A song of smoke and fire: James Beard Award-winning Texas barbecue boss Aaron Franklin talks steak

Texas BBQ maestro brings his love of details and dedication to craft and turns his attention to steak

Published April 13, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

Photography by Wyatt McSpadden from "Franklin Steak" (Photography by Wyatt McSpadden)
Photography by Wyatt McSpadden from "Franklin Steak" (Photography by Wyatt McSpadden)

A song of smoke and fire: James Beard Award-winning Texas barbecue boss Aaron Franklin has deeply held beliefs about what great meat is and how to prepare it properly using fire and he’s shifted his focus to a subject every omnivore can appreciate: Steaks.

Franklin traces a steak’s quality all the way back to the breed of the steer and the way it is raised; temperament is tenderness he insists, and then he and co-author Jordan Mackay weighs-in on all the pros and cons of every imaginable cut.

The grill he favors is a retro rig called the PK Grill, and he’s dedicated a section of “Franklin Steak: Dry-aged Live-fired Pure Beef” to step-by-step instructions for welding your very own super-charged steak cooker, the “hybrid hibachi.” Franklin stopped by the Salon studio to talk about his new book.

Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I thought I knew a lot about meat, but I don't know s**t.

I don't either. Jordan wrote the thing. [laughs]

You clearly informed him because there's a lot of stuff in here. You move from what makes a good cow, to how to grow a good cow, and then you take the cow apart for us and tell us how to cook it. There's so much detail in here, and it's such a deep read on something that you think you would know everything about, because it's just fire and meat.

Yeah, and at the end of the day, it is really just still like heat and meat. It's salt and pepper. It's the same as German Czech Central Texas barbecue. It's salt, pepper, fire, and meat, but you can make anything as complicated as you want it to be.

You're seasoning your steak four hours before cooking, right?

It depends on what steak. I actually kind of like about the 30-hour range, somewhere in there, but, yeah, I mean this stuff can get as nerdy as you want it to be. If you dive into where a cow comes from and what it eats, it's got growth hormones, or it ate field peas, or was snacking on four-leaf clovers, if you marinate things in children's tears or unicorn blood, or whatever. You can dive as deep as you want to, so that's kind of what we learned in the book.

Let's dive deep into kinds of cows. You spend a fair amount of time on Wagyu, and I'd like to just talk a little bit about what Wagyu is and isn't.

Wagyu is from Japan and there's a cool history. It's been hard to get these steers over to the US. There's some paperwork, and one of them will slip through and they'll split off into different breeds. Really, it's just kind of like makes people think of heavy marbling and stuff like that.

Actually, it's not one of my favorite breeds. Fat content is great, it's high in oleic acid, it melts, it renders very easily, it tastes good, but I think they lack in beefiness that you kind of get from like Angus or maybe like some older cows. A lot of people talk about dairy cows and stuff like that. At the end of the day, you cook what you've got.

What is your preference?

 I'm a big fan of Angus. That's what we use at Franklin Barbecue. We do all prime Angus there and, really, here in the States, that's kind of what everybody's gotten used to. Back in the '80s there was certified Angus, and like some marketing pushes and stuff like that, but, really, I think for a good quality animal that can develop fat properly and stuff like that, and good muscle structure and beefiness, I go with Angus. They're easy to get, they're not crazy expensive. There's some other ones, there's like Akaushi, there's Steak River Farm says Wagyu and stuff, but, yeah, normal stuff I think is Angus.

Most people when they're eating a steak are eating an 18-month-old steer?

Or less. Usually 18 months is kinda the standard, and it varies a lot. If you go to the butcher shop, you go to a fancy pants place and like, oh, this came from this farm, and I know the farmer. The cow's name was Bertha. She was great. She had a great temperament. This is going to be the best steak you've ever had, or it could just be a non breed-specific piece of meat on a styrofoam platter at the supermarket.

In the book, you talk about the best steer steak you're going to find is from a Spanish cow that's, how old?

Oh, I think like 22 years old, or something insane. Jordan, the co-author of the book, we wrote the first book together also, one of his best life experiences was hanging out on the side of a mountain in Spain, and this cow, this fellow he slaughters one cow a week, a month, or whatever, but they're old dairy cows, and just snacking on flowers that grow up between the cracks and the rocks and stuff.

The clover and the unicorn. Baby tears.

All that stuff. Baby tears. That's kind of the cool thing. With barbecue, you've got regionality. You've got different firewood, you've got different, you have beef down in Texas, you've got hogs in the Carolinas, stuff like that. I think that goes true for steak also.

Depending on where you are in the world, they eat different things, they have different climates, there are different breeds, they've got different uses, different muscle structures, they've evolved into these different things, which makes it special when you go to Spain, you can get that, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to try to find that here in the states, like kinda get what you got, and then learn how to cook it also.

Right, and there are all kinds of  regional producers.

We list some out of there that you could get a mail order, get online, you can have them shipped. There's Crowd Cow, which is a really cool one. There are a ton of them. Creekstone is a good Angus supplier.  If you've got the money and you really want to, you can. I'm lucky to live right in the middle of Texas, so we've got a ton of good farms down in there.

You can do an errand run and get one from everybody, right?

You really could, actually.

That's fantastic.

I think that's pretty neat. Also, as opposed to breed and stuff, like, oh this breed's great. It's like you shouldn't be stuck on one thing.

I think old dairy cows are some of the best beef I've ever had, just because it's an older animal, it has the flavors, you've had time to develop the muscles, the fat, maybe not a certain type of fat that some people want. That's neat, and then to be able to look at a piece of meat and be like, "Oh, I need to cook this hot and fast," or "I need to temper it. I want to salt it overnight," or "I want to smoke it and then grill it off later," just to kind of like know what you're looking at, I think, is a pretty cool thing.

How do I get an old dairy cow? Is it difficult? 

I don't know where you would rustle one of those up.

In Brooklyn?

In Brooklyn, yeah. I mean, I'm sure you've got some fabulous butcher shops here. I would just go to the butcher at kind of the local, I'd be like, "Hey, what do you got? Where's this from? Oh, that's neat," and they'll have favorites, and they change all the time, too. I mean, one week you might get a great piece of meat, the next week it might be really lean, maybe they didn't harvest properly on time, maybe it got cold outside. You never know. It's a moving target.

So you have a steer and you have a variety of choices and a variety of ages, and all that stuff, but in order to get a steak, you've got to take that steer apart. In the book, you talk about two different ways to do it, and what's accepted here in the US, which is a couple of different steaks.

Yes, ribeye, New York strips, filets, sirloins.

Then you have the butcher's cuts, which are cuts that people don't really associate with a steak.

Those are the ones I like.

They are a great value, right?

Yeah, typically, they're cheaper. A bavette is probably one of my favorite steaks, just texturally. Here, it's called a flap steak or flat meat here in the States. In France, it's a bavette. Or like hanger steaks are really great, little flat irons and stuff like that, but that kind of goes in with, you talk to your butcher. Know your butcher.

They're always trying to come up with new cuts, too. Because you've got so many muscles in an animal, it just depends on if you find a seam and you kinda cut through it and find certain things.

That's called seam cutting, right?

Yes, that's the style of butchering.

It's here now, but it sort of disappeared for a while. Is that the right way to think of it?

Ah, I don't know. I think it just depends on where people learn. Butchering's evolved quite a bit over the years.

I once slaughtered and rendered a cow and had one side cut American, which was very interesting, and then the other side was seam cut.

Did you have a bandsaw for that? Zip, zip, zip, zip.

For the American cuts, yeah, pretty much. I did it there at the slaughterhouse, and it was pretty much done very quickly. The other half I took to a friend of mine, Guy Arnone, who's trained in the seam cutting, and it took forever.

Yeah, it's labor intensive.

The knife was huge.

Letting go and getting it in there and really cutting stuff, I think that's a more traditional way to do it, for sure. I think as America got industrialized and stuff in the '50s and '60s, which has enabled us to cook only briskets or only ribeyes when boxed meats started to happen, that was also a side effect of that, just like you got a saw, you got 14 steaks, 12 steaks, whatever, just zip them on a saw, they're all one-inch thick.

It doesn't matter where the muscle is, doesn't matter where the bone is necessarily, kind of the Old World way of doing it, which is coming back in these smaller butcher shops. That's definitely the craft of butchering.

One of the cuts, the most exciting moment was when we cut what was called the spider steak. I was excited to learn it's the muscle that, when released, allows the cow to defecate, so it's a hard-working muscle.

It's a little bitter on the backside.

It's tense all the time, but it's a pan steak about this big, and I gotta say, I was excited just because of the story behind it.

I'll bet it's a heavily-worked muscle.

Yes, I've been in the field with a cow.

Check, please. Yeah, but that's really cool. There's some steakhouses that really go out of the way to find these different little cuts. Super fascinating. I think that's pretty exciting for me to go to a steakhouse and be like, "What is that? I've never ... " That's atypical for anything you find in a store. I think the stuff's really cool.

Now that we've taken apart a cow, we're going to cook the cow. There's a whole section in the book, a flow chart you've created, to explain it.

Yeah, we wanted this to be like a choose your own adventure barbecue book. My inspiration is kinda like nostalgia, like when I was going to steakhouses in the '80s, like Steak & Ales and stuff like that, and kind of nailed the font like the signage and was like, "Man, it turned out really good."

If you can only cook inside, what steak should you be cooking inside, on searing and then putting in the oven?

Not everybody has a grill and a huge backyard like we do in Texas. With the book, what we kinda tried to do is just pick like the basic steaks there, say like five steaks, and then we try to pick the five kind of best ways to cook that.

It could be a reverse sear on a tri-tip; it could be like a big Tomahawk steak, something that you might pan sear, if it's dry aged, and then finish off in the oven, something like that, or like steakhouse style, or a strip, which takes to the grill really well, or all these things, like the vents. Normally, like in a small kitchen, depends on how well your vent hood works, too, I guess.

Or if you have a big fan, sucking fan, by the window or something.

Yeah, exactly, which I don't.

Which you then Windex the grease off.

We have to cook outside. Yeah, I think like smaller steaks, something that obviously you can fit in a pan, but I think that's absolutely the best way to cook a filet, which a lot of people are kind of like, "Ah, filets are so fat." I really love a filet that's cooked well. Fat doesn't necessarily mean it's like a great steak. It can totally go both ways.

You've got like subcutaneous fat. A lot of people were saying like, I got this big ribeye, whatever, it's got like a layer of fat on it, but it might not be graded well. It might not have inter-muscular fat. It might actually have marbling. All those things kinda cook differently but, yeah, a well-marbled filet, and cook in a pan with a little bit of butter, ah, so good. Super good.

So fat does not equal flavor, right? I'm going to nuance it a little bit, but it does make a delicious and a better steak for another reason, which is?

Absolutely. Well, another reason, because it lubricates the meat fibers. You don't want to eat a piece of leather. It's nice to have some marbling in there.

Right. The great point of the book is if you took that meat and put it in your mouth, it wouldn't taste like a great steak.

No, it's that different flavors stick to fats, and different flavors stick to proteins and stuff. Yeah, you should always, just by rule of thumb, just kind of pick the best marbled piece of meat you can.

There's no one cut that's great, and always going like, "Oh, I'm a ribeye guy." It's like be a little open. If you go to the market and maybe the ribeyes don't look so good, you kinda look around like, "Oh, man. What is that thing?" You could hopefully be able to recognize a piece of meat at the supermarket or at the butcher shop or at Whole Foods or wherever, and be like, "Oh, that has good marbling."

Even if you don't know what it's called, you can look at it, hopefully after reading this book, or hopefully maybe you know anyway, it's like, "Okay, so it's thin, it's got a certain grain to it, it's gonna shrink like this. I want to cook it like this," and regardless of name or, hopefully, it's inexpensive, too, we just kind of know how to cook it, know what to do with different things.

That's kind of where the choose your own adventure comes into the book, is like, "Okay, well, I know how to cook a big piece of meat. I know how to stage things out. If I got a bunch of friends coming over, I can cook them a couple hours early, let them hang out, pick them up on the grill later, or I could do smaller steaks in a skillet, I can par cook these a little bit, I can start them in the oven, I can finish them in the oven." We kind of have some different techniques to guide you through not having to stick to like a New York strip every single time. Get what looks good.

If you did need to grill, you guys recommend the PK Grill?

I love the PK Grill.

Can you give a very brief history of the PK Grill? 1958, is when it all began?

Yeah, '57, '58, somewhere in there. They're made out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They're made out of aluminum, which right off the bat, I feel like for years I've been buying grills, and then two years later the bottom rusts out because I'm really bad at cleaning grills.

Me, too.

You get done grilling, it's like, "Ah, let's eat," and then you have some beers, then you go to bed.

You don't clean it until a week later, and it's like, "Ah, man, I should've done this." They're made out of aluminum, so they don't rust, which is super cool. Conducts heat really well. They're made domestically, so you can just call the company and like, "Hey, I need some grates. I need replacement leg," or whatever. They'll ship it out. It's super great. It's aluminum, but it's also square-ish shape, and I really like that, since working in a barbecue restaurant, I always have post oak, that's what we cook with down there, our indigenous white oak of Central Texas. I like that you can zone it out, because it is square. You can put a little piece of wood in there, put your coals, have a really hot spot, have a cooler spot. You can put a log this way, always have a safe zone to go.

Because if you're cooking in a restaurant, got your hot spot, you kind of have different heat zones on there, so you know a certain steak you maybe want to get a good sear, maybe you want to let it settle down a little bit, let the inside kinda keep cooking a little bit, or maybe you want to do it the other way, start if off slow, finish it off fast. As coals naturally die out, you lose heat, so that kind of gives you a really hot spot, and you just kind of move around a lot.

This formation that you just talked about, it's called ... Well, Jordan's called it ...

Jordan has called it the Franklin formation.

Franklin formation. I would take the credit, honestly.

It is my name, I guess.

Yeah, and your formation, so it's a piece of the white oak?

Or whatever you've got. I mean, depends on where you live.

The wood, and then another sector which is the charcoal, and then a blank spot, right?

Maybe not a blank spot. You might just rake the coals. It depends on what you're cooking or how much room you need, I guess.


Yeah, I mean ...

What does the wood do? I understand there's sort of different temperatures thing? Is the wood part of that different temperature thing?

I think it is. I don't really want to smoke a steak. I work around smoked meats all the time, and like certain smokes kind of adhere to fat a little differently and have different flavors and combustion temperatures taste differently, and stuff like that, but I do like just a little bit of a light oakiness or smoke on kind of leaner steaks. I don't necessarily do ribeyes like that, but strips, that's like kind of leaner steaks.

Some of that smoke really picks up, but you just kind of have like little wisps of smoke coming up and just kind of get some extra flavors in there. I prefer to use wood coals anyway. I usually use all natural lump charcoal, or briquets, rather.

That's an important distinction, actually, because the not pure ones are a bit of a mess, and they're hot in a way.

It's the chemicals in there. That stuff doesn't taste real good to me. That was one of the experiments that we did in the book, just like burning down a wood, straight to coal, shoveling the coals over, which takes a tremendous amount of fuel, would take hours. No one's really got time for that, but they do taste better. You could really tell the cleanness in that heat source as opposed to all natural briquettes or even just like something that's not all natural. The wood kinda helps a lot with that. It kinda just gives it more flavor, and it gives you kind of a safe place to go.

How about that charcoal, that cowboy charcoal that's actually just burnt wood, it's not been rendered into briquets and it's light. Pick up a bag of it that you think is going to weigh 50 pounds...

It's like an empty milk carton. I like that stuff a lot. The only problem, and this is just a personal preference, everybody's got theirs, is they burn really hot and fast, but with the briquets, you get a consistent burn time with them, so you kind of mentally know how much heat you got, how much it's going to take. You know when to light another charcoal chimney to get ready for round two. With lump charcoal, you've got some big pieces that take a long time; this piece burns out really quick, falls through the grates.

"Franklin Steak" is great because if you just fell onto earth and you'd never cooked a steak before, this will take care of you, but there's also some gearhead stuff in here, such as dry aging your own steaks, which gets into an area I had no idea about, and the prime cuts are numbered.

Yes, thee 103 and then the 104, and that's like a national numbering system. It's more for kind of like industry standards, like you got a 103 long bone exports, and I don't know half of them. I don't order stuff like this. Like a 123A. Yeah, if you go to a butcher shop, they should know that. It doesn't really matter that much, but if you're going to dry age stuff, that's when you get into like 103s, I think maybe 107s, I have to look at a manual. It's been a while. Those are like the big sub primal cuts, or like primal cuts, and we have the long bones. Kind of like the Flintstones kind of stuff. You throw it on the car. That's the stuff you would want to dry age, like whole strip loins and stuff like that.

What part of the cow do steaks come from? You display an entire map in the book of the cow and the different types of steak cuts.

They come from all over. You've got like sirloin back here, tri-tips down here. The brisket is right here, if you're ever like first-cut, second-cut brisket, whatever, the second cut, first cut, that's actually the ribcage. Down here would be where short ribs come from, plate ribs. Chuck ribs are these four bones here, blah, blah, blah. That ribcage goes up, and that's when you get into ribeyes.

All the marquis stuff is along the back, the rib, and short loin?

It's generally up here. There's two tenderloins that are in there, that's where the filets come from, and then the end, if it's a different cut. Chucks, flat irons from from up in here. Not a lot of great stuff coming out of the sirloin. Kind of like higher and front is where the better stuff typically comes. It's kind of like the less a muscle is worked. A brisket, it holds like 80% of the weight of a cow. They're really tough and that's why it should get cooked forever. A tenderloin, on the other hand, does almost no work at all.

Well, unless the cow is doing yoga, and then the tenderloin is really working!

Yeah, it gets stretched, which is another thing. That's in the next book. Yeah, but you don't have to cook it very much, because it just doesn't do that much work. Ribeyes don't do a ton of work. Up in this area, it depends on how you butcher it. In every cow, you've only got like a certain group of muscles to work with, and you could get your T-bones up here, they would have a little bit of filet in there.

And there were like nine, right, steaks per cow?

It depends on how you butcher things. It just totally depends on what the market wants, and that's even true on brisket, too. You could butcher a little higher. If ground beef is a little bit less than brisket is in the market, so definitely the same for this. You could get T-bones, you could get ribeyes. If you go the long-bone Tomahawk steaks, and that means you don't get ribs down here, because you have to lose that meat to save the bone for the steak.

Right, you've gotta make some decisions.

 Totally, that's all butchering is, anyway. Just making a big decisions.

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By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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