Dallas has much to be proud of in its burgeoning food scene — Southern and Tex Mex alongside more diverse cuisines, like Vietnamese, Cajun, Japanese, and French — but visitors to the city would be remiss not to eat the state’s most well-known dish. One simply can’t escape Dallas without a whiff of smoke and meat from the city’s many legendary barbecue hotspots.
The true heroes of Texas barbecue are the pitmasters. Tending the fire, recognizing the best cuts of meat, and knowing how to prepare them all amount to a combination of art and a science, skills that take pitmasters years to cultivate. Texas is the state perhaps most synonymous with barbecue in the country, so no matter how long you’re in town for, it’s best to go have at least a working knowledge of the topic and technique.
In other parts of the country you might find pork or chicken on the BBQ menu, but Texas is all about the beef — it’s cattle country for a reason. Brisket in particular is a quintessential Texas menu item. But, according to Mike Albrecht of BrisketU — a weekend barbecuing class taught in Austin, Houston, and College Station, Texas — it’s also one of the most difficult meats to master.
Although brisket is a beloved cut of meat to Texans today, it wasn’t always that way. Pre-1950s, brisket was the cut of the cow given to Texas ranch hands to eat, while more tender steaks when to the main house. Over time, they learned how to slow cook it — about an hour per pound — over low heat to make it not only edible, but enjoyable. Albrecht, who helps turn amateurs into blossoming pitmasters with his classes, offers his top three tips to knowing your way around a plate of brisket (for more than that, you’ll have to take his class). The commandments of brisket:
Don’t fear the fat
“We have a saying — fat is flavor,” Mike explains. That means you shouldn’t fret when you see it on the plate right there in the middle of your meat. Brisket with the most full-bodied flavor will have marbled fat throughout. That fat renders as it cooks and give the brisket its savoriness, plus keeps it from drying out. Be warned: sometimes inexperienced barbecuers will choose a piece of meat with a layer of fat along the outside of the cut, and then apply the spices there. When that arrives on your plate, you’ll likely cut the visible chunk of fat off, and, with it, the seasoning — that’s a big barbecue no-no.
It’s the pits
“You want someone to cook your meat in a pit that’s been well seasoned and that has an offset smoker,” Mike says, though you can’t necessarily spot that when you walk into a restaurant. “If you’re smelling the wood smoke, that’s going to give you an idea.” So trust your nose on this one.
Keep it simple
“If someone leaves your restaurant complimenting the barbecue sauce, you’ve failed,” Mike says. It’s not really about the sauce in true Texas barbecue — it’s about the meat. Restaurants that really know what they’re doing will sometimes just do what’s called a dalmatian rub, coarse salt and coarse ground pepper — and that’s it. “Some of the best places in Texas just use that,” he says. “The meat is just really tasty.”