Read an Excerpt
The notion of putting everything I know about barbecue into a book is a daunting one. Not because I know so much—I’m still learning—but because of the nature of barbecue itself. It’s because the printed word—definitive, exacting, permanent—is in many ways antithetical to the process of cooking barbecue, which is, for lack of a better word, loosey-goosey.
So many people want to have a recipe, but with all of the variables in barbecue—wood, quality of fire, meat selection, type of cooker, weather, and so on—there is no “magic” recipe. It just doesn’t operate with absolutes of temperature, time, and measurement. In fact, there are no rights or wrongs in barbecue (well, that may be a stretch), no “just one way,” and certainly no simple “black and white.” You’re much better off with general knowledge of what you want and an arsenal of tricks to have up your sleeve.
So unlike most books that you may flip through a few times and then place on the shelf
to display with the others, I hope this one will live a good portion of its life out in the field, be it in the kitchen or out by the smoker. These recipes aren’t really recipes but more of an idea of how I go about cooking barbecue and some guidelines.
Now, this book is not a survey of barbecue traditions across the country. While I’ve been all over the United States and have eaten lots of great barbecue, there’s really only one tradition that I know intimately: my own. My style is steeped in the tradition of Central Texas, but it’s also got some wrinkles that I discovered along the way.
So, with the greatest respect to all of the other styles around the country, in this book, all I discuss is what we do. Yes, I am wedded to the tradition of great Central Texas barbecue and the principles it holds—brisket, oak, open flame—but I’m also always willing to try something new or look into new designs that might make things cook faster and better. And my hope is that by being hyperdetailed and specific about my techniques, I will help you in your cooking and in your ability to develop your own style too. At Franklin Barbecue, the only thing we’ve got is the dedication to make the best food we can and to keep it consistently the same every day (which itself is the biggest challenge). It’s that dedication that keeps us evolving as cooks and constantly thinking about new ways to do old things.
You’ll notice that there’s a serious thread of do-it-yourself running through this book. That’s because one of the words with which I’ve been known to describe myself is cheap. For large stretches of my life, I didn’t have the cash to buy things I wanted, so I often just figured out how to make them myself. In the process, I sometimes discovered how to make them better or at least how to tailor them to my own needs. However, while I participate in DIY culture and continue to build stuff all of the time, it’s by no means necessary to take this approach in order to benefit from this book. I say, use whatever equipment you’ve got on hand; ideally, the information I present here will help you make the best of it.
Most barbecue books I’ve looked at are organized around the major food groups: beef, pork, poultry, and so on. (At least, those are my food groups.) In this book, which isn’t heavily focused on recipes, I’ve taken a different approach. It’s a more elemental and theoretical breakdown of the barbecue process. In each chapter, I drill down into some fairly technical information with regard to how the process of barbecue works. It can get a little geeky, but I hope that in a way the geekiness keeps you engaged. I include this information because I myself love the technical details. Understanding how something works is the first step toward successfully replicating and improving it.
The first chapter is an extended telling of my own story. I include it at this length not for the purpose of vanity, but the opposite—so that everyone can see how you don’t have to have much money, history, training, or even time to become proficient at barbecue. I really just want to show how a love for barbecue coupled with enthusiasm can equal really good-tasting smoked meat. If I can do this, you can too.
The second chapter is all about the smoker. In Texas, this piece of equipment might be called a smoker, cooker, and pit all in the same sentence, but whatever you call it, barbecue practitioners have no end of fascination with these clunky steel constructions. Everyone who designs and builds his or her own smoker does something a little bit different, always looking for that tweak that will improve its performance. In this chapter, I talk about various kinds of smokers and various modifications you can make to improve the performance of an inexpensive off-the-rack smoker you might buy at an outdoors store. I also give a very basic template for how to build your own smoker from scratch. It’s by no means a blueprint but rather intended to give you an idea of what to think about if you undertake such a project. While smoker construction sounds—and is—fairly ambitious, I can tell you that I’ve built very heavy smokers in my backyard with a cheap welder, rope, and a tree branch to hoist pieces up.
Chapter three is about wood. Wood is our sole fuel, but it’s also arguably the most important seasoning in the food. Without wood, barbecue wouldn’t be barbecue, so we have to take the wood we use as seriously as we would any ingredient in any dish. Just as you wouldn’t sauté meats and vegetables in rancid butter, you want to use good-quality firewood in pristine condition whenever possible. In this chapter, you’ll learn all about seasoning, splitting, buying, and judging wood for barbecue. After reading it, you’ll definitely be wanting your own little woodpile in the backyard. Just keep it dry.
It’s no big leap from wood to fire and smoke, the subjects of chapter four. Most people don’t realize there are gradations of smoke and fire. But a good fire and the fine smoke it produces are two of the most fundamental elements to producing superior Central Texas barbecue. In this chapter, I get into the nitty-gritty of what good smoke and fire mean and how to produce them in various conditions. It’s a bit sciencey, but it also tends to be pretty interesting, so hopefully you’ll get a lot out of it.
Chapter five is about meat. One of things I do differently from most other barbecue joints is use a higher grade of meat. It makes things more expensive for everyone (including me), but I think it’s worth it not only for the quality of the end product but also for the quality of life of the humans eating it and of the noble animals that were sacrificed to bring us this food. You’ll learn here what certain grades of meat mean, where they come from on the animal, and how to go about selecting the best meat for your cooking.
Chapter six is a doozy. It’s the one where I finally get into the actual cooking of the meat. If you buy this book and just want to dive right in, you could start here, though I recommend going back at some time to read all of the other stuff. This is the chapter where I do things like suggest temperatures and times for your cook, even though ultimately you have to figure out the fine details of these things for your own kind of cooker, your own conditions, and ultimately your own taste. But I do talk about other important stuff like trimming meats, rubbing, and wrapping—all the techniques that will help your meat turn out great. The bulk of this chapter is devoted to brisket and ribs, which are the two most popular meats, and cooked using the two basic methods of cooking we do. All of our other fare basically follows these methods, so to learn how to cook brisket and ribs in a smoker is to learn how to cook just about anything.
Lastly, we talk a little bit about sides, sauces, serving, drinking, and all of the stuff that goes hand in hand with enjoying the fruits of your labor. In Central Texas, sides and sauces are always considered secondary to the meat, if indeed necessary at all. So I don’t place a huge emphasis on them, even though I will admit that our beans are really good. More important is brisket slicing technique, which is something I go into detail about here. It’s hard to train people to cut brisket really well, but once you practice and repeat it, you’ll be glad to have good skill in this area, since there’s nothing worse than hacking up something you just spent a day coddling. And at last, beer, like day and night, is a fact of life for the pitmaster, and it’s something I think about a lot! So I talk a little about what I like and what I think works best with barbecue, though beer in general gets a big fat Yes.
Hopefully, while you read this book, you’ll find yourself chomping at the bit to get out there and throw a few racks of ribs or a big, honking brisket onto your smoker. And all I can say is, Go for it! The key to my own development—and it will be to yours—is repetition. Just as with anything, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. In barbecue that’s especially true, particularly if you pay close attention along the way to what you did during the cooking process and when you did it, and then you note the final results and think about how to make the next cook better. That’s what I did, and my barbecue improved steadily along the way. And I didn’t even have a resource like this book.
Ultimately, that’s the best advice I can give. Do, and do some more. Drink beer, but not so much that you lose track of what you’re doing. And pay attention. Sweat the details and you’ll end up producing barbecue that would make the most seasoned of pitmasters proud.
Fig Ancho Beer Barbecue sauce
I don’t serve this at the restaurant, but I do make fun sauces for some events—and this sauce combines a few of my favorite things.
Makes about 6 cups
4 ancho chiles, rehydrated in 4 1/2 cups hot water and the water reserved
12 figs, grilled, stemmed, and quartered
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 (12-ounce) bottle (1 1/2 cups) stout or porter beer (I prefer Left Hand Brewing’s milk stout)
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
6 tablespoons fig preserves
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
In a skillet over medium heat, sauté the chiles, figs, and onion in the butter for about 10 minutes, until the figs and chiles are tender and the onion is translucent. Transfer to a blender and add the sugar, stout, ketchup, both vinegars, the preserves, honey, salt, and pepper. Puree until smooth, adding as much of the reserved chile soaking liquid as needed to reach the desired texture. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.