Being from Texas, the word “BBQ” means more than just a few burgers sizzling over a charcoal-fueled grill on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Barbecue is sacred. It’s a way of life. For me, it’s a creative outlet similar to how a painter expresses themself, but instead of pencils, paints, and sketch pads, my medium is wood, fire, and smoke, and my canvas is various cuts of hand-butchered meat.
My grandfather started his first BBQ business in the early 1960s in a small shack outside Austin, TX. Fast forward to today, the legacy continues. Featured on many television shows and in national magazines, you could say my family made it in the BBQ business.
Growing up surrounded by savvy BBQ entrepreneurs allowed me to naturally learn how to smoke meats, and eventually, I opened my own BBQ joint. That said, I no longer own this business, but I’ll never forget the overnight cooks under the rural Texas summer stars.
I remember when my assistant pitmaster and I would take turns watching over the cook while the other got some shut-eye. When it was my turn to watch the fire, I would admire the warm glow of the metal firebox and the sounds of crackling wood coming from inside. Eventually, I would fall into a deep meditative state while watching the semi-translucent smoke pour from the stacks, curling into the midnight sky. As rough as it was, it was an experience I’ll forever cherish.
I know not everyone is out here trying to make a name for themselves in the BBQ industry, but if you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in the art of smoking meat. There’s just something special about hosting a backyard summer BBQ for your friends and family. But sometimes, it’s hard to know how and where to get started.
Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years to help make your next barbecue a success.
Ideal Smoker For Texas BBQ
If you’re seeking an authentic end result, you’ll want to source a quality smoker. If you were to ask 100 different people for smoker tips in Texas, you’d get 100 different answers. But a ¼” steel horizontal offset stick (wood) burning smoker is the tried and true way to achieve a good cook.
If you’re just starting out, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a custom pit. It just needs to be well-constructed of quality materials. In fact, you can find affordable smokers at most big-box outdoor living stores or on your local Facebook marketplace (best option). Then, as you begin to learn the craft and decide you want to dive deeper, you can start looking into more expensive options. But, as they say, you have to learn to crawl before you walk.
Perfect Wood For Your Cook
The perfect wood for your cook really depends on what you have available in your area; however, if you are trying to achieve that Central Texas-style BBQ, you’ll want to use seasoned post oak. You can use chunks, logs, or even pellets (if you can find them). For a smaller smoker, chunks are the way to go.
Since BBQ greatly depends on the availability of local resources like wood, the end product varies based on region. So even here in Texas, you’ll get a different outcome depending on what part you’re in. For example, in West Texas, mesquite wood is really all you can get, so that ends up defining the flavor of its barbecue.
Best Meats For Smoking
When it comes to traditional Texas barbecue, there are three staple meats: beef brisket, pork ribs, and German sausage. These meats were injected into Texas culture during the 1800s thanks to Jewish, Czech, and German immigrants. Each cut could have its own dedicated article, but I will try and hit the basics here.
- Beef Brisket: A tougher cut of meat, the brisket comes from the breast or lower chest of a cow. This is arguably one of the most challenging yet rewarding cuts to smoke.
- Pork Spare Ribs: Spare ribs are taken from the belly side of the rib cage just below the section of back ribs above the breast bone. “Spare” comes from the German word “rippspeer,” which refers to racks of meat roasted on a spit.
- German Sausage: Primarily made of coarsely ground beef and pork, all stuffed into a pork or beef casing. Often you can find these flavored with jalapeno and cheese or other traditional Texas ingredients.
You’ll find the above three types of meat on any proper Texas BBQ establishment’s menu. To make your summer backyard BBQ a hit, you should consider offering at least one of the three (or all of them).
How To Smoke A Brisket
Smoking a brisket is hard. It’s very hard. And if this is your first time, don’t get discouraged if your brisket doesn’t turn out how you expected. It takes a lot of practice. And here’s the thing, there’s not a recipe for the perfect brisket, but there are some basic guidelines you can follow.
- Proper Meat: You will want to purchase a “packer” brisket that has a sizeable two-muscle cut with a fat cap. These can range from 11 to 18 pounds. The more marbled the fat is, the better.
- Trim: Trim the fat down on your brisket to about ¼ of an inch all around.
- Season: Use a 1:2 ratio of kosher salt to fresh cracked black pepper to season your meat. Don’t be shy with the seasoning.
- Control Your Fire: Start a fire in the smoker’s firebox and get the BBQ pit temperature up to 225-250 degrees. Use wood to maintain this temperature throughout your cook. Use your pit’s vents for precise control.
- Wrap: Once your brisket has reached an internal temperature of about 165 degrees, pull it and wrap it in butcher paper or foil. Place it back on the pit. This keeps the outside from burning while also retaining moisture.
- Rest: Once your brisket reaches an internal temperature of 195 degrees (11-16 hours), place it in a clean ice chest until you are ready to serve.
- Slice Against the Grain: When you’re ready to serve, be sure to slice against the grain for the best result.
Each smoker is going to cook differently, and outdoor elements, like wind and rain, will also present challenges. This is why it’s essential to know how your smoker cooks. Practice makes perfect.
How To Smoke Pork Spare Ribs
Spare ribs are probably one of the more manageable cuts of meat to smoke and require much less effort. If this is your first time working with BBQ, ribs are the way to go. While you can find hundreds of recipes online, here’s a basic guide to get started:
- Proper Meat: As many quality slabs of spare ribs as needed to feed your crowd
- Remove Membrane: Look under the ribs and remove the thin membrane. You can’t miss it.
- Season: Use a 1:2 mix of kosher salt to fresh cracked black pepper to season your meat.
- Control Your Fire: Start a fire in the smoker’s firebox and get the pit’s temp up to 275 degrees. Use wood to maintain this temperature throughout your cook. Use your pit’s vents for precise control. Place your ribs on the smoker.
- Spritz: Mix a cup of water with ½ a cup of apple cider vinegar. After the first 45 minutes, baste or spritz your ribs with this mixture and continue to do so every 30 to 45 minutes for the next 2.5 hours.
- Wrap: Once your ribs start to turn a deep brown, wrap them in foil after basting one last time. Cook for another one to two hours until tender. You can tell they are ready when the meat shrinks up and reveals the bone.
- Rest: Let the ribs rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Your finished Texas-style ribs should be smokey, tender, and flavorful. If you get these right, you’ll easily thrill your friends and family at your next backyard BBQ. They are best served with a sweet brown sugar-based sauce.
How To Smoke Sausage
Sausage is an easy crowd-pleaser. First, you’ll want to grab some traditional German sausage or one of your favorite local sausages. Then, get your smoker up to around 225 - 240 degrees and smoke them for about 2-3 hours until they reach an internal temperature of around 165 degrees. Lastly, you can slice them up or serve them whole, whatever you prefer.
How to Serve Texas BBQ
Ideally, you would want to serve your BBQ with pickles, sliced onion, and sliced white bread. The sauce is optional, and you’ll often hear people say it ruins the experience; however, it’s a touchy subject and can often actually complement the meat.
When enjoying Texas BBQ, another thing that comes to mind is protecting your eyes from the blazing high noon sun. Being that BBQ forces you to spend upwards of 15 hours outdoors, you’ll definitely want to safeguard your vision from damaging UV rays with a pair of sunglasses.
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