America’s Leading Pitmaster
Aaron Franklin cooked his first brisket in 2002. After seven years of practice, he opened a food truck with his wife Stacy, though a few glowing reviews resulted in long lines and a move to a brick-and-mortar location on Austin’s east side just a year later. Today, Franklin and his crew serve some of the best barbecue on earth with a cult following that rivals any restaurant in America. And it’s safe to say, that’s a universally agreed upon fact. Bon Appetit named it the best barbecue in America, Texas Monthly considers it the best in Texas, even the James Beard Foundation took note and nominated him for Best Chef: Southwest this year. And if you’ve tasted that brisket (or the beef ribs, or the turkey, or the sausage) you understand why there’s so much hype. Franklin just published his first cookbook, and a meat-smoking manifesto it is. A meticulously detailed guide to barbecue—from how to build a smoker and choose firewood, to cooking and slicing the meat, to pairing barbecue with beer—Franklin gives you the tools and knowledge to make your own award winning barbecue at home. It’s the ultimate reference book on barbecue. Below, Franklin talks about why he gave away all of his secrets, the importance of the perfect firewood and the high cost of beef.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’ve created a very unique, technique-driven cookbook without many recipes. Why did you decide to go that route?
Aaron Franklin: Barbecue isn’t about recipes. The more you do it, the better you get at it. You learn to look at things, smell things, hear things, and that’s what I wanted to get across in the book. You flip through [recipe books] once, you get the idea and then you’re done. Books like On Food And Cooking or Modernist Cuisine are more like reference books, that’s what I wanted to create. Something you keep coming back to, to jog your memory. I don’t really follow recipes myself, and I’m much worse at actually writing them, so I thought more words and pictures was the way to go.
AZ.com: Most barbecue restaurants of the same fame as Franklin guard their recipes with utter secrecy. Yet you’ve decided to give all of your secrets away, in precise detail.
AF: I have a hard time knowing what to hold back. I’m not very good at covering up lies. Actually, I’m terrible at lying. And really, the missing ingredient is labor; it’s passion. I can write exactly super-duper specific what I do and how I cook things, but that doesn’t mean that someone would be able to replicate it perfectly. It’s all in the details, and I try to get that across as much as possible. I think if somebody nails it, that’s awesome; and if someone doesn’t do it well that’s awesome too, just keeping working on it. I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away, because I feel like we’ve received so much anyway, with the success of the restaurant. You know, we have enough already. We’re not trying to guard anything.
AZ.com: There’s a whole chapter on wood. Why is it so important to choose the right firewood?
AF: We’re relying on wood in barbecue for heat and flavor, so picking the right piece of wood is important. Wood is also important because you could burn really dirty fires, an incomplete combustion, you could choke off the air, you could get bad chemicals out of the stuff. It’s trial and error really. The more you do it, the more you get a feel for it. A really light piece will burn up quickly; you don’t really get any fire, heat or smoke out of it. A piece that’s super heavy and fresh will never really catch and it’ll sputter out a bunch of gross smoke. [In the book], I’m trying to get across what is going through my head when I pick up a piece of wood. When I need 7 degrees and a little bit of color on my ribs, I know what kind of piece of wood to grab. I also think of it as Tetris. I’ll get a piece that’s flat and thin, that’ll catch quickly and have a little spot to lay on the coal bed. Most of this just comes down to doing it and having experience with what works and what doesn’t work.
AZ.com: Is there a specific type of wood you always use?
AF: We only use post oak at the restaurant. That’s an indigenous wood of central Texas, that’s what makes this region’s barbecue what it is. Traditionally, that’s always been a regional difference in barbecue–in some parts of the country, they’re only using hickory, in other parts they’re only using mesquite. People have always used what they can get.
AZ.com: Is there one common mistake people make when they first start barbecuing?
AF: I think just getting impatient, not giving something enough time. You can’t rush barbecue.
AZ.com: You must spend a lot of time behind the smokers at Franklin. Do you ever sleep?
AF: I’m sleeping pretty good these days. We have a good crew at the restaurant, I’m able to get off for a couple days here and there… to go do work in other places. I run the restaurant, do all of the maintenance, build the barbecue pits, and build all the things outside, and work lunch. At this point, I’m just checking in on everyone. I probably work anywhere between a 12 and 20 hour work day.
AZ.com: It’s good you have people you trust.
AF: It’s the first time this has happened, in well, ever. It could crumble at any moment, all it takes is one person to mess up and I’m right back where I was. We’re always teetering on the edge of disaster. It takes so long to train someone, and there are so few people who really have what it takes, who care enough and have the skill set.
AZ.com: On a good day, how many pounds of brisket do you go through?
AF: I bet we’re hitting 1,800 pounds of brisket in a day. And we’re open for 4 hours. We do a lot more brisket then anything else, but with all of the meats combined, I bet on a busy Saturday we are hitting about 2,200 pounds right now.
AZ.com: Brisket is at an all time high cost right now, how is that affecting your business?
AF: Brisket, well all beef prices, are the highest they’ve been in a long, long, long, long time. We also have about the lowest head of cattle in the country that we’ve had in 80 some years. It’s pretty bad, we are paying about 5 bucks a pound right now, and about 2 years ago, people were spending $1.20 per pound. But we use all natural, prime cuts, it’s pretty fancy schmancy stuff. It’s sourced very well.
AZ.com: I’m sure it tastes better too.
AF: I think so, the animals are certainly happier, treated better. If we didn’t have people lined up, it would hurt a lot more. We are paying 5 bucks a pound. Say it weighs 15 pounds. By the time it’s cooked, it’ll yield 5 pounds, after trim and cook down weight. We have about 44 man hours involved in every brisket, from trimming, to rubbing, to cooking, to resting, just to get it ready for lunch. When you factor in the cost of having someone there around the clock, and then you factor in the crazy expensive cost of black pepper, and then you factor in the amount of firewood we are going through, it’s pretty expensive. Brisket is at a 68 percent food cost right now, and a normal restaurant would be working in the 25 to 30 percent range. But we don’t do it to make money, if you’re making barbecue to make money, it’s probably not going to be very good.
AZ.com: You were just nominated for a James Beard award, congratulations! This is a first, what do you think it means for barbecue?
AF: I’m not sure they know what I do, but it’s awesome. I think the fact that some dumb ol’ barbecue dude got nominated for a chef award–which is kind of weird because I’m not a chef by any stretch of the word–is a monumental shift in the culinary world right now. I’m super proud to be nominated, and to even be considered. I think it’s cool that barbecue has become respected enough as a culinary art and craft to actually be a contender.
AZ.com: Do you eat barbecue when you’re on the road?
AF: [Laughs] No I try not to, if there’s some place that’s real special, some guy is cooking whole hog in the Carolinas, I’ll make the trek. Overall, I don’t eat much of it. Last night I had a salad and fish.
Get Aaron Franklin’s recipe for Beef Ribs.
About Aaron Franklin
Aaron Franklin is an Austin, Texas based barbecue cook, restaurant owner, educator and writer. Aaron is a self taught barbecue expert, who has quickly risen to be one of the most well-known pit bosses in the barbecue world. He never cuts corners on choosing quality meats and spending the time it really takes to make the best barbecue in the country. He now adds James Beard Award nominee to his list of accomplishments.