Interview: Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue
Owner/Pitmaster: Franklin Barbecue in Austin; opened in 2009
Smoker: Five steel offset smokers made from 1000 gallon propane tanks that are 5/16” thick.
Wood: Post oak. Some seasoned, some green.
Last week, I sat down with Aaron Franklin over a tray of ribs and brisket at the Blue Ox in Austin. Franklin had left the following day’s early shift to another employee so he had time for a few beers and room for some barbecue from the trailer that shares a gravel seating area with Buzz Mill Coffee (which thankfully serves beer too). Aaron didn’t think it was fair to offer critiques on the smoked meat, but we were both impressed enough to keep eating as we talked. It was nearly 10:00pm and the meat still tasted fresh. Smoke was rolling out of the Blue Ox smoker, which was once used by Franklin Barbecue. Aaron wondered aloud why they were using a sheet pan as a damper atop the exhaust. As Hank Williams whined out an extended version of Cool Water on the outdoor speakers, Aaron provided some smoking tips and some thoughts on what it meant to be named Texas Monthly’s #1 barbecue joint in Texas, therefore the world.
AF: They were two completely different feelings. When Bon Appetit came out I found out on a Thursday night via tweet while sitting on the couch watching Family Guy, so that was a shock. With Texas Monthly, that’s the Bible of Texas barbecue so that means a lot. That as high as you can get, but it was a different feeling because we knew when the list was coming out and we were hoping to be included. There was anticipation. Bon Appetit was more of an “oh crap, I gotta start cooking more food.” With the Texas Monthly list, we’re already cooking 1500 pounds of meat, and I don’t think we can start making more.
TM: What do you say to the folks that claim that you control your barbecue supply to keep the demand high?
AF: I think they need to work in a real barbecue place and see how much work is actually involved with it. Logistically it’s just not possible. If you want it fresh its got to be cooked a certain way. You only have one option. Cook as much as you can and serve it as quickly as you can while it’s hot and fresh. Then keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.
TM: How long has it been since Franklin Barbecue did not sell out of meat?
AF: I don’t know the date. I guess probably within about the first month of opening up [in December of 2009]. We started running out, but at that point I could only do about nine briskets a day. I’d say within a couple of months of opening the trailer. When I built the second cooker to make more food it went up to eighteen briskets a day just as soon as I parked I there, and then we were making it pretty good and then within a couple weeks we were selling out early again. Then I built the third pit and a fourth one and a fifth one. Now we’re up to five huge ones and we just can’t keep up with any more fires. Five fires is a lot to keep up with for one guy.
TM: So you still cook at Franklin Barbecue?
AF: I cook. Maybe not every day, but all the busy days. It’s gotten so busy that if I do the morning shift I get there about 12:30 or 1:00 am on a Friday or Saturday to prep all the ribs and everything. That’s a shift that ends for me at about 2:00 or 3:00 pm. At that point I normally go weld or I just fall asleep somewhere. If I’m cutting then I probably didn’t do the early morning shift and I got there around 5:00 am and my job’s not done until the meat’s gone. When I cut it’s a pretty unrelenting four hours of straight cutting and that’s hard to do after getting to work ten hours before.
TM: One of the things I hear about Franklin Barbecue is the barbecue was better back at the trailer. Can you compare from your point of view the quality of barbecue you’re doing now versus the quality you were doing back at the trailer?
AF: I think about that a lot actually. When the trailer opened I was doing two briskets a day and three briskets on a Saturday. On Saturday two briskets would hopefully turn out pretty good because I’d been practicing all week, and then a back up brisket in case one of those two sucked. You never figure out how to do barbecue until you do it day in and day out. I mean the wood changes, the temperature changes, the meat changes, everything changes. Barbecue fluctuates. You can’t avoid it, but I think it’s better now than it’s ever been. I’ve gotten a lot better as a cook and everyone else around here has gotten better too. I think we know now how to better deal with seasonal fluctuations. We also know how to cook a lot more at one time. The more meat you cook the more moisture gets into the cookers. It totally changes the cook time.
TM: How much does it affect the cook if you have just a few briskets in a smoker versus having it completely full like yours normally are?
AF: It’s completely different because of airflow issues. If you’ve got a large cooker with three briskets in it they’re going to cook really fast and really even. They have great color, the fat’s going to render really well, the edges will get good and crispy and you’re not going to trap heat anywhere. It’s easy to cook three briskets, but when you’ve got seventy and you’re running around between cookers and then somehow they all have to come off at around the same time it’s a logistical issue.
TM: Do you rotate different types of meat in the same smoker or do you have dedicated smoker for each type of meat?
AF: Every cooker we have sees brisket except the one we use just for sausage and pork butts, which is the original one. We don’t want to shuffle too much. The old adage “If you’re lookin’ you ain’t cookin’” is true. If you lift the lid for thirty minutes while you’re shuffling, you’re losing probably an hour’s worth of good cooking time. You can crank up the fire a bit if you know you’re going to get in there, but usually it happens that you smell something wrong and know you’ve got to get in there right now. Now your fire’s shot and you have to build that fire back up and get it hot again.
TM: Franklin Barbecue is known for wrapping briskets in butcher paper. Why do you wrap at all, and why do you choose butcher paper?
AF: The briskets need to stay covered so that the bark doesn’t get ripped off of them when they’re being thrown around. We also wrap them once we know we’ve gotten a certain amount of smokiness. I started using paper because it was cheaper than foil. Foil also gets things real steamy. It’s known as the “Texas Crutch” and it would be embarrassing for me to use foil on briskets, but we use foil on pork butts and sometimes on ribs. I think foiled briskets end up a little pot-roasty for my taste, and the paper breathes a little better. If we were only doing five briskets then I would probably never wrap them, but when you’ve got that many cooking it’s nice to get them off, throw them on the counter and let them rest. It’s really there for protection, but an added side effect is that it helps retain moisture. I can also use the grease soaked butcher paper to start my fires on Monday when we restart the fires. The fires then burn twenty four hours a day until we’re done on Sunday. That’s when we clean the pits.
TM: You’re on top of the barbecue world and you have been for a while. Is that great feeling or a nerve-racking one?
AF: That’s a little scary because if you’re on top you can only go down. Nobody stays on top forever. It’s just not possible. There’s always the next awesome place. We’re going to enjoy it while we’ve got it, and we’re some of the luckiest people to ever be where we’re at.
TM: Is your cooking process or the way you operate affected by your elevated position?
AF: We do the same thing we’ve been doing, but we try a lot harder these days. When there are people waiting for barbecue that’s not even ready yet and you mess something up, then what do you do?
TM: How does your decision making change now when determining what to serve and what to throw away?
AF: Even back at the trailer we just threw stuff away if it wasn’t up to snuff. Back then it was just a monetary loss. Now it’s like these people have been here for three hours and they need something to eat. But still, if it’s not up to our standard we don’t serve it. We might give it away to folks at the end of the line, but we don’t sell it. There’s just no way cooking this much food that all of it can be absolutely flawless.
TM: Is there animosity from the older generation of pitmasters towards you because of your quick success?
AF: I think it’s more of a camraderie. Everything evolves. If you had a place that was cooking great barbecue that hasn’t changed a thing, that doesn’t make something newer any better just because it’s new. The older places are sometimes tied to down to a specific tradition or recipes that they have to adhere to. I have the freedom of this being our place and we can do whatever we want. We have pulled pork on the menu and that’s certainly not something that’s normal in Texas.
TM: Why did you decide to do pulled pork?
AF: Because I like pulled pork.
TM: You have a famous sandwich called the Tipsy Texan. Does a part of you cringe a little having to chop up otherwise beautiful brisket and add the sauce and slaw to it for the sandwich?
AF: Yes. It kills me. About a week ago a group from UT came after graduation and we probably sold forty Tipsy Texans. That’s a huge sandwich that weighs like a pound.
TM: How many briskets does that account for?
AF: I don’t even want to think about it. It was rainy the night before so the briskets came out beautifully. The fat was perfect and the bark was great. They looked so flippin’ good. Then every other person asked for a Tipsy. Usually when we make those we have some end cuts, some scraps or some dry flats that aren’t quite there for sliced that we’re able to mix in. This time I was unwrapping whole perfectly cooked briskets and hacking up the entire thing to make sandwiches. It’s an $8 sandwich that weighs over a pound, so that wasn’t a good day for profits.
TM: What are the ideal conditions for cooking outside?
AF: Wind is about the worst thing you could ask for. I’d rather have it rainy than windy, but wet wood is terrible and our wood is stacked outside. Ideal conditions are 60-70 degrees, no breeze and high humidity.
TM: Do you use seasoned wood only?
AF: I use two stacks these days. One is seasoned about a year and one stack is pretty green. We go through four cords of wood a week, so we can’t be that choosy. The green wood provides a rounder longer heat, but when I need to crank up the heat a bit I throw in some dry wood. I’m actually working the fires different now than even a year ago using more green wood than ever. Barbecue is all about working a fire.
TM: Anthony Bourdain came to Austin and ate at Franklin Barbecue last year for his show No Reservations. Have you gone back to watch that episode or see what Bourdain has said about Texas barbecue since his visit?
AF: I have and it thrills me to no end. When [Aaron’s wife and business partner] Stacy and I opened up the trailer we said “wouldn’t it be cool if Anthony Bourdain came by the place?” I’ll be darned if he didn’t come through. That was the coolest thing we’ve ever been on. I knew he liked Kansas City barbecue, and now he loves Texas brisket.
TM: You started bottling a line of barbecue sauces and a local brewery makes a Franklin Barbecue smoked porter. What’s it like to see yours and your wife’s face on barbecue sauce bottle and on beer taps around town?
AF: I can’t order the beer without feeling self-conscious.
TM: Do you feel famous?
AF: If I was famous I wouldn’t get to work at 1:00 in the morning. I’d pay someone to do it every day and I’d be on a vacation in the mountains.
TM: What are the chances we see Franklin Barbecue’s second location?
AF: Not likely.