TMBBQFest, “23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:” Franklin Barbecue
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Editor’s Note: The Texas Monthly BBQ Festival is almost here! Each day until then, we’ll be talking to one of the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog. Today we bring you Aaron Franklin, 33, of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com.
What is your heat source? Fire and post oak. We have two stacks. One stack is a year old, and the other is about two years old. We alternate between them. You’ve become popular so quickly. Does that newfound fame ever make you nervous? Yeah, it does make me really nervous. The more people know about a place, the more critical they are of it. You always wonder how to increase volume and keep the quality up when everybody is already searching for something to be wrong with it. It’s a little nerve-racking. We just hope for the best. Where did you learn your barbecue knack from? Honestly, I’d say in the backyard. Stacy and I have backyard barbecues every month, and I’d use my friends as guinea pigs. I remember you telling me your family was involved in the restaurant business? My family had a barbecue place for about three years when I was about ten. Later on when I was really getting into barbecue and getting nerdy with it, I ended up getting a job at John Mueller’s BBQ on Manor Road. I worked the register there and didn’t do a whole lot. I wanted to see if I liked it enough to pursue that kind of thing. You’re self-taught. Is good barbecue something you can be taught, or is it more of an innate thing? I don’t think you can teach someone how to do good barbecue. It takes so much experience to roll with punches and all of the different variables that come up. It’s not the kind of thing where you could work at a place for a year and all of the sudden know how to make great barbecue. It takes time to develop a sixth sense for it where it becomes something that you know exactly what’s going on. What’s your signature meat? Brisket. What city in Texas is on to great barbecue? Taylor is always up there, and Lockhart and Luling. Honestly, Austin is starting to get on the barbecue path too. What type of barbecue are you not the biggest fan of? I don’t like sauces. I don’t like sweet sauce, like the Kansas City kind or pretty much any in Texas. It totally bugs me when you get a brisket somewhere and they gloss a bunch of sweet sauce all over it. I guess that answers my next question, which happens to be “sauce or no sauce?” Definitely no sauce. I’m totally in the school of thought that if you’re putting sauce on your meat, it must be some pretty awful meat. You’re probably putting sauce over it to cover up something that could be a lot better. There’s nothing worse than spending eighteen hours on a piece of meat and going to the store and buying Kraft. What are you perfect two sides to accompany your barbecue? White bread and pickles. That’s all you need. Do you make your own sausage? We have it on the menu, but we don’t make it in-house. Texas Sausage Company makes it for us, about ten blocks up the street. Slow and low or high and fast? What temperature are you going for? We don’t cook too terribly fast. Our brisket cooks anywhere between twelve to eighteen hours, depending on its size. Our cooking temperature also ranges. We stick to pretty much 285 degrees, but we can be as low as 265 – 250 degrees, if we’ve got really small briskets. But if we’ve got prime briskets, we cook lower. If we’ve got really fatty briskets, we’ll crank it up to 310 – 320 degrees. It’s a sliding spectrum. What non-secret ingredients are in your signature spice rub? Salt and pepper. What’s your favorite barbecue in Texas, other than your own? Mueller’s. What is something you want to perfect more? We’ve only been doing this two years, and in these two years, we’ve been doing some heavy experimentation. When we opened, we didn’t really know what was going on. Even now, we’re still chasing stuff all the time. That kind of goes back to the experience thing; you’ve never really got it figured out. If you think you’ve got barbecue figured out, you’re probably making some pretty terrible barbecue. Do you start a new fire each day, or do you keep the same one going? We build the fire on Monday morning at about 8 a.m., and that fire goes out on Sunday afternoon. We’re closed Mondays, and Sunday is pit-maintenance day. We clean the grates, clean out the ash, take out all the grease, and maybe do some welding, if something broke. You recently built another pit. What are the makings of a perfect pit? Oh man, that’s going to be a lengthy conversation. You’d have to grab a six-pack and hang out with me an entire day to figure that out. Did you design it yourself? We have three pits that we use and I designed all of them, except the first one. I heavily modified that one, though. I designed and built the second from scratch. The new one is a lot different from the others. The other two are made with 500 gallon propane tanks, so the smoke chamber is 10 feet long by 36 inches deep and it’s round. The new one is rectangular and has a chamber that’s 15 ½ feet by 32 inches deep. We had to go with the rectangular design because we need so much food now, and you can only fit thirteen or fourteen briskets on the round ones and that’s just not even close to big enough. I had never really cooked on a rectangular one before. I’m happy with it, but at the same time, it doesn’t cook quite as well as I hoped it would. I’m still modifying it. Every week, I make some big change to it. That’s where Sunday afternoon, Monday morning come in handy because I can work on it. Right now, it’s working better than its ever worked and it’s coming along, but it’s not quite there. The cool thing about building it is that if it doesn’t work, you have your welder right there. I don’t have to call a welder to come out and charge me $2,000 to tack on a handle. We’ll fix it ourselves. That allows us to tinker with it until it really is perfect. Do you wake up every morning fearing the long lines you have to face? It’s a little freaky. Say I get there at 3:30 a.m. and I’m by myself. Things are real quiet. I’m cooking stuff and pulling off briskets. There is no one else in the kitchen to pull of the briskets, or if the ribs aren’t finished by 11 a.m., there is no one back there to help me pull things off. I get a little freaked out sometimes when I look down there and there are 250 people standing in line and my ribs still aren’t ready to serve. I’ll just think, ‘God, I hope these things hurry up!’ Then, it’ll inevitably start raining, and that just really screws everything up. Sometimes, the ribs come in and they are a couple pounds bigger than they’re supposed to be and take even longer to cook. It’s more than a little stressful. I always have to have a little time to myself right before 11 a.m. comes, because when 11 a.m. comes, it’s talking to every person and cutting meat for the next three hours without a break. We’re getting better with it. Two years down the road, it’ll be a piece of cake. Aluminum foil or butcher paper? It depends. A lot of times, I wouldn’t wrap briskets at all. As far as holding, we wrap our stuff with butcher paper, and that’s mainly because it’s way cheaper than foil. What should the home cook look for when they go to pick out a brisket? Grade makes a huge difference. Say you are cooking a bunch of select, like growth hormones, corporate feed, really crappy stuff, it’s going to cook totally different than something like prime grade, even though prime grade does have more fat. I prefer choice grade. Go to the butcher shop, get a fresh brisket, and look at the bottom and the sides of it. Get something with a lot of marbling in it. The more fat the better, and they cook faster with a lot of fat. You can also cook them hotter when there is more fat. Never buy a frozen brisket. They’re terrible. The fibers actually pull apart differently when they are pre-frozen. What is one piece of advice you would give someone smoking a brisket at home? Patience. Don’t rush it. It’s not done until it’s done. How long does that “patience” entail? Well, it depends on the size of the brisket, the size of the smoker, and how hot it’s going. I’ve done pretty tender briskets in six hours before, but I’ve done equally tender briskets in eighteen hours. I definitely think low and slow is the best, but if you have a small smoker and you are doing one brisket or two briskets, I’d say plan on twelve hours. Have you ever considered using a gas-fired or electric smoker? Never. I would rather stab myself in the eye with a spoon before using gas. Have you ever eaten Texas barbecue outside of Texas? No, I really haven’t. Any of my barbecue travels have been pretty hardcore regional areas. If I’m in Memphis, I’ll order Memphis barbecue, or if I’m in Kansas, I’m ordering Kansas barbecue. I don’t see how anyone could effectively pull off Texas barbecue outside of Texas. The resources aren’t really there. What do you think it is about Texas that has made it the king of barbecue? Is it our source of ingredients, our regional influences? What is it? As far as regions, Central Texas is far superior to any of the others. I think it’s also our wood. We have plenty of oak. The fact that brisket has been in Texas for so long it makes it one of those things you grew up around. Everyone has an uncle or a relative that had a barbecue place at one time. We are so used to it, our standards are a little bit higher. There are firmly planted traditions in these small towns all over Central Texas, and it’s all about the meat. How many pounds of barbecue do you smoke a day? Pretty close to a 1,000 pounds. On a slower day, maybe 600 or 700 pounds. And we have one person in the morning and one person at night. That is hard for one person to deal with that much food. What do you think can ruin a good barbecue cookoff? A bad attitude. People just being impatient like “I’m hungry. I’m hungry. I want food now!” It’s not about that. It’s about hanging out and being with family and friends, not being a grumpy pants. You should say to yourself, “Wow, somebody cared so much that they didn’t sleep an entire night for me to have a piece of meat to eat a sandwich with.” What would be your choice of beer to go with your barbecue? My current choice of beer right now is the Live Oak Oaktoberberfest. I think Live Oak Big Bark is the ultimate barbecue beer. It’s lite. It’s crisp. It’s an amber. It cuts through the smoke pretty well. Whose barbecue are you looking forward to trying at the festival? I’m looking forward to trying some beef ribs from Wayne Mueller. I’m also looking forward to having some Snow’s brisket because it has been such a long time.
Photo courtesy Daniel Vaughn.