What a typical Texas Barbecue dish looks like. Courtesy Toronto Life

Anthropology: A Look At Some of the Foods In Texas Barbecue

The United States is the land of barbecue. This style of cooking is an integral part of U.S. cuisine and culture. And out of all the regions in the country, the Southern United States is the core area for barbecue. The main barbecue states of the South are Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. While barbecue does exist outside of this area, the popular foods and barbecue restaurants originate from the South. In fact, American barbecue is said to have originally started in the South.

Even though Southern barbecue might seem simple at face value, the style is much more complex. Southern barbecue has become its own subculture with wide ranging varieties. One state is known for spice, another will have the corner on beef brisket. Some states even prepare ribs differently. All of this variety creates a cuisine in which a plethora of smoked meats are prepared in their own unique way. That’s the reason why Southern barbecue gained its famous reputation.

For the purposes of this article, only one style of Southern barbecue will be covered. And that style comes from the longhorn state of Texas. How come? Because, as the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas. That can only mean Texas has the biggest barbecue food in all of the U.S. Before we begin, let’s look at the method and history of Southern barbecue.


The roots of American barbecue date back to Spanish conquistadors bringing up Caribbean cooking styles from down south. The indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered on the island named Hispaniola used a method of cooking meat over indirect flame. The Spanish referred to this new cooking method as barboca. As the Spanish explorers moved north, they brought the cooking technique with them. Barbecue spread throughout the American colonies, eventually reaching as far north as Virginia.

A black and white photo showing a man barbecuing meat over a fire pit
A contemporary photo showing the slow cooking process. Courtesy Afroculnaria

The variation in Southern barbecue comes from colonial immigrants. People coming from different European countries had their own way of flavouring and preparing meat. For example, the practise of adding sauce to meat as it cooks came from British colonists. These colonists paired the idea of basting to preserve meat juices with the Caribbean barbecue method. In South Carolina, French and German immigrants introduced a mustard-based sauce. German influences soon reached Texas; these settlers applied the Carolina techniques to beef.

Cooking Method

As you may have guest, barbecue involves cooking meat over a fire. Overall, barbecuing is a slow process. Sometimes, meat is barbecued for half a day, even up to 24 hours. Only larger cuts of meat are barbecued.

It’s important not to mix up barbecuing with grilling. Grilling uses direct heat: cooking meat directly over a heat source. Small cuts of meat like steaks and hot dogs work best for grilling. Grilling also has a shorter cooking time.

Here are two common barbecuing methods.

Indirect cooking

Chicken wings and drumsticks  cooked over indirect heat on a barbecue
An example of indirect cooking. The chicken is placed away from the heat. Courtesy Weber Grills.

Indirect cooking is and it’s incredibly easy technique. One side of the barbecue is lit while the other side remains unlit. The meat is placed on the unlit side. While the meat cooks, barbecue lid is left closed. Indirect cooking is much slower but require less attention. And if you plan on dressing your ribs or chicken with a sugary sauce (like honey or barbecue sauce), this method will do the job. Sugar-rich marinades burn the meat before it’s fully cooked; this commonly happens with direct grilling. Using indirect cooking to barbecue your honey garlic chicken is the perfect solution to this problem.


Ribs being cooked using the smoking process.
An example of smoking meat. Courtesy MasterClass

This method involves cooking meat over a wood fire. That way, the meat gains a flavourful woody taste and texture. Two popular kinds of wood are mesquite and hickory. You’ll find most Southern barbecue styles using mesquite or hickory. Traditionally, Hickory is the more popular out of the two woods. It works well with pork, red meat, poultry, and fish. Mesquite is the go to for beef.

Outside of Hickory and Mesquite, maple wood adds a sweet flavour to the meat. Wood chips from apple or cherry trees give a fruity kick to the meat.

A note of caution: not all types of wood are recommended for barbecuing. Some wood release harmful substances into the food. As a rule of thumb, don’t use wood if you are unsure of its source.

Texas Barbecue

Now on to Texas barbecue. In Texas, barbecue is more than just a meal. It has become a cultural institution. In any Texas town, you’ll find a barbecue restaurant. Texas barbecue gets even more specific according to region. Central, South, East, and West Texas all have their own characteristics. Some prefer sauce, others spice. Each has their own preferences for wood. But when it comes down to it, Texas barbecue is known for beef, wood-burning, lots of sauce, and the dry rub. One commonality is the use of large smokers to slow-cook meat.

Here are some of the foods you can expect from a typical Texas barbecue dish.

Main Items

Beef Brisket

Several cuts of beef brisket. The cuts reveal the tender quality of the meat.
Beef brisket owes its popularity to its tenderness and crisp bark. Courtesy Bon Appetite

This is the essential meat in Texas barbecue. Beef brisket might also be the most popular part of Texas barbecue.

Brisket comes from a cow’s breast or lower chest. The meat contains a lot of connective tissue, which means it needs a slow and low heat cooking process. The average cooking time is 12 hours. Some cooking times reach 20-24 hours.That way, the connective tissue turns into tender meat. After the meat is cooked, the brisket is left to cool, marinating in its own juices to get optimal flavor.

A dry rub of salt and various spices is added to the meat. This dry rub creates the crisp dark coating of the brisket. This is called bark. Depending on the dry rub, the bark can taste salty or spicy. To add further taste, hickory smoke is used during the slow cooking process. Once the beef brisket has been fully cooked, the meat should be fork tender. The outside should have a crisp bark.

The tenderness and crispy bark of Beef Brisket is what makes it so popular. It melts right in your mouth.

Beef Short Ribs

An example of beef short ribs. The tender meat is almost falling off the bone
The meat on beef short ribs falls right off the bone. Courtesy ProQ Smoker

Short ribs are cut from the lower portion of a cow’s rib cage. They often have a layer of fat-mixed meat sitting on top. A dry rub is added to the ribs. There are countless dry rub recipes, some with a variety of spices. But a simple salt and pepper concoction can do the job.

Like beef brisket, beef short ribs are cooked low and slow: under low heat and for a long time. Another similarity between the two is that short ribs are tough pieces of meat. Therefore, a slow cooking time is needed to turn that meat tender. Once the ribs are cooked, a healthy portion of sauce can be added to the top. Or the ribs are left as is. It all depends where you are in Texas. The ultimate goal is for the meat to fall right off the bone.

Dr Pepper Ribs

An example of Dr Pepper ribs. The photo shows the sweet and sticky Dr Pepper glaze.
Dr Pepper ribs are sweet and savoury, but also quite messy. Courtesy Hey Grill, Hey.

A Texas specialty, Dr Pepper ribs is a variation of the classic beef short ribs. These ribs are glazed with Dr Pepper soda. The result is a sweet, sticky, spicy and messy meat. For Texans, Dr Pepper ribs are just as good as traditional beef short ribs.


Together with beef brisket and ribs, sausage makes up the holy trinity of Texas barbecue. No Texas barbecue meal is complete without these three meats.

Several links of Texas barbecue sausage.
The sausage in Texas barbecue has its roots from German, Czech, and Polish settlers.

The sausage used in Texas barbecue has its roots from European settlers, namely German, Czech, and Polish. The kind served at barbecue joints are either kielbasa or klobasa: thick, horseshoe shaped sausages made of coarse-ground meat and spices. Texas barbecue sausages are typically beef based, but sometimes pork is added. The spices are fairly common: salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Most barbecue restaurants offer two kinds of sausage: spicy and regular. However, the flavour of the sausage comes from the smoking process. Like the brisket and ribs, Texans slow cook their sausages to achieve that delicious flavour.


Ranch-Style Beans

Ranch-style beans consist of pinto beans drenched in chili gravy. Pinto beans are similar to baked beans but do not have the sweet flavour. Chili gravy is the hallmark of ranch-style beans. The gravy includes garlic, onion, chili powder, cumin, paprika, and several other spices. This mixture gives the beans a bold, zesty, and spicy kick.

A bowl of ranch style beans with shredder cheese on top.
Ranch style beans are a spicy side dish. Courtesy The Seasoned Mom

This side dish has been a stable of Texas barbecue since 1872. Ranch style beans can be found as a side of any brisket, rib, or sausage meal in Texas. They also complement Tex-Mex dishes like enchiladas and tacos. These beans also serve as a main dish with rice, cheese, and other toppings. You can make your own version of ranch-style beans; several homemade recipes can be found online. Or you can buy prepared beans in a can. Whatever the case may be, Ranch Style Beans are sure to fill your hungry tummy.


Coleslaw is a common side for any barbecue meal. It’s tangy flavour and creamy texture goes perfectly with a steak and a side of fries. Texans pair coleslaw with almost everything: brisket, chicken, ribs, fried chicken, or fish. Coleslaw is even used as a topping for sandwiches or tacos.

A bowl of coleslaw.
Texas coleslaw is a creamy and savoury dish. Courtesy Taste

Coleslaw consists of shredded cabbage and carrot mixed with a dressing, usually a combination of mayonnaise, vinaigrette, and sour cream. Texas coleslaw will include mustard, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and other spices in the recipe. For those with a sweet tooth, sugar and fruit can be added.


An example of Texas cornbread. The peppers and onions are visible near the top of the bread.
Texas cornbread has a zesty taste. Courtesy Tasty Kitchen

Cornbread is a fixture in America, on all points of the compass. But it is the Southern style of cornbread that has achieved the greatest popularity.

Cornbread consists of cornmeal mixed with either sugar or molasses and egg. The result is a crumbly, buttery, cake like bread. Throughout the Southern U.S. one can catch the aroma of fresh cornbread baking in the oven. Texas-style cornbread puts a spin on this staple. Chili peppers, onions, and other spices are added for a zesty taste. Cheese can also be added into the bread mix. Lastly, many Texans bake cornbread in cast-iron skillet, creating a large crisp, buttery and zesty bread.


Texas Peach Cobbler

Like other Southern states, Texas loves peach cobbler for dessert. Peach cobbler is made up of fruit filling poured into a large baking dish which is then covered with batter. The crust should be nice and thick. Whipped cream or ice cream is usually eaten with the cobbler.

An example of Texas peach cobbler. The peaches and batter are evenly dispersed in the pan.
In Texas, peach cobbler, the batter is poured before the peaches. Courtesy Just A Pinch

In Texas, peach cobbler is prepared differently. Texans pour the batter in the pan before the peaches. This method gives the eater a more even bite; some of the batter seeps up to the top during baking. It’s another example of Texas doing things their own unique way, adding a new spin on a classic Southern dish.

Other Items

Texas-style Barbecue Sauce

A jar of Texas-style barbecue. The sauce's texture highlights its tangy taste.
Texas style barbecue sauce has a tangy and sweet taste. Courtesy Countryside Cravings.

Barbecue sauce is a common sauce to go along with grilled meat. Almost every household in the U.S. has a bottle of their favourite type. Texas barbecue sauce is tomato-based sauce noted for its vinegar tanginess and faint sweetness from a combination of brown sugar and molasses. To top it all off, the sauce packs a peppery kick, which comes from spices like cayenne pepper.

The thin, tangy, and zesty Texas-style barbecue sauce is the perfect condiment for your brisket, ribs, and sausage.

A Unique Barbecue

The Southern United States is the land of barbecue. Even though barbecue restaurants exist all over America, the best ones are usually found down South. Whether it be the Carolinas, Tennessee, or Kansas, you’re sure to find hundreds of delicious regional barbecue dishes.

The great state of Texas has its own unique approach to barbecue. Texas barbecue is characterized by beef, dry rubs, sauce, wood fires, and low and slow cooking. And in the tradition of Texas, everything is done bigger. As with any regional cuisine, there are bound to be differences and variations. However, this article lists some of the typical items you can expect from Texas barbecue. From the brisket and ribs to the cornbread and coleslaw, Texas barbecue is in a class by itself.

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