From Pupil to Pitmaster

Ray Riley ’79 ’81, manager of the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center, deals out tips and tricks for the Texas barbecue beginner.

    By Bailey Payne ’19
  • Photography by Mackenzie Smith Kelley
  • May. 15, 2023
    4 min read

Green grass, blue skies, good people and good times. Spring’s turning into summer, and in Texas, that means barbecue season is in full swing. And while burgers and hot dogs have always made for easy backyard favorites, nothing beats real, slow-smoked beef. 

The state’s barbecue tradition spans centuries, melding historic German, Czech, Mexican and African American techniques and customs to create a regional flavor built on cooking beef low and slow over locally gathered wood. As generations passed down the tradition, methods became more complex, and Texas barbecue became as deeply ingrained in its cultural identity as cowboys and bluebonnets. 

The same history and complexity that make barbecue so alluring, however, can make it a little daunting for the average Joe who didn’t grow up smoking brisket. Luckily, Ray Riley ’79 ’81 can give some pointers for the aspiring pitmaster just getting started. Riley manages Texas A&M University’s Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center and teaches barbecue courses for students at every skill level, including Texas A&M’s uber-popular Barbecue Summer Camp. “We always tell our students, ‘As long as you know how to cook, you’ll always have friends,’” Riley said.

Get a good thermometer.

“You need to accurately measure the temperature of your meat and your pit. With more experience, you’ll tell by time and feel, but it’s best to play it safe when starting out.” 

Absorb information.

“Used to, if you had a question, you had to call up an old friend or relative. These days, the internet has just about every answer you need. I also recommend Aaron Franklin’s books.” 

Don’t overthink your setup.

“Something as simple and inexpensive as a small pit smoker can hold heat just fine. You don’t need a pellet grill or some big ol’ pit on a truck trailer to make good barbecue. I wouldn’t recommend a gas cooker, though—it just doesn’t give flavor like wood or charcoal.” 

Get high on the hog.

“Everyone wants to make brisket, but a good brisket is hard to master. Making pulled pork out of a Boston shoulder is a lot simpler, and you can work your way up from there.” 

Check your grades.

“A higher USDA grade means higher quality beef, but you don’t always have to get USDA Prime. Buy what you can afford.” 

Prepare accordingly.

“Preparation depends on what you’re making, but definitely get your pit up to temperature and burn until the heavy smoke clears out before throwing in the meat.” 

Go low and slow.

“Some people prefer certain temperatures, but most of the time, I recommend cooking at a nice, low 250 degrees Fahrenheit and making sure you’re in no rush.” 

Practice patience.

“If you’re constantly lifting the lid on your smoker, you’re not cooking. Set a timer to check it every hour or so and watch TV, read a book or do some chores. And if anyone asks you when the meat will be done, tell them it’ll be done when it’s ready!”

Support Aggie Leaders: To learn how you can beef up the meat science program by giving toward the construction of a new facility and other opportunities, contact Scott Jarvis ’00.

About Ray Riley ’79 ’81

Ray Riley ’79 ’81 has managed the Texas A&M University Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center since it opened its doors in 1983. The center has received national recognition for its passionate faculty and staff as well as its Texas Aggie Brand Beef Jerky. In addition to his managerial duties, Riley teaches animal science classes and laboratories and acts as a coordinator for the Texas A&M Barbecue Program.