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Aaron Franklin Wants to Teach You How to Produce Excellent Barbecue

Every day there's a line Franklin Barbecue.

Every day there’s a line Franklin Barbecue.

Aaron Franklin has almost single-handedly raised Texas barbecue to a culinary art form in the eyes of the world’s food cognoscenti. His restaurant on Austin’s east side, Franklin Barbecue, has won over the international public as well, as lines of people from all corners of the globe stream every day from his door, down the driveway and around the corner hours before he opens.

franklinHe was rewarded for his efforts with a presidential visit and with this year’s James Beard Foundation Award for best chef of the Southwest. More importantly, he’s sold out of his meats every day he’s been in business.

Last year, he stole the movie “Chef” away from its star simply by opening the door to one of his smokers and revealing an array of obsidian briskets just waiting to be eaten. On the day I saw the film, moviegoers across the packed theater released an audible gasp at the sight of those briskets, followed by knowing chuckles and even a few grumbles from those who knew they couldn’t eat what they were watching.

Now, you can learn what it is that makes Franklin Barbecue so great, and you can recreate it in your own backyard, without having to stand in line for three hours. “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto” (Ten Speed Press, $29.99), written by Franklin with Jordan Mackay, is essentially a 200-page recipe for making Central Texas-style barbecue.

Franklin invites you into his smoky kingdom with no topic off limits, no secrets held back, and he starts from the very beginning. No, you don’t have to raise your own cow, but you may have to build or modify your own smoker so that you can get it to work the way you need to. He even offers welding information, in case you need to get industrial. Yes, it’s that geeky.

Learn how Aaron Franklin seasons his post oak.

Learn how Aaron Franklin seasons his post oak.

On a practical level, this isn’t a book for Big Green Egg owners or even folks like me with an upright drum smoker, which I’ll admit I’ve used mainly for fish and turkeys, not beef or ribs. It’s not really even for those casual once-a-year barbecue parties in which the guys sit up all night with an ice chest of longnecks and a few briskets or racks of ribs for a party or family reunion, though that is how Franklin got his start.

This is for the serious smoker who wants to understand the thermodynamics involved in producing world-class barbecue. Franklin takes you through easy-to-read sections on how smoke works, how it must flow through the drum, how to distinguish good smoke from bad, how to choose which wood to use with which meat, how to season your wood, how to pick out a brisket, how to make a rub, when to leave that brisket alone in the smoker, and how to treat your brisket so it will continue to tenderize even after it has been smoked to what you might consider the perfect temperature.

It’s also for any die-hard barbecue lover, because Franklin shares his passion for the subject in an engaging, conversational voice that will leave you excited about your next three-meat plate, whether you plan on using the information on your own smoker or you just want to understand better what goes into making that meat so irresistible.

Part of the journey is learning from your mistakes, and Franklin admits to having made his own. These stories provide some welcome comic relief and show you a human side of the man behind the smoked meat.

You also glean a few insights into Franklin that might not have been readily apparent, such as the fact he considers his knowledge of barbecue far from complete. “I’m still learning,” he says more than once. And he means it. He doesn’t directly use the “low and slow” method many Texas pitmasters have used for years, but you’ll have to read in depth to find out just how it differs.

Two of the smokers at Franklin Barbecue,

Two of the smokers at Franklin Barbecue,

It was good to learn that his prime briskets (hence his prime prices) come from cows that have been ethically raised and butchered, yet he does not like grass-fed brisket for smoking. He does like to keep things around him practical, as he shows in this passage from the chapter on Fire + Smoke:

“It’s hardly glamorous, but the tool I probably use the most at the restaurant is not a carving knife or a boning knife or a fancy digital thermometer. This tool you’ll find most often in my hands when doing a cooking shift is a shovel. At all times, there’s one shovel propped outside the firebox of each of our six cookers. It’s an essential tool. I don’t like the heavy shovels that last forever; I like the light ones you can throw around real easy. That’s because, let’s face it, I’m using it nearly constantly, and the heavier the shovel, the hard it is on the old body.”

When Bonnie Walker and I were researching our barbecue book, one of the questions we heard repeatedly was whether the wait in line for Franklin Barbecue was worth it. Our answer was almost always the same; we asked them: Do you mind waiting for anything you love? To those who were too impatient, we said no. But to those who enjoy the experience that comes with that wait, including the camaraderie that develops among all of you sharing in that love of fine barbecue, you will certainly relish the memory, regardless of your final opinion of the meat by itself.

The same is true of “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto.” If all you want is a simple, one-page list of instructions on how to smoke meat, look elsewhere. If you’re at all interested in the workings of one barbecue-obsessed mind and how to apply that to your barbecue, then you’ll enjoy this ride.


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