Barbeque is loved by millions of people the world over. In Texas, it’s a pretty big deal, and in Mesquite, Texas, it’s a really big deal. The town is ground zero for smoked goodness. So how did this tree become the iconic flavor enhancer? And more importantly, how can backyard pitmasters everywhere replicate that Texas flavor?
What is Mesquite?
The straggly Mesquite tree has a wide range across northern Mexico into the southwestern U.S., stretching from Texas to Southern California and as far north as Kansas. You’ll find three distinct types of Mesquite trees: The honey mesquite, which can grow up to 20 feet tall, has nasty 3-inch-long spines on it. The screwbean mesquite can also get up to 20 feet tall, but it has fragrant flowers and screw-like pods on it. Finally, the velvet mesquite is the tallest of the trees at about 30 feet high, and it sports leaflets that feel like velvet to the touch.
The hard mesquite wood burns slowly while generating intense heat, which makes it perfect for smoking meat. The wood gives the meat a distinctly bold, earthy flavor, as many ranchers discovered. In 1956, J.D. Willert Jr. began bagging the wood, put a label on it that said WW Ranch, and started to sell it. He was smart enough to market it to consumers who weren’t living on a ranch with easy access to mesquite, and it quickly became a popular option for most red and darker meat.
Cooking with Mesquite
How can home cooks get that down-home, fall off the bone, juicy barbeque like they do in Mesquite, Texas? Here are a few tips. First off, ditch that charcoal or gas grill. While many people use grilling and barbecuing synonymously, they are quite different cooking methods. The grill is the place for direct heat, over flames. Good barbecue requires low, indirect heat over a long period of time. You can use a traditional kettle-style charcoal grill (or even gas grill) to smoke meat, but you have to be careful to keep the temperature down. A smoker is an easier option, which keeps the heating element away from the meat and is designed to get the most smoke flavor. In fact, one of the top makers of smokers in the country—J&R Manufacturing—is located in Mesquite, and its products are used around the world to help get that incredible flavor into the meat.
Because mesquite burns with so much smoke, some pitmasters choose to mix it with other wood during a long-and-slow barbecue. Less-flavorful woods like hickory, oak, or pecan are good options. Start with mesquite, and then switch over to the milder woods for the long middle cooking period. End with a final smoke of mesquite.
But mesquite isn’t just for barbecue. Mesquite coals are a popular way to grill steaks, as it burns hotter and lasts longer than traditional charcoal. You also get some of the taste without the overwhelming smoke, which is helpful when grilling more tender cuts of meat. But the strong flavor still may be too much for chicken and fish. You’re probably best off sticking to beef, wild game, lamb, and vegetables that cook quickly.
When it comes to how to what form of wood is smoked, you can choose from several options. Wood chunks burn slower and provide a steady source of smoke. Chips burn quickly, which can be a good thing in helping you get the correct amount of smoke flavor to your food. (No one said becoming a pitmaster is easy—it often takes some experimenting to get it right.) The final option is pellets, which are made from compressed sawdust and designed to be used in commercial smokers. The burn is hotter and cleaner than any other source.
Here’s one pro tip from some of the top pit bosses: Use a smoke pack. Wrap a handful of chips in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Poke a few small holes in the top to allow smoke to escape. Place this pack right on top of the coals or even in the back corner of the grill. The foil prevents oxygen from igniting the chips, thereby producing more smoke.
While great for barbecue, Mesquite is also used in other food applications as well. Recently Wild Turkey used mesquite charcoal to give distinct flavor to its Longbranch brand of small-batch bourbon. Mesquite smoke powder can be used as a seasoning on meats and vegetables, and the beans of the tree have been made into coffee.
Enjoying Mesquite in Mesquite
When in the namesake town, there are a few barbecue places that are absolute must-hits. Top of the list must be Mesquite BBQ, right in the heart of town. Owners Dustin and Melania Palmer wholeheartedly believe the best meat is smoked meat, and the best wood to smoke is Mesquite. They must be doing something right, as the restaurant has been going strong for more than 63 years. Slab’s BBQ is a take-out-only place with a no-nonsense barbeque menu. The brisket is legendary, as is the sausage. When it comes time for dessert, do not miss the banana pudding.
Spring Creek BBQ has been cooking for 35 years. That says something. Known for their hot, fresh rolls and fantastic barbecue, Spring Creek is a staple across the entire Dallas/F0rt Worth area. Try the black pepper sausage.
Hungry yet? Whether you barbecue the meat yourself or leave it up to the local pitmasters, the flavor of mesquite is a classic to enjoy. Who would have thought that those spiky trees dotting the rolling hillsides would make such an impact on the culinary landscape of Texas? Whether or not you’re in Mesquite, take advantage of the smoky flavor of its namesake wood—you won’t be disappointed.