hide captionA 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.
Henry Polmer for NPR
About The Author
Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She also hosts the Kitchen Window podcast. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, is out in stores. You can find more information at bonnywolf.com.
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.
After seven years of experimenting in Texas, my husband became our home pitmaster. He rules a large Weber kettle and would prefer to use all mesquite wood. For expediency, though, he often uses a mixture of wood and charcoal briquettes. Don't worry if the meat looks black on the outside. It will be delicious.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
10- to 12-pound boneless whole beef brisket, untrimmed*
Salt and pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper the whole brisket and rub with Worcestershire sauce. Turn fat side up, make cuts all over the top with a sharp knife and insert slivers of garlic.
Soak four handfuls of mesquite (pecan or hickory are fine) wood chunks or chips.
Place 30 charcoal briquettes on each side of the grill and light. When the coals are white-hot, lay a handful of soaked wood chips on each side and place the meat, fat side up, in the middle of the rack above the fire. No flame should touch the meat. The coals should remain on the sides of the grill only. Cover the grill.
After an hour, add 7 briquettes per side. An hour later, add 5 more to each side. Add a handful of soaked wood each time you add briquettes.
Leave another 4 hours to slow-cook.
Remove the meat from the grill, trim the fat completely and cut against the grain with a sharp knife.
*You may have to order this from a butcher since most briskets are trimmed of fat. A trimmed brisket will be tough and overcooked. You need the fat. It's also important to use a whole brisket. Two smaller ones will cook too fast.
Real Texas Barbecue Sauce
Texas barbecue is not cooked with sauce. That comes later. The sweet-and-sour, ketchup-based sauce is served with the meat and poured over it.
Makes 2 cups
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup dark mustard
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon celery seed
Hot sauce to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and stir in garlic and onion. Cook until wilted.
In a separate bowl, combine the ketchup, mustard, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Mix well. Add to the garlic-and-onion mixture and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.
Add cumin and celery seed. Taste for seasoning and simmer for 25 minutes.
Like the meat, these beans cook for a long time. They also need overnight soaking.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 bags (16 ounces each) dry pinto beans
4 bay leaves
20 peppercorns tied in cheesecloth
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
Salt, to taste
Pick over the beans, place in a bowl and cover with water. Soak overnight.
Drain beans, put them in a large saucepan and cover with fresh water by an inch. Bring to a boil. Add bay leaves, peppercorns and oil. Lower to simmer and cook for an hour, covered. Add oregano and salt to taste, and simmer uncovered for 2 more hours.
If beans lack flavor, remove some of the liquid, and add salt and a little more oil. Simmer for another 15 minutes or so.
I don't know where the name comes from. It's a big cake, and Texas is a big state, so maybe that's it. This is an easy, brownie-like cake. Also good for children's birthday parties.
Makes 20 to 24 servings
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup water
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Frosting (recipe follows)
1 cup chopped pecans (optional but very Texan)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Butter a 15.5-by-10.5-inch baking sheet with sides.
Combine butter, water and cocoa in a saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring occasionally.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix together flour, sugar, salt and baking soda. Remove butter mixture from heat and add to dry ingredients. (Don't clean pot. You'll use it for the frosting.) Blend well. Add sour cream, eggs and vanilla. Blend again.
Pour into pan and bake 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, make the frosting. Pour the frosting on the hot cake and spread. Sprinkle with chopped nuts, if desired.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 box (1 pound) confectioners' sugar, sifted
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
6 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients in saucepan and heat, stirring until smooth. The frosting will be thick. It softens on the hot cake.