Monday, July 26, 2010

The Texan Food Series: Barbecue

It’s impossible to explore a new place without really indulging in the cuisine culture. Austin is certainly not limited in its possibilities. This will be the first part of a series on the food and drink I’m being introduced to (for the sake of investigatory journalism, of course): Tex Mex, Microbrews, Locovore, Wine, Interior Mexican (but...wait), Cajun/Creole, Gulf Seafood (uhh..what?), and anything else Texas lays claim to. But I suppose I should start with the obvious choice, the Holy Grail of Texas eating: Texan Barbecue.

In Texas in the summer, practically every party I’ve seen includes a barbecue. Grilling is a practical, delicious way to cook for many. True to the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” creed, barbecue is never served properly portioned. Texans claim their barbecue is not only superior, but distinctly different than in various other regions. I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of this one. I’ve been training for this series.

Living in Austin, I have seen restaurants advertised as “vegan or vegetarian-friendly” but when it comes to homemade barbecue, these personal chefs are talking meat. As I understand it, there are 4 main components of a well-done (pun intended) piece of meat:

1. The type. Often in Texas, barbecue references brisket, ribs or smoked ham. We’re also talking burgers, pulled pork, sausage, chicken, hot dogs, seafood, lamb, and steaks joining us for dinner, as Texans happily engage in their carnivoracity. The meat is slow cooked over open flame to give it a discernible “smokey” flavor – which I’ll discuss later.

2. The sauce. They all taste vaguely reminiscent of each other to my nascent barbecue palette - I’ve recently given up being vegetarian – which is of the super yummy varietal. Sauces are typically tomato based and feature about a bagillion different flavors. I am not kidding. Behold, my local grocery store’s “Aisle 6: Barbecue Sauce.”

Apparently Texan barbecue sauce has a distinct regional flavoring, included but not limited to the following flavors: molasses, honey, dry mustard, chili powder, red and black pepper, horseradish, beer, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, and hickory smoke.

3. The rub. Everything from a basic recipe of salt, pepper, dehydrated onion, dehydrated garlic, and paprika or chili-lime, to fancy-pants ones like Rosemary-Ginger and Herbal Mustard. Here is a handy chart that breaks down sauce and rub ingredients by flavor:




Brown or White Sugar
Maple Syrup
Cane Syrup
Hoisin Sauce
Soda (um?)

Lemon Juice
Lime Juice
Tamarind Concentrate
Worcestershire sauce

Chili Powder / Peppers
Curry powder

4. The grilling. Says Reinaldo Finch of The Gourmet Dinner Club,

“While BBQs in general are cooked over searing heat, the secret to grilling (rather smoking) melting soft and succulent Texan barbecues is to cook them slowly over low temperature and indirect heat. The lower the temperature (say, between 200-250 degree F) of the pit/grill, the lesser will be the moisture-loss and so the piece of meat will not get dry. Moreover, the steady and low heat will thoroughly cure the brisket, causing the collagen as well as connective tissues to break down and add to the tenderness of the meat. In fact, it is this prolonged process of cooking (around 6/7 hours) which renders even unusual and more difficult cuts like a brisket, shoulder or ribs, utterly delicious.”

I have never been able to wait for 6-7 hours for food to be done, so I grill at higher heat. He also says the wood burning contributes to the taste:

“Smoke from the hardwoods such as mesquite, pecan, hickory and fruitwoods give the Texan barbecue a typical sweet flavor. Used with charcoal, they increase the food value of Texan BBQs. The much talked-about reddish colored smoke-ring that forms around the internal edge of the meat as a result of a chemical reaction between smoke and air (nitrogen) is another specialty of Texan style barbecues; it is usually considered that the bigger the ring, the greater is its penetrating power and consequently stronger favorable effects on health.”

Food as chemistry! Deliciously nerdy!

There are also countless other things that taste good off a grill including, but not limited to vegetables, fish, shellfish, tofu, cornbread, fruit, kebabs, sandwiches (grilled cheese!), bread, corn, tortillas…of course, this in not strictly Texan in nature, but honestly, once you start thinking about barbecue, the list could go on for awhile. This article in the NYTimes will leave you salivating…I’ve been referencing it for weeks: 101 Fast Recipes for Grilling.

In my opinion? The barbecue here is fantastic and often comes with free live music. And sunshine. What a place! Now, I must go eat.

1 comment:

  1. What is so strange is not just all the varieties of BBQ--everybody knows the flavor and even the sacrificed beasties vary regionally. Georgia BBQ ain't like the ribs in Chicago. But the variety of competing BBQ flavors in Texas alone is a phenomanon that derserves considerable field study. Sacrifice your body for Science, Rach. And take notes!