Editor’s Note: The Texas Monthly BBQ Festival is almost here! Each day until then, we’ll be talking to one of the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog.
What is the heat source you use for your barbecue?
Live oak. We only use live oak. We use live oak because the oak families are one of the indigenous and heaviest woods in Texas. It’s very heavy and dense. And when it burns, it burns very clean. Very fine ash, very fine smoke. It doesn’t float up and get on the meat and make it gritty, and the smoke gets a lot finer and penetrates the meat better. It’s not bitter. Some woods can be bitter, like green mesquite, but live oak doesn’t ever do that. It adds smoked flavor to the meat, but doesn’t overpower it. It allows both flavors to become one.
Where did you learn your barbecue craft from?
My family came here from the Southeast. When they came here, they were in wagons, and they barbecued when they were in wagons. That style and those recipes they had on the wagon were handed down from generation to generation to my father, and my father taught them to me. That’s where our open pit comes from. They did not have these closed smokers that you see today because, like my father said, the wagon did not have bumper hitches to haul these closed smokers around. They did all their stuff on open grills. So they would sear their meat on one end of the fire, move it away from the fire, and throw coals underneath, and slow smoke them. And if the wind blew you too much in one direction or the other, they would be burnt around the edge. So when you come into Salt Lick that’s what you see. It’s a deeper flavor that you can’t get from closed smokers.
Watching your father do that when you were younger, did you know that you wanted to go into that food direction?
It was very enjoyable. Having the fire and the smoke and the meat, and then it all comes together through your efforts. It was very enjoyable, but I really did not know the technicalities of what it would mean.
What were the barbecue plates you would eat growing up?
I started out loving the pork ribs the most. And then it was brisket, and then I got a love for sausage. So, my favorite plate is our combination plate which is pork ribs, beef brisket, and our sausage.
What’s your signature meat?
The signature meat to me is pork ribs, but the signature meat to a lot of other people is the brisket. We’re getting a whole lot of compliments on the turkey. The signature meat here is that we have a variety of meat. We work real hard to make sure each one of them is our interpretation of the best they can be and then people will get what they want. Honestly there’s a lot of people that love the turkey. A lot of people who love the ribs. A lot of people love the brisket.
How did you become such a good pitmaster?
Learning from my father.
What city in Texas is on to great barbecue?
That would be Driftwood. You can find phenomenal places inside Austin. I think it’s something about Central Texas. I think it’s the dirt, the air, the sun, the wood, the people. It starts with Franklin [Barbecue] in Austin, go to Lockhart and do Kreuz, Smitty’s, and Black’s, and you can also go over there to Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Que. You can go down to the Luling City Market; it’s phenomenal. Then, you can swing back to us in Driftwood to see us. But this whole area, with Lockhart to the east, Driftwood to the west, Austin to the north, and San Marcos to the south, it’s without a doubt, the best place for barbecue in the world. Some of the things that I’ve talked about, nobody else does. I would take my fellow barbequers from Central Texas and we would go stand up to anybody that you want to bring, and we will win.
Sounds like a challenge.
I’m not making a challenge. I’m stating a fact. Between those guys and us, they’re not gonna beat us. We offer a tremendous amount of style.
What type of barbecue are you not the biggest fan of?
Oh my goodness. Barbecue is so great; it’s hard to find some that isn’t that great. Oh gosh, they’re gonna be mad at me. My least favorite is South Carolina. They cover everything in mustard. But their pulled pork sandwiches, when they do them right, are great.
This is a question that has a lot of debate on it: sauce or no sauce?
Why is that?
Because I want to. It’s what you feel at the moment. I love to take a piece of plain white bread and put a little smoky barbecue with a salty exterior on it and eat that, and sometimes I want the sauce. I think that barbecue should be basted in the sauce. If it’s the right kind of sauce, it helps create flavor on the outside of the meat, but it also holds moisture until the sauce evaporates. You can’t be evaporating any moisture out of the meat.
So what’s your temperature style? Slow and low or high and fast?
What we do is we start everything out at high temperatures. We sear, like you’re gonna cook a roast. You take it and you sear it on the outside and caramelize it. We do the same thing with our meat. Put a dry rub on them and we sear them under high heat. If you just do the slow cooking deal, the spices never caramelize into the meat, into the exterior. And so the juices are going to start coming out, and the spices will rub off. The first thing we do is we sear the meat to make sure the spices stick and to hold the moisture in. The brisket we slow cook. The ribs and chicken are fast cook. The turkey is slow cook. The beef ribs are slow cook. The pork ribs are the fast ones. The inner pieces of meat we try to keep them in the hot, smoky environment on a minimal basis because they dry out. We try to hold thicker pieces of meat in there as long as possible.
What non-secret ingredients are in your spice rub?
I will tell you exactly what it is. It’s very basic. Very primitive. Very wonderful. It’s salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.
Tell me about what we can expect from the upcoming Salt Lick cookbook.
You’re going to get a history, a history of a family. A family that has migrated to Texas and what they have brought to Texas. But, you’re also going to get what Texas has added and given back to their recipes. For example, the barbecue sauce that we have at the restaurant is a Southeastern barbecue sauce. And when it left South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, it did do not have things like chili peppers and cayenne pepper, so they brought this sauce here, and then this country added those ingredients back. So what you’re going to get is the history and how that comes together to make something that’s truly Texas. What you’re also going to get is how the recipes change over time. [For example,] we have my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings, my mother’s chicken and dumplings, and my chicken and dumplings.
I’m guessing you’re going to incorporate the restaurant side of it and all those recipes?
We’re going to give all the secrets. Except one or two. We’re not gonna give you the sauce recipe. We’ll give you all the techniques and we’ll talk about everything, but we will not give you the sauce recipe.
What is your favorite barbecue place in Texas, besides your own?
You’re making me hungry. Can I give you two?
Yeah, go ahead.
I’m gonna piss people off, but the other brand I look up to: Smitty’s, and I don’t know if you call it barbecue or not, but Anamia’s.
Where are they?
Outside of Dallas. They’re actually a Tex-Mex restaurant, but they do these barbecue brisket tacos and barbecue brisket enchiladas that are to die for. They are also one of those restaurants where you order guacamole and they bring those carts and make it right in front of you.
Do you start a fire each day or do you keep the same one going?
We start one each day. Our pits are not contained, and just like a grill, we have built them up and they can catch on fire at night if you leave a fire in there. Late at night, we put the fires out and then start them up again very early in the morning.
Aluminum foil or butcher paper? Or what is the secret behind holding great barbecue?
The secret behind holding great barbecue is don’t cut it. If you slice the brisket, you deteriorate the meat. If you slice the ribs, same thing. So the real deal is to try to hold it in its original configuration as long as possible and slice it right as you’re gonna eat it. If you can’t do that, then I feel like you should wrap it in aluminum foil.
What should the home smoker look for?
Price. Briskets are very complicated. Here’s the deal: if you start with a bad quality cut, you’re gonna end up with a bad piece of meat. If you buy the very, very cheap stuff, like if you go into a store and there’s a brisket for 99 cents and there’s brisket at $1.39 cents, then that’s what you’re going to want to go for. If it doesn’t have the fat and the marbleization, you’re not gonna to be able to make it work. And it’s because those usually are the leaner cuts. Maybe another way to say it is the fattier the better, cook the fat out of the meat, and trim it well, after it’s done.
What’s one other piece of advice for the home smoker?
Don’t. I’m just kidding. Again, start with the best quality of meat you can find. Buy prime or choice. Buy the best quality of meat you possibly can. A lot of people think that brisket and barbecuing is at the bottom end of the culinary spectrum. Just remember, the chefs that get all of the fame, they prepare these dishes in what, fifteen, twenty minutes? It takes us 24 hours to cook a brisket, and it’s moist and juicy. It’s just as moist and juicy as that medium-rare steak that that chef cooked in twelve minutes. So, which one is the hardest? What I’m trying to say is that if you’re gonna devote that 24 hours to doing something, then you need to start with the best stuff you possibly can.
Do you or have you ever used a gas-fired or electric smoker?
We had some smokers that we put in that were gas-fired, but we don’t really do those anymore because they have a drier heat than the wood does. If someone is going to do it on a non-commercial basis at home, they need to stick with the natural wood smoke.
You’ve had some interesting, big name customers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Sandra Bullock. Who would you say is the one that surprised you most?
Sandy. She’s such a nice person. She’s really great. You know she took a bite out of one of the turkey sandwiches and did the imitation of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. She comes out a lot and we love her.
Have you ever had Texas barbecue outside of Texas?
I really haven’t. Personally, if I was outside of the state of Texas, I wouldn’t go to a place that said Texas barbecue. I’ve already had that. So if I’m at some new place, I want to try what they got. I want to see what these people think you ought to do with wood and smoke.
Do you know how many pounds of barbecue you smoke a day?
Last year we smoked 1.25 million pounds of brisket. 580,000 pounds of pork ribs. 185,000 pounds of sausage. And too damn many chickens. Those are raw weight.
What can ruin a good piece of meat?
Not caring, just not caring. If somebody throws it on the grill and doesn’t care about it.
What kind of beer do you like to drink with your barbecue?
Do you want to know a secret ingredient to barbecue? Beer. Or at least the secret ingredient was beer when I was younger. The more you consume of the secret ingredient, the more your barbecue sense is heightened. No, I used to drink beer with barbecue. People would ask me what wine goes well with barbecue, and I’d say the one that tastes the most like beer. There are wines that work extremely well with barbecue. Don’t get one of those 16 percent alcohol deals. Get something light, around a 14.5 percent max. Being if they’re lighter, then you can eat more barbecue.
Whose barbecue are you looking forward to trying at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival?
Snow’s. Then there was one from down in the Valley I want to try that sounded it was more like the old style barbacoa.
What’s next for you and the Salt Lick?
We’re gonna start cooking steaks. We’re gonna start cooking steaks over live oak, pecan, and coals with my homemade french fries. My father used to love to cook steaks too. So we’re gonna do steaks with a peach brandy marinade or glaze, french fries, and the mushrooms. We’re gonna make our bread in dutch ovens. That’s our new thing. We’re gonna serve it in the bier garden, but that’s for locals only.