Cooking the Books: BBQ Guru Aaron Franklin spills his smokey secrets in his delicious new book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto
After gobbling up his every smoke-stained word in hundreds of published articles, blogs, interviews, television shows, how-to videos and festival appearances, you’d think the world might have had its fill of Aaron Franklin, the demigod of Austin barbecue. You’d be wrong; we absolutely haven’t.
By now you know his story: humble beginnings, roadside trailer, moved to permanent East Austin digs when demand outstripped capacity, media circus ensues. Franklin, a self-taught wizard of ‘cue, defrocks the Lockhart legends to become the greatest pit master in Texas, which, as any good Texan will tell you, makes him the greatest pit master in the world.
Like all great masters of their craft, Franklin is at his best when he is in his element: tending a horizontal offset smoker perfumed with hickory and oak and loaded with brisket and ribs. So it is with Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (Ten Speed, $21.77 through Amazon), Franklin’s new cookbook, in which he and noted food writer Jordan Mackay share the meaty details of the low-and-slow.
Part personal narrative, part instruction manual, Franklin Barbecue takes us through an advanced workshop on barbecue, pausing to discuss such intricacies as how to buy (or build) a smoker, create a brisket rub (Franklin prefers simply salt and pepper), foil versus butcher paper (he’s an unwaxed butcher paper guy) and why a brisket’s internal temperature rises then stalls part way through cooking (evaporative cooling is the culprit).
If you’re looking for secrets, Franklin shares more than a few. For example, 275F – not 225F – is his go-to cook temperature, and he admits to spritzing his briskets with water (and maybe some apple juice) to help the bark settle in. How do you know when the brisket has cooked long enough? Throw away the thermometer, Franklin advises. It’s done when it feels soft and supple, which is usually between 190F and 203F.
But just as good preachers hold something back, Franklin doesn’t completely bare his barbecue soul. He discusses the importance of maintaining moist air inside the smoker, instructing us to add water pans to our cooks to help melt collagen and create a good bark on the meat, Then he describes the difference between dry-bulb and wet-bulb temperatures (the latter adjusts for relative humidity). Yet he stops short of revealing the magic wet-bulb number. We’re also left to wonder how much of his barbecue’s deliciousness is due to his use of super-premium prime beef. Could he achieve the same or similarly transcendent results were he to use supermarket briskets like you and I often do?
Despite the occasional puzzler, Franklin Barbecue is a delight to read. Photographer Wyatt McSpadden’s vibrant images pop off the page like sparks from a hot fire. The book is crafted in an easy, conversational style that quickly draws you in, though if you’re ‘cue crazed, you’ll want to read it the same way you eat good BBQ: low and slow. I tried to flip through the first couple of chapters quickly but instead found myself magnetized by the pages, drawn down a rabbit hole of smoke and spice, reading and re-reading Franklin’s guidance on when to employ the “Texas Crutch” – wrapping briskets half-way through cooking them to keep them moist – and how and why he detours from the traditional low-and-slow roadmap of 225F cookery.
On Aaron Franklin’s best days, it is simply impossible to improve on his brisket. Once retrieved from its butcher-paper wrapped slumber, the meat seduces with a belly dancer’s jiggle and the impossible creaminess of egg custard. This book gives us all hope that we can achieve similar results at home.
Can America’s fascination with Franklin and Texas barbecue continue? Or is brisket just the new kale, imbued with post oak and umami, holding out until the food pilgrims move on? I’m not sure. Either way, I’m eager to taste where Aaron Franklin takes us next.
Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto by Aaron Franklin, available April 7.