Plain and simple, Derrick Walker is a man who followed his passion. He’s spent his lifetime studying and mastering the art of the pit smoker. That depth of experience is precisely why we reached out to the barbecue legend to talk turkey — and brisket and ribs and all things barbecue — to help us feel prepared for our own smoky (socially-distanced!) summer cookouts.
In the early 2000s, Walker took his lifelong love of pit smoking from amateur to pro levels when he bought a small smoker-trailer and started doing pop-ups around Fort Worth, Texas. 16 years later, he transitioned to a food truck that quickly led to his own brick and mortar establishment in Fort Worth, the beloved Smoke-a-holics BBQ. If you’ve never been, let us paint the picture: this is one of those true Texas joints that are so loved by locals and out-of-towners alike that there’s almost always a stream of people waiting down the block. One of those spots where the line itself becomes a scene.
We got a chance to speak with Walker this week while he was pulling ribs from the smoker and wrapping them for their rest — a crucial step in all barbecue. Even while working, he took the time to lay down some serious knowledge about how we can improve our own backyard barbecues in a time when cooking for yourself is more commonplace than ever. Unless you happen to be in the Fort Worth area, then you really need to hit up Smoke-a-holics ASAP.
Let’s jump right in. What was the impetus to make your life about barbecue?
So it was my grandad who introduced me to barbecue. But that was a while back when I was a kid, like 12- or 13-years-old. He used to have a pull-behind smoker. That was the first one that I had ever seen like that. He was the one who taught me how to start a fire, manage a fire, and the ins and outs of cooking meat. But it wasn’t until I got into my early twenties that I really started to take it seriously.
Around 2003, I purchased my first trailer smoker and we started doing events at different venues and pop-ups around the city. By 2019, we got a food truck, ran it for a year, and then ended up here at our brick and mortar.
That’s awesome. It’s really been a life-long journey.
You have a proper family business. Your wife, daughter, and dad work with you. And your wife still works at a salon too?
Man, my wife is a superwoman. I don’t know how she does it. She gets up in the morning and goes to the salon and she’ll see two to three clients. And then she’ll be here between, say, 8:00 and 10:30 in the morning to make dessert. She’ll stay here and do everything from the cash register to getting orders out, to prep, to running errands, and then she’ll go back to the salon when we close and do two, three more clients. I don’t know how she does it.
Wow, that is extraordinary, man. So, obviously the last three months have been rough on a lot of the service industry. How have you guys been fairing in Fort Worth?
Actually, our business got stronger. We were already a carry-out business, to begin with. So, it didn’t really affect us much except for the first couple of months when we couldn’t let anybody in the building.
What was your workaround for that?
We opened our side door and we would just serve orders out of that door. And people stood in line all the way down the sidewalk. It didn’t stop anything. After that, we were able to let them back in. I would let them in six at a time. In the last two to three weeks, we’ve even doubled that. We got a line all the way down the sidewalk every day.
That’s great to hear. So let’s dive into some tips. Let’s start with sides. If you only were going to cook two sides for a backyard barbecue, which two sides would you cook?
Well, if I could only choose two then I’d have to go classic and it would be baked beans and potato salad.
How do you do your baked beans?
Well, here we add red and green bell pepper. We add garlic, ground beef, bacon. Then you got your white beans and your ketchup and your brown sugar. That’s your classic baked beans. But instead of putting them in the oven, we put them on our pits. So, they’re actually smoked.
So it’s low and slow and lots of smoke.
Yes, and lots of brown sugar and goodness.
Nice. What’s the secret to a good potato salad? Because I don’t know about you, man, but sometimes you get a potato salad and you’re like, “Eh.” And other times you get a potato salad, you’re like, “Oh wow, this is life-changing.”
I am an advocate of sweet and salty to balance that seasoning up. Also, I’m not one for the chunky potato salad. So if you ever come here, ours is like a rustic mash. It has little lumps, but it’s more so mashed. And at first, we got a lot of people who looked at it and were like, “Wow, I don’t know about that, my man.” Now, we have people that come here just to order our potato salad!
It’s the right amount of sweet. It’s a little salty. There’s a tang and a little bit of crunch.
How do you get that “tang”? Miracle Whip, mayo, or vinegar?
No. No vinegar at all. I’m not going to say mayo — it’s a family secret — but it’s, let’s say, sandwich spread-based with mustard. So our potato salad is yellow.
So then let’s look at the main event at a barbecue. Brisket and ribs are the mainstays, but smoked turkey is really big in Texas barbecue. And turkey is very finicky, man. How can we help people smoke some turkey and not screw it up?
Avoid high heat. You don’t want to grill it, especially with ribs. I’d say low and slow. Don’t overcook it, that’s the main thing. Just like any poultry, it’s easy to overcook. And, oh man, have fun with it. I think a lot of times when it comes to food, people are way too technical.
What temps are we talking with low and slow?
So, low and slow, you got 225 degrees, and not for too long. Definitely, if you got yourself a thermometer, take the temperature of your turkey breast. You don’t want to cook it after it hits 160 degrees. I know poultry is supposed to cook to 165, but if you wrap the turkey breast and rest it on your counter, you have something that’s called carry-over cooking. If you cook it to 155 or 160 degrees, it’s going to hit 165 when it’s wrapped and resting. So if you cook it to 165 and then pull it and rest it, you going to eat it at 175 and you’re going to end up with a dry product.
So theoretically, you could have brisket and a turkey breast on the same rack in the same smoker.
Sticking with fighting dryness, how often should you be spritzing your meat?
Well, in Texas, and I’m sure anywhere in barbecue, there’s a saying, “If you’re looking at it, it ain’t cooking.” So you don’t want to consistently be in the cooker. But what I tell everybody is, whenever you have temperature drop, that’s your opportunity to open the door. So if it’s time to add some fuel, that’s the opportunity to spritz the meat.
What’s a good spritz mix to have?
It’s really subjective. I caught a barbecue this past weekend with a truck from another local barbecue joint, and they were using 50/50 water to apple cider vinegar. I even seen people use Worcestershire and water or just use water. There are all kinds of spritzers, man.
With my temp, I prefer a 50/50 apple juice to apple cider vinegar.
What is the secret to getting that peppery bark on a brisket?
The first secret is pepper. You have to be delivering with the pepper in order to get that bark. The second thing is time. It just takes time, man. You got a lot of people who want to try to cook a brisket in five or six hours. You can do it. You can eat a brisket done in five to six hours. But, you will not have that bark. You will not have the depth of flavor that you’re looking for. 12 to 14 hours with a good base of pepper and kosher salt will get that bark that you’re looking for.
What’s the method for cooking ribs in Fort Worth?
I dry rub the ribs the evening before. After trimming the tips, we apply the dry rub that we make here in-house. And then they go on the pit the next morning. They really need to sit overnight in that dry rub. I usually put the ribs on about six in the morning and they’ll come off the pit here at about 10:40 and then rest for about 30 minutes. In fact, I’m wrapping ribs right now as we’re talking, man.
Can I ask your dry rub mix?
You can ask. I’m not going to tell you.
Fair, fair! One last question: What’s the one dessert that you would serve at a backyard barbecue?
Man, especially in the summertime right now, I’d have to go with peach cobbler.
We have a dessert here that we call “Peach Thang.” It’s kind of a cross between a peach cobbler and a peach cake. The crust is almost like a dough. It’s crispy on the top, but it’s really, really soft in the middle. And then the peaches, man, are just sweet and cinnamony and syrupy and it’s crazy. We sell a lot of them. We sell that the most and we only do it on Wednesday and Saturday.