Smokehouse culture is an obsession in the Lone Star State, whether you like your meat sliced thick onto butcher paper, doused with sauce or eaten straight out of the barbeque pit.

Make no bones about it: Texas barbeque is an obsession. It is the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, from national press to regional favourite Texas Monthly. Some of central Texas’s smaller towns – Lockhart and Elgin, to name only two – maintain perennial reputations for their smokehouse cultures and routinely draw dedicated pilgrims from miles around.

No self-respecting Texan would agree with another about who has the best barbeque, since that would take the fun out of it. However you like it – sliced thick onto butcher paper, slapped on picnic plates, doused with a tangy sauce or eaten right out of the smokehouse barbeque pit – be sure to savour it… and then argue like a true Texan that your choice is the best.

Most people agree on the basics: slow cooking over a low-heat wood fire. A cooking time of 12 to 16 hours is not unheard of -- anything less and you are just too impatient -- and at someplace like Joe Allen's Barbecue in Abilene, it is more like 18. All that time allows the meat to be infused with a rich smoky flavour, usually hickory or pecan in the eastern part of the state, oak in central Texas and mesquite out west.

The meat
Texas barbeque leans heavily toward beef, a logical outgrowth of the state’s cattle industry. The most common is beef brisket -- with a combination of patience, experience and skill, a seasoned pit boss can transform this notoriously tough meat into a perfectly smoked, tender slab of heaven. Carnivores seeking a more toothy challenge can indulge in beef ribs – huge meaty racks that would do Fred Flintstone proud. If you need to stay presentable, think twice about the ribs. They tend to be a full-contact eating experience.

The noble pig makes an appearance in the form of succulent ribs like those at Country Tavern in Kilgore, and occasionally appears as chops or sliced loin. In recent years, chicken has shown up on the menu boards, mainly to provide beginners with a non-hoofed barnyard option. If there is something more unusual on the menu, such as barbequed boar or venison, we suggest you go for it. There is usually a good reason for a chef breaking from tradition.

Every self-respecting barbeque joint will also serve sausage. Texas hot links, the peppery sausage of regional renown, is created with ground pork and beef, combined with pungent spices. Because of variations in the meat mix, the seasonings and the cooking method, sausages are incredibly unique, and almost everyone claims theirs are the best. The President of the United States once had Lockhart’s Blacks Barbecue flown to Washington, DC, to be served at the Smithsonian.

The rub
Everyone knows that the word “barbeque” is usually followed by the word “sauce”. But the other key component is the rub, which seasons the meat before it is cooked. There are wet rubs and dry rubs. A dry rub is a mixture of salt, pepper, herbs and spices sprinkled over or painstakingly pressed into the meat before cooking. A wet rub is created by adding liquid, such as oil, vinegar, lemon juice or even mustard. Applied like a paste, a wet rub seals in the meat’s natural juices before cooking. This key step is just as important as the slow cooking for getting the flavour just right.

The sauce
Wisdom about barbeque sauce varies widely from region to region and joint to joint. There is huge debate over what kind, how much or whether you need it at all. In Lockhart, Kreuz Market’s meat is served without any sauce at all, and it is so naturally juicy and tender that it is not necessary. But excellent sauce-heavy barbeque is divine as well. Stubb’s Barbecue in Austin has made quite a venture of selling its signature sauce.

Side dishes naturally take second place to the platters of smoked meat. Restaurant-style sides usually include pinto beans, potato salad or coleslaw, while markets sometimes opt for simpler accompaniments like onion slices, dill pickles, cheese slices or tomatoes. Of course, if sides are what you are looking for, there is always Willy Ray's Bar-B-Q in Beaumont, which offers “thirteen freshly made side dishes everyday”. Try them all –but maybe not all at one sitting.

The first question that comes to most people’s mind is, “How do I eat this without making a mess?” You cannot. Barbeque is a messy venture; accepting that fact early on will allow you to enjoy your meal.

Whether you eat with your hands or a fork depends on the cut of the meat. Brisket and sausage are fork dishes, while ribs are often eaten caveman-style, with your hands. (It also depends on the restaurant. Kreuz Market does not offer forks. As the owner famously says, “God put two of them at the end of your arms.”)

As far as dress code goes, do not wear white – or yellow, or pink, or anything that will not camouflage or coordinate with red. At 99% of barbeque restaurants (the exception being the more artisanal, nouveau ’cue places like Smoke in Dallas), you will see the most casual of casual attire, including jeans (harder to stain) and shorts, and maybe even some trucker hats.

A final thought on etiquette. If you are at a restaurant that uses a dry rub and you do not see any sauce, it is probably best not to ask. It would be a bit like asking for tomato sauce to put on your steak.


The article 'A user’s guide to Texas barbecue' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.