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One of the World’s Greatest BBQ Pitmasters Has Created the Ultimate Guide to Steak

Aaron Franklin shares his favorite cuts, grilling tricks and favorite steakhouses.

grilled tomahawk steak salsa verde Franklin Photo: courtesy Wyatt McSpadden

In 2015, Aaron Franklin gave us all his brisket secrets. Built around a 15-page treatise of technique, science and art, Franklin BBQ: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, showed us why so many people wait in line at Franklin’s Austin restaurant: because smoking the best beef in Texas is a lot of work! Among barbecue geeks, the book is an acknowledged masterpiece that goes into painstaking detail about choosing, prepping, smoking, holding and cutting meat. “NOT a cookbook,” complained one-star Amazon reviewer “Robert,” which is also correct.

The same year it was published, Franklin also won the James Beard for Best Chef: Southwest, the first time a barbecue cook (or “pitmaster,” if you insist) had been recognized by the restaurant world awards (he’s since been followed by 2018 Southeast winner Rodney Scott). Usually, those honors are won by chefs like Tyson Cole, of Austin sushi palace Uchi—who just happens to be Franklin’s partner in Loro, an “Asian Smokehouse” that opened in 2018 with such hybrid offerings as smoked prime bavette, Thai curry green sausage, and yes, a version of that famous brisket.

Now, Franklin and his collaborator Jordan MacKay are back on the bookshelves (and the Internet) with Franklin Steak: Dry Aged. Live Fire. Pure Beef. It is a similarly wonky, passionate and in-depth exploration of the Other Red Meat, which also happens to be Franklin’s home-cooking passion. It’s a history book, a taxonomy book, a grilling guide, an international travelogue and yes, a cookbook (though there are still not many recipes). Robb Report spoke to Franklin after his regular mid-day shift slicing and serving barbecue at the restaurant. He was also busy getting ready for the third Hot Luck music and food festival, which he co-founded (If you make it to Austin over Memorial Day Weekend, look for a brisket boudin sausage with fermented rice).

franklin steak

The famed pitmaster tries his hand at all things beef.  Photo: courtesy Ten Speed Press

So, why steak?
Well, it seemed like a pretty natural progression really. When we were working on the first book, Jordan and I—he’d hang out with me—and we kind of found ourselves, on most nights, just back at my house grilling steaks. Watching the fire and talking about stuff. A couple of years went by and we kept finding ourselves really nerding out on steaks. He had already been thinking about doing a steak book, and of course it’s a thing that I’ve always been super-into. It doesn’t take 12 hours to cook a steak, and I find that really appealing!

He said you were a little worried that if you did this book, people would start asking when you were going to open Franklin Steak.
Man, I’ve been hearing it a bunch. I probably had ten people at lunch today at the restaurant be like, “So, when’s the steakhouse open up, huh-huh-huh?”

Okay. Definitely not. Maybe we’ll start doing steak pop-ups on Sunday night at the restaurant.

There ya go. Now you’re screwed.
Don’t print that!

I guess Loro doesn’t really count. It’s still a smokehouse not a steakhouse.
Well, we do have bavette on the menu. That technically is a steak.

Yes. How exactly do you make the smoked bavette?
Well, the process at Loro is fairly complex. It gets salted, and cold-smoked, and then they confit in smoked tallow. Then we grill ’em off to order.

Brisket Nigiri

Brisket nigiri from Loro.  Photo: courtesy Loro

Bavette is a cut you definitely celebrate in the book. What do you like about it?
I like that it’s lean, but if you get one from a well-raised animal, it’s got a good striation of fat. And I like the texture. It’s kind of like a hanger steak with less minerality.

It also goes to show the difference between European butchery versus American butchery. Here in America we have certain cuts that everybody knows, but if you go to Europe you get all these weird off-cuts and butcher steaks, and the bavette is one of those. I think it’s a great piece of meat.

The book also mounts something of a defense for what used to be America’s great luxury cut, filet mignon, which has kind of fallen out of favor.
It’s one of those evolution things. People think that ribeye is kind of king, or T-bone, or strip. I still really like a filet. It’s a piece of meat that doesn’t have a lot of fat compared to one that does have good marbling. It has different textures, different flavors, and different tenderness.

But I can celebrate all kinds of steaks. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to cook dinner and have filet and ribeye both on the plate, because they’re totally different.

Do you have an actual favorite?
I think I started off the book not really knowing, or thinking I was more into ribeyes, and by the end of the book I kind of realized that I like a New York strip best. Texturally, the beefiness, just the level of fat that’s on there, and the way they cook. You can cut ’em really thick, and you can cook with a few different methods. It might change in a month, but right now that’s what I’ve been eating a lot of. 

The book also includes write-ups of steak restaurants around the world. What’s been your greatest steakhouse experience?
I think domestically, Renee Erickson’s place in Seattle: Bateau. I think that place is really spectacular. What’s cool about it is they get their cows from local ranches, they raise their own, and they have a concentration on like, cool weird cuts. They’ll have steaks like “Jacob’s Ladder.” Stuff that nobody’s ever even heard of, myself included.

And then I also really like Knife, in Dallas. It’s pretty fortunate that I’m only three hours from there. I think [John] Tesar has really, really great dry-aging. I also like the dry-aging at APL quite a bit. Turns out, dry steak is pretty great!

steak beef aging room

Adam Perry Lang in his aging room.  Photo: courtesy Josh Telles

Your readers will also learn how to have a dedicated home dry-aging set-up, using an old fridge and household fans. Are you actually doing that?

I do if I’ve got something coming up, but it’s kind of hard if you don’t have a lot of meat. It’s hard to keep it going for like 100 or 200 days. But I do have an active dry-aging cooler in my garage right now. It’s got a lot of fans. It’s got some stuff in there.

Grass-fed vs. corn-fed is always a huge steak debate. You and Jordan suggest that people who think they don’t like grass-fed steak just haven’t had a good one yet. Is that about sourcing, or is it preparation?
Y’know, the first time I got a hold of some grass-fed stuff I realized I had no idea how to cook it. I think I overcooked it, and it got a little gamey. I think grass-fed cooked well is really pretty awesome. It takes a little bit of experimentation, and just kind of knowing that it doesn’t take much heat. Depends on the cut too. But texture and flavor-wise, grass fed is super-good. You can really taste the kind-of terroir. Really taste the cow. I like that.

You offer a lot of advice on how to set up multiple grilling zones, and on combining wood with charcoal. But you’ve also got a much simpler solution. Do you in fact have multiple identical grills in your backyard?
(Laughs.) I do. I’ve got three PKs. Two of the bigger ones, and then the old original one. Sometimes you just need to have one hotter than the other one! Depends on the steaks. And if you’re cooking for like, 20 people, sometimes you just need two.

There are a lot of big expensive fancy grills out there, but simplest remains best in your opinion. What makes the PK work for you?
It’s a pretty classic design. I like it because it doesn’t rust. It’s made out of aluminum which is super-cool. You can take ’em apart. You can throw ‘em in the dishwasher. And I like the fact that it’s American-made. If you need to get a new grate, or a part for it, you can just call them up and they’ll drop it in the mail.

But really, I think the biggest thing is the fact that the lid comes completely off, and that they’re kind of squarish. That lets me set up a log on one side, to help out with zones. It’s a fabulous grill. I’ve had my first one for probably at least 10 years now, and I don’t think it’s ever gonna go away.

aaron franklin barbecue steak cookbook

Franklin nerds out on steak.  Photo: courtesy Wyatt McSpadden

Was there anything you learned while you were working on the book that surprised you?
I think the big surprise for me was salting steaks far in advance. Like, really far: 24 to 30 hours. That helps set up a good crust, and good Maillard Reaction.

You had previously been like, an hour before guy?
Or maybe 12 hours before. One of our many experiments was to salt steaks with a  certain percentage of salt, air-dry ’em in a controlled environment, and then grill them all at exactly the same temperature and really monitor the Maillard Reaction and the sear. 24 to 30 hours was the sweet spot. I didn’t see that coming.

Any other big grilling misconceptions or mistakes that you would tell average person to look out for?
Overcooking things is really the biggest one.

So, “use a thermometer?”
Maybe. I think it’s fun to experiment by feel. [Conventional wisdom says] 130-whatever degrees is medium. But it’s totally different for every piece of meat. It’s different on brisket, and it’s different on steaks too.

What’s the old touch thing, that if it feels like the tip of your thumb, it’s medium-rare?
Yeah…. and I think that’s total phooey. If a piece of meat is marbled, if it’s got a good sear, if it was cold when you put it on, if it was warm you put it on, if you cooked it too hot, if you cooked it too slow: They’re going to feel totally different every time.

I think, just try to visualize what the inside of a piece of meat is doing, and then when you think it’s pretty good, it’s probably pretty good. And if it’s more rare than you like, put it back on. You almost can’t undercook a steak. But you can very easily overcook it.

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