a way to use or chance losing profit. With hours of smoke, the toughest and least desirable cut of meats could be turned into valuable commodities. They would then sell pieces of the cooked meat by the pound wrapped in butcher paper to their customers. This simple need to utilize the undesirable pieces was the birth of what we know as Central Texas BBQ – it was out of necessity that sausage and brisket became staple ingredients.
Today, most of the great BBQ spots in the area close around 5:00 p.m. or when they run out of food. Since butcher’s shops were the original BBQ joints and only open limited store hours, many of these traditions were adopted by the BBQ joints of today. Inside of today’s restaurants you won’t find fancy tables and servers. If you want food, you get in line! Central Texas is cafeteria-style. In more traditional shops, you still pay by the pound. Ask the pit master for sauce, he’ll look at you with disappointment and tell you with only a glance that the brisket is juicy and flavorful and doesn’t need it. However, there is sauce located on a counter somewhere in the darker regions by the napkins, sweet tea and utensils.
THE COOKING METHOD:
Central Texas BBQ is about cooking tough pieces of meats slowly until they are tender and still juicy. The best method for this is indirect at low temperatures. In the early days this was done over a pit where the meat was hung or set to the side of it. Today, it has developed into elaborate smokers where the fire is the main source of heat as well as the flavor driver. A fire is built with indigenous post oak, mesquite or hickory, and maintained at a low temperature for hours, allowing the meat to absorb the natural smoke flavor as well as break down the tough connective tissues. There is no set time to cook the meat per pound or temperature. Rather, it is cooked until the desired flavor, bark and tenderness has been achieved. You’ll often see pit masters wrapping the meat once it has reached the correct color and smoke levels during the cooking process. This allows the meat to continue to be cooked to the desired tenderness without over doing it on charring.
- COOKING: Indirect low temperatures with a normal range of between 225–300F
- RUBS: Every pit master will have their secret rubs for the different meats. But they all include two seasonings salt and black pepper. Salt is integral in bark development, helping to pull out moisture from the meat and create a tacky surface for the smoke to attach to.
- WOOD / SMOKE: They use oak, mesquite and hickory the most. All are local hardwood that burns nice and long with a strong flavor the beef can stand up to.
- Brisket: Anywhere from 12–18 hours
- Ribs (pork): 9–12 hours
- Sausage: 1–3 hours
- TEXAS TOURNIQUET: A technique of wrapping the piece of meat during the cooking process once a desired color and smoke has been reached to help maintain the moisture while it finishes the cooking process. It can be foil or butcher paper.
THE MAIN MENU:
You can’t begin to discuss Central BBQ without identifying the Holy Trinity – what the pit masters call the three main meats every Central BBQ joint is judged on. On my exploration into Austin I was lucky enough to spend time in the back with Franklin’s pit master and asked what I should try. Without hesitation he replied “Well, the Holy Trinity, of course.”
- Beef brisket: The main meat in Central Texas BBQ. It is the large, tough and fibrous piece of meat from the lower front end of the steer. This would be the pectoral muscle on a person. Characterized by a deep mahogany bark, secret rubs and a smoke ring (pink circle just under the surface).
- Sausage: This is another point of distinction for Central Texas BBQ – it is not as prevalent in any other region. A piece from the German heritage in this region, the sausage is a way to use scraps and not throw away profits. Most places will have their own recipes, some over 100 years old. It’s not uncommon to find cornmeal in the older recipes as it would have been a filler. Common profiles include:
- Hot links – a small dark spicy sausage
- Ribs: They can be beef or pork, but the ribs that the pit master are usually talking about are pork ribs. You will find beef ribs at many joints, but sometimes as a special and not a daily item.
- Sauce: Closely resembles a Memphis-style sauce, a thinner tomato-based sauce with vinegar and a little heat. These are afterthoughts and never put on the meat prior to serving. But if eating in front of the pit master, use at your own risk.
- Sides: Sides may vary, but these are at most locations in one form or another.
- Mac & cheese
- Baked beans, traditionally pinto, very often with meat
- Texas twinke (brisket stuffed jalapeño’s found in Dallas region)
- Potato salad
The fact that America has so many different styles of BBQ and the recent plethora of contest and TV shows devoted to the topic is a testament to how powerful of a trend American regional BBQ has become. Our job as developers is to understand consumers and deliver on their expectations. We deliver by capturing and using the characteristics that define a specific product, region or flavor as we create new concepts. Understand and use the fact that when Americans think Texas BBQ, they will conjure images of Central Texas with large, juicy, mahogany-colored brisket, links of smoked sausage and tender racks of ribs to develop around it.
Harness this love for Texas BBQ and combine it with what few characteristics define and mold it. Some areas of Central Texas BBQ are unyielding, where others have moderate room for interpretation. For example, if they don’t have beef brisket and sausage on the menu, then they aren’t a Central Texas BBQ joint. However, the smoke used, sauce recipes and sides can vary greatly. Understanding what liberties you have and can take are vital as you develop any new product.
Looking to strike with upcoming trends? Let Asenzya help you explore and discover what your next product needs. To talk to one of our team members, please contact us here.
Locations visited for the field research portion of this classic American trend listed below.
- HARD EIGHT
- PECAN LODGE
- LOUIE MUELLER’S (The Chapel of smoke)