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Cooking Basics

Barbeque wizard Aaron Franklin releases meat-smoking manual

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Aaron Franklin cuts into a slab of his tender brisket. (Wyatt McSpadden, Ten Speed Press)

There’s brisket, and there’s Franklin BBQ brisket. And if you want Franklin BBQ brisket, you’ll have to go to Austin, Texas. And then you’ll have to roll out of bed early in the morning if you want a taste, because the line is already forming. And it’s going to be a very, very long line.

But it’s worth it, because Franklin BBQ brisket is nothing short of legendary.

And besides, Aaron Franklin, who owns the place, has been awake even longer than you have. He got up at 1 a.m. to start the lunchtime smokers in which he cooks the brisket you’re standing on line for. He’ll open the door at 11 and it’ll stay open until he sells out, which won’t take long.

“I really can’t explain why the people wait in line for five or six hours, but it’s become this whole tailgating experience,” says Franklin, who is surprisingly humble for a man who makes what may be the best barbecue in America.

“People make mimosas and bloody marys. It’s bigger than the barbecue. I think it's just become a unique thing to the Austin community.”

Even if you’ve never been to Austin and sampled Franklin BBQ’s brisket, you still may have heard about its massive line. For one thing, it has its own Twitter page. For another, President Obama famously cut it last year when he was in Austin to make a speech.

Franklin’s rise to fame began with humble beginnings when he converted an old camper and began serving barbecue alongside the highway. He opened Franklin BBQ in 2009, and in just six years he’s become a nationwide phenomenon. This week he won the coveted Best Chef in the Southwest honor at the James Beard Foundation Awards. On May 21 he will debut his TV show, "BBQ with Franklin,” on PBS.

Though Franklin can’t understand why people choose to wait half a day just to score some smoked meat, his passion for food can’t be understated. Speaking rapid-fire on just three to four hours of sleep – confirming suspicions that he is fueled by espresso shots – Franklin preaches the barbecue gospel of simplicity and patience. Little more than salt and pepper goes into his brisket rub. Beyond that, it’s all about the meat interacting with the smoke.

“It’s not about following a recipe,” he says. “It’s about the fire, and the wood and that crack. If you’re following a really detailed barbecue recipe, you’re probably not making good barbecue.”

In that same spirit of simplicity, Franklin has released his first cookbook, “A Meat Smoking Manifesto,” though he prefers to call it a manual. (He says the book’s form and function were inspired by a 1970s Chilton auto repair manual.) It contains only a handful of recipes and focuses instead on helping people nail down the basics of barbecue – butchery, different cuts of meats, building a fire or smoker, even barbecuing in inclement weather.

With photography by Wyatt McSpadden – the heralded photographer behind “Texas BBQ” – “Manifesto” is as much a journey through Franklin’s experiences with getting to know meat as it is a manual on cooking technique.

So, if barbecue is really just about the basics, does Franklin think anyone can do it well?

"The biggest mistake I see is impatience,” he says. “Everyone wants to know, "Is it done yet? Is it ready?" and they can dry out a really expensive piece of meat.

“I would say you just get better the more you try it out. Sure it can be tough ... but if you mess up that brisket, just chop it up and make a sandwich."