I rarely get excited when I hear that some famous pitmaster has a new barbecue cookbook out. Too many of these volumes stray far afield from whatever low-and-slow specialty earned its author’s fame, morphing into generic grilling books aimed at backyard dabblers. You can almost guess the table of contents without cracking the spine: sauced-up chicken breasts, an entire chapter devoted to seafood, an endless parade of grilled peaches, deviled eggs, and all sorts of side dishes seldom seen in an actual barbecue joint.
Aaron Franklin, the celebrated Austin brisket master, has taken a very different path in Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (10 Speed Press, April 7, 2015). He's teamed up with Jordan MacKay, the wine & spirits critic for San Francisco magazine, to produce not a compendium of recipes but a deep dive into the technique and philosophy underlying his cooking.
"So many people want to have a recipe," Franklin writes, "but with all the variables in barbecue—wood, quality of fire, meat selection, type of cooker, weather, and so on—there is no 'magic' recipe."
The focus stays tight on the Central Texas barbecue style for which Franklin is famous. “I poured what I know about barbecue into this book,” he notes in the acknowledgments, and he doesn’t seem to hold much back. In a field generally shrouded in a lot of trumped-up secrecy—well-guarded sauce recipes, arcane rub formulae, proprietary gadgets inside the pits—Franklin lays out his approach in enlightening detail.
Franklin Barbecue is lavishly illustrated with Wyatt McSpadden’s color photographs, and it would serve just fine as a coffee table book for backyard grillers who are more aspirational than inspired. It should appeal most, though, to those seeking to master real low-and-slow, all-wood cooking.
Chapter 2 is dedicated to the smoker. If you’re so inclined (and own welding equipment), there are instructions for fabricating an entire Franklin-style smoker from scratch. More practical for non-obsessive hobbyists are the instructions on key modifications for improving a cheap store-bought smoker, like extending the smoke stack and installing a good thermometer.
An entire chapter is devoted to selecting, seasoning, and splitting wood. Others detail the theory and philosophy of fire and smoke and the ins-and-outs of purchasing meat. The heart of the book, though, is “The Cook.” 33 pages take you step by step through Franklin’s process for cooking brisket, followed by detailed instructions for pork ribs, beef ribs, and turkey. Each step of trimming and wrapping the meat is illustrated with color photographs.
The book opens with the engaging story of how Franklin got started in the business, and it closes with a very spartan slate of recipes—just four sauces and the three sides (beans, potato salad, and coleslaw) that are served at Franklin’s restaurant.
2015 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for Aaron Franklin. First he was nominated as a semi-finalist and then a finalist for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest—an unprecedented honor for a barbecue cook. Now he has a brand new cookbook hitting the streets, and one that stands out head and shoulders above a very crowded field. For fans of slow-smoked Texas brisket and ribs, those are some very tasty developments.