Aaron Franklin is giving us the keys to his barbecue kingdom. Some of his meat smoking secrets have already been leaked via his YouTube series BBQ With Franklin, and more is to come with a new PBS series of the same name, but his upcoming book puts it all out there.
Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto is a detailed instruction manual on how to copy the entire operation at one of the country’s most well known barbecue joints. Just don’t expect it to be a recipe book. While Franklin is a bona fide celebrity in the food world who could skate by with a shallow book full of food porn (there’s plenty of that too thanks to Wyatt McSpadden’s keen eye), he welcomes readers into his classroom like a quirky professor of barbecue. “As always, I believe a rudimentary understanding of what’s actually happening is the key to success. The more you understand why brisket cooks the way it does, the better you’ll be able to control the finished product,” Franklin writes. And there’s plenty of “why” in here.
Casual barbecue fans might tire of the detailed information on lignin, cresols, and MIG welders, but aspiring pitmasters willing to hone their craft should lap it up. This level of sharing of a barbecue business’s process is generally obtained only through an apprenticeship, not in a book. Also, remember that apprentices taking shortcuts is frowned upon, and few are offered in this book. Franklin does begrudgingly note that an internal temperature of 203 degrees usually signals that a brisket is done, but quickly dismisses other shortcuts as “cheating.”
Consider each chapter a class in a graduate level course on barbecue. Not until page 147 will you find the first “recipe” for brisket. Instead, prerequisites include building a smoker (like, actually cutting metal and welding it together), properties of wood (green vs. dry vs. too dry), and the properties of smoke. For a man who describes himself more as a fire tender than a barbecue cook, it’s not surprising how much of the book is focused on building and sustaining a good fire. “The whole art is predicated on making a fire with near-complete combustion and generating hours and hours of the pure, sweet good smoke.” For Franklin, smoke isn’t a flavor to be added, but is rather a byproduct of cooking with wood. After all, thick, dark, dirty smoke provides plenty of smoke flavor, but it probably won’t make meat taste very good.
There’s some compelling personal history that Franklin shares about he and his wife Stacy’s path to barbecue prominence. Saying “it wasn’t easy” is an understatement. Franklin was once a drummer in a band who played plenty of shows, but didn’t make a lot of money. He used a similar approach before finally opening his barbecue trailer in a gravel lot December of 2009. That included some serious backyard barbecues at the couple’s home where the only real profits were experience and confidence building.
Franklin’s rise to prominence in barbecue has been swift – he’s only been at it professionally for six years – but many of the reasons for that rise are exemplified in a story about his “Worst. Cook. Ever.” It started with a poorly organized delivery schedule and lots of rain at the New York Meatopia event. It’s written as a barbecue fable showing just how many things can go wrong during a cook, but ends well with brisket that “actually looks pretty good.” The moral of the story was that “brisket can test you, but you just have to persevere.” Another takeaway is that Franklin is immensely humble. He fails to mention that his worst cook ever resulted in the folks at Meatopia naming him the grand champion of the event that year.
For a barbecue cook book, Franklin Barbecue is revolutionary. I get the opportunity to see plenty of cookbooks from big names in barbecue, and I’m always amazed to find so much filler. Do we really need a pitmasters input on how to fry sliced green tomatoes dredged in seasoned flour? We don’t and Franklin understands that. There are exactly five pages of recipes for sauces and side items. The focus for Franklin is on the process of smoking meat, and barbecue nerds like us are the benefactor.
– Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto will be released next Tuesday, April 7th.
Full disclosure: The literary agency of Inkwell Management represents both Aaron Franklin and me.