Franklin Barbecue (A Meat-Smoking Manifesto) Book Review
Whilst I was writing this review there was a fire at Franklin Barbecue and the restaurant is currently closed – thankfully no-one was hurt. As if the Franklin’s weren’t awesome enough though, what are they spending their time doing now? Hosting fundraisers for those affected by the destruction left behind by Harvey. Real heroes. You can keep up to date with them on Facebook.
Franklin Barbecue – A Meat-Smoking Manifesto
Never let it be said that I don’t consider all the options before I make a decision. Feel free to say that I consider all the options, some things that aren’t options, reconsider them all, weight the pros and cons, check reviews, think about it for a while, then repeat at least twice before eventually making a decision.
In 2016 I finally got around to building my UDS – Ugly Drum Smoker – something I’ll write a how-to post on soon. Having done so, I thought it might be a good idea to learn how to use the darn thing and cook up some seriously authentic barbecue in the back garden. Meat smoking seems to be somewhat in vogue in the UK at the moment and so the shelves are lined with recipe books on the topic. Leafing through a couple of them and checking the reviews (obviously), two things became apparent; there were a lot of strongly flavoured ingredients, and none of them gave much time to talking about how to actually smoke.
Seeing the light
That’s when I found Aaron Franklin and his Meat Smoking Manifesto. The name alone is worth £15. Embarrassingly I’d never heard of Franklin Barbecue and (obviously) checking the reviews, discovered it was one of the top smokehouses in America (and so presumably the world). A couple of the other books I’d looked at were written by people who ran successful restaurants though so that in itself was no guarantee that this would be the recipe book for me.
The difference with The Manifesto is that it’s not a recipe book at all. Sure, it has some recipes in it but in reality, it’s a story about a passion for barbecue and a journey of constant improvement and increasing precision laid out so that you and I can benefit from “a truly rare level of commitment and expertise” to quote Anthony Bourdain.
The Manifesto is broken up into seven chapters (pledges?); Beginnings p5, The Smoker p39, Wood p71, Fire + Smoke p85, Meat 103, The Cook p125 and Serving + Eating p177.
Notice anything about that list? There are fully one hundred and twenty-four (I wrote it out to exaggerate the point) pages before we get to actually talking about cooking anything. It is a further 20 pages before we get to anything that resembles a recipe! There are fourteen pages dedicated to wood. Eighteen pages on burning that wood and creating smoke. This is not your average “smother it in sugar and spice and cook it for ages” barbecue book.
Now – one of two things has just happened. Either you’ve read those statements and thought, “What in God’s name is this nonsense?”, or like me (less likely), “All praise Aaron Franklin, Lord of all that is smokey”.
If you fall into the first category then I apologise and strongly suggest that you go back to the start and pick another high-quality review/blog/rant/man-crush to read.
However, should you wish to kneel at the altar of Franklin our sermon will continue. Alternatively, you could ignore me entirely, quit reading reviews and just buy the book.
The greatest love story ever told
What I love about Aaron Franklin is that he started off just like you and I – trying to smoke a brisket on a cheap barbecue and getting it wrong. And if this book was about nothing more than this journey it would still be worth a read. ‘Beginnings’ is one of those inspiring tales about someone who finds something they love, practices it, practices it some more and then somehow manages to turn it into a living. It’s no overnight success story and it’s certainly not about the money which for me, makes it all the more special because I don’t think I’d ever be brave enough to something purely for the love of it.
Let the geeking begin
So now that you’re in love with the story, the history and the culture it’s time to get down and smokey and absolutely geek out about how to smoke meat. This, for me, is where The Manifesto excels in a way no other cookery book I own does. The level of knowledge, the detail and more importantly the way it’s explained is nothing short of exemplary.
Aaron walks us through the basics of smokers and how they work, all the time dropping in tidbits of tales about his own (damned awesome) cookers. There’s a full-on, end-to-end tutorial on how to build your own smoker from that 250-gallon propane tank that’s been lying around in the back garden for years. Or maybe just how to modify a bought one to make it better.
But that’s just the beginning – we’ve a whole host of geekery to get through yet. Which wood should I use? Where should I get it from? What should it look like? How do I know if it’s any good? How do I burn it? What’s good smoke? Because yeah, there’s bad smoke – who knew? How do I build up heat? How do I maintain the fire? It’s all here, beautifully described by someone who lives it day-in, day-out and illustrated by utterly mouth-watering photography (go Wyatt McSpadden).
We’re about halfway through the book now and we’ve reached my favourite part, for two reasons. 1. We get to talk about cooking meat. 2. It is the single best tutorial/guide/absolute masterclass on a cooking method I have ever read.
Having walked us through the types of meat and how to buy it, Aaron explains ‘The Cook’ from the very start, through every step until it’s finished, rested and on the plate. This isn’t for brisket or ribs, or turkey, or sausage – it’s just how to smoke meat. How to prepare it, how to season it, if and when to slather, how to wrap it, maintaining the temperature, the infamous stall, water pans, smoke rings – everything.
Then we get to the specifics of each type of meat; what do we trim from where, what do we do whilst it’s smoking, how long will it take, how do we know when it’s done?
And the genius of this is that reading all of these steps in this detail everytime would be a nightmare and you’d spend as long reading as you would cooking. But that’s not the intention at all. Now that we fully understand what’s going on in the smoker we can flick to the short version of whatever we fancy cooking and the steps are just an aide memoir. Because we’ve been able to digest all the detail in advance, when it comes to slapping our brisket onto the grill there’s a one-page ‘recipe’ to refer to, and that’s it.
It really is a fantastic way to arrange a cookery book.
All good things…
Well almost. Once you’ve spent hours slaving over your smoker and everything is set you’re going to want a few finishing touches to fully bring perfection to your plate. And so for absolute completeness, The Manifesto closes with a guide to cutting and serving the fruits of your labour, some of the restaurant’s own sauce recipes, some classic sides and a few notes on what to drink with your hard-earned barbecue goodness.
In case it wasn’t obvious by now, I love this book. Had a ended up with a typical recipe book that said “cook your brisket for 10 hours until it’s tender” I’d still be throwing money in the bin next to dry, slightly smokey beef. But with the explanations and techniques in this book I’ve been able to cook up a pretty good standard of brisket, ribs, wings and sausage in a metal drum in my back garden. Clearly, I’m not turning out restaurant quality food just yet, and I won’t be giving up the day job anytime soon but I have genuinely surprised, impressed and extremely full at smokey wondrousness that I’ve enjoy with friends and family. And a good beer.
Buy. It. Now.