The 4 Styles Of Texas Barbecue: What is “Texas BBQ?”

Texas barbecue guide

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Everything is bigger in Texas, including our love for good barbecue.

I’ve spent the majority of my life in Texas after moving here when I was 3 years old. I have spent almost a decade competing on the Texas competition barbecue circuits and one thing that I’ve learned is that not all Texas BBQ is created equal.

Texas is 790 miles long and up to 660 miles wide. With that much acreage packed into one state, you will find that not all Texans smoke their meat the same way.

Today I want to talk about the four major styles of Texas barbecue and what makes them unique.

The four styles of Texas BBQ infographic

What is “Texas BBQ”?

If you head out to the Hill Country, you’re going to have a different experience than what you will find down in South Texas.

South Texas shares a border with Mexico, so if you head down closer to the Rio Grande you will find prominent Mexican and Central American influence in the food there. If you head out to the Hill Country, you will find a distinct German and Czech culture. All of those cultures have combined to create Texas cuisine and, especially, Texas barbecue. 

Texas is as much of a melting pot as the United States as a whole, and it shows as you take a tour around the state to the local barbecue joints. There is a lot of misconception about what comprises “Texas BBQ”.

Aaron Franklin holding bbq pork ribs
Texas BBQ is more than just smoked brisket, sausage and ribs

So, what constitutes Texas barbecue? Is it a brisket smoked just like Aaron Franklin? Is it the roadside diner serving up sausage and ribs?

One of the most popular arguments I see in the Texas barbecue community is about what barbecue style is Texan and which isn’t. But they are all correct – they just come from different parts of Texas. 

Just like the regional American barbecue styles of Kansas City, Memphis, and South Carolina, Texas also has regional barbecue styles.

The barbecue joint that you pull up to in East Texas is not going to taste the same as the barbecue joint located in Central Texas. If you head out to the Hill Country, you’re going to have a different experience than what you will find down in South Texas.

birria tacos on a wooden board
You will find traditional Mexican cooking styles in South Texas BBQ

South Texas shares a border with Mexico, so if you head down closer to the Rio Grande you will find prominent Mexican and Central American influence in the food there. If you head out to the Hill Country, you will find a distinct German and Czech culture. All of those cultures have combined to create Texas cuisine and, especially, Texas barbecue. 

There are four main regions when it comes to Texas barbecue and here is a breakdown of each one and what makes them unique.

The four styles of Texas barbecue

1. Central Texas: Where it all began

When most people think of “Texas BBQ”, an image of the Central Texas barbecue style comes to mind.

Imagine a metallic cafeteria tray, covered in butcher paper with an assortment of smoked meats laid out like a BBQ charcuterie board. That is what makes Central Texas barbecue.

The style can be found all over Texas and when “not-Texans” open a barbecue joint, they often mimic this style of presentation.

texas bbq style tray with smoked beef brisket, st louis ribs, ch

Meats are generally sold by the pound and sides are almost an afterthought. You will commonly find meat piled high and a noticeable absence of bread and sauces.

Central Texans are there to showcase the meat in all its glory, the extras just aren’t necessary.

Central Texas barbecue focuses on simple flavors that allow the meat to speak for itself. You will commonly find pitmasters that use nothing but coarse-ground black pepper and kosher salt on their meat.

The emphasis in Central Texas barbecue is on the meat and the wood. Post Oak stands out as the most popular choice of wood in this area, but other types of Oak and Hickory are prevalent as well.

Known for its low and slow style cooking, Central Texas barbecue is world-famous.

Aaron Franklin seasoning brisket
Aaron Franklin is teaching Central Texas style of BBQ

Arguably one of the most famous pitmasters in the country, and definitely the most popular in Central Texas, is Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue.

His brisket is hailed as one of the most perfected barbecue arts in the world and his restaurant regularly attracts a line of people willing to wait for hours just to get a taste of his mind-blowing brisket. 

He is the co-author of the New York Times best-seller Franklin Barbecue and he offers tips and tricks to his barbecue style through his MasterClass. If the epitome of Central Texas barbecue exists, it’s Aaron Franklin.

2. East Texas: Low, slow, & flavorful

Low and slow is the name of the game out in East Texas.

You will find meat that is so tender that it falls right off the bone. Similar to their Central Texas brothers, you will find an abundance of offset-style smokers in East Texas, but you are more likely to see the firebox filled with Hickory or Pecan wood.

offset smoker

The other major difference you will find in East Texas barbecue is the abundant use of spices and marinades.

East Texans like to chop up their meat and serve it on a bun as a sandwich, but when it comes to a preference between pork and beef you won’t find one.

Pulled pork and chopped beef are neck-and-neck in popularity in the East and the low-and-slow cooking will provide a juicy and savory bite.

poring bbq sauce in a tray with pulled pork

You will also find a fair deal of Cajun influence the closer you get to Texas’ neighbor, Louisiana. It’s not uncommon to find boudin sausage and po’ boys on the menu of an East Texas BBQ joint.

If you are looking for some great, East Texas-style barbecue look no further than Gatlin’s BBQ in Houston. They have a menu packed with some of the best barbecue sandwiches on the planet and serve up sides that rival the meat when it comes to flavor.

East Texas barbecue is all about packing the food with flavor, serving it up on a bun, and offering a slew of sauces to accompany it and Gatlin’s really hits the nail on the East Texas barbecue head.

3. South Texas: Mexican influence with a Texas twist

Texas shares a southern border with the country of Mexico, and you can taste it in South Texas barbecue. Most famous for their barbacoa-style of cooking, South Texas barbecue pulls inspiration from both traditional Mexican cooking styles and traditional Texan flair.

smoked beef cheeks barbacoa taco
Smoked Beef Cheeks Barbacoa Tacos

You will commonly find a pitmaster slow cooking in a pit in the ground that is lined with bricks with a large fire at the bottom. The wood of choice in South Texan cuisine is mesquite and once the wood burns down and only coals are left, a layer of leaves is placed directly on the coals with the meat on top.

You will commonly find an entire goat or lamb being cooked, but the most popular way to prepare barbacoa is with the whole head of a cow. This meat will fall right off the bone when cooked right and will provide some of the best tacos you’ve had in your life, guaranteed.

whole lamb on smoker with foil on hams

Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, TX is one of the few remaining traditional South Texas barbecue spots.

They are known for their barbacoa de cabeza (cow’s head) and they still prepare it in the traditional way by burying the meat in an underground pit lined with brick.

They were awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation award in 2020 and they are the only restaurant in the entire state that is permitted by the health department to use the underground method of cooking.

4. Hill Country: Keeping it old school

The Texas Hill Country is a beautiful area that boasts delicious food. Early Czech and German settlers ended up in the Texas Hill Country and the cultures are still prominent today.

You will find homemade sausages and an abundance of brisket and large cuts in the Hill Country.

They are known for their old-school cooking style in which they cook the meat directly over hot coals and mesquite wood, traditionally known as the “cowboy style” of barbecue.

charcoal grill with fire touching steaks

Here, you won’t find as much of the “low and slow” style that is so commonly associated with barbecue, but that doesn’t mean the food is lacking in flavor.

The meat from The Hill Country captures the flavor of the fat in the meat as it renders over hot coals. You are more likely to find whole chickens, pork chops, and sausage in this area with an abundance of sides and sauces to choose from.

One of the most popular Hill Country spots is Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, TX. They are the home of the famous “Big Chop”, and they offer just about every type of smoked meat that you could imagine. Plus, they have some of the best cobblers you could ever imagine.

Texas BBQ: A cultural staple

Texas is a home to great barbecue and such a vast variety of styles that you will never be bored. Innovation is key and is admired by Texans and over the past decade, you will find barbecue staples integrated into other cooking styles more prevalently.

It’s not uncommon to see a Brisket Breakfast Taco at the Hometown Mexican restaurant, nor would it be out of place to see a Brisket Banh Mi at your local Vietnamese restaurant. Barbecue is ingrained in Texas culture, and it’s made it obvious that it is here to stay.

There is truly no place like Texas when it comes to barbecue, so next time you’re in the Lone Star State, be sure to grab a plate and enjoy the flavors that Texas has to offer. 

If this guide has you ready to eat, check out our list of barbecue road trip ideas. There’s a few great Texas road trips in there that will have you enjoying all the variety this great state has to offer.

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