Aaron Franklin, founder of Austin, Texas-based Franklin Barbecue, is regarded as a brisket guru by most people in the world of barbecue and his participation and presentations at Camp Brisket have become a main attraction at the event. A celebrity barbecue chef and cookbook author, Franklin is a master of his trade. He plays an active and informative role during Camp Brisket.Attendees hang on his every word and relish the opportunity to meet him in person and pick his brain between presentations and during the many brisket-based meals and socializing opportunities. His appreciation and understanding of all the factors that go into the production of cattle and how they impact the quality attributes of the brisket are evident and for him, consistent and quality brisket on his menu begins with the selection of the most desirable briskets for his restaurant.
“I want the one that has a pretty wide flat to it,” he said, “and that changes throughout the year depending on how the harvest is, how the cows are looking, what the weather was like and what they were fed and even their age. But in a perfect world I want a wide and really thick flat,” to allow for sufficient trimming before the cooking process. At Franklin’s, where hundreds of briskets are cooked overnight and sliced and served each day, consistent size makes a difference in each step of the process. Taste, texture and tenderness can vary dramatically inside the same cooker at the same time based on nothing more than their size and shape, so Franklin and his team make it a priority to control these factors.
He contends, too, that cattle produced using growth hormones typically have a different type of fat than those not treated with hormones, an attribute he uses trained fingers to feel for during the selection process and later, as he surgically trims each muscle. His eye is trained to identify flaws such as: gashes or tears in the thin part of the flat; a point that is less than ideal; tears between the point and the flat (which he says occurs when the hide of the animal is pulled off too fast). Briskets that are excessively bloody looking in the package are a sign the meat has been frozen, he says. “I don’t cook frozen meat,” he adds.
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“It’s a massive amount of storage,” he says of the holding process and the target temperature of about 32? F. Typical retail brisket is aged about 15 days from harvest due to the time required for shipping and distribution to the meat case, according to research by A&M’s Savell and Griffin.
When it comes to trimming uncooked brisket, Franklin talked a blue streak about the variety of knives available. He prefers a curved blade. He begins by shaping the brisket and identifies abnormal seams between muscles with the goal of squaring up the flat and making it a uniform size to ensure the space in the cooker is maximized and each muscle is cooked similarly to the rest of them.
Franklin approaches the trimming process with the goal of creating “aerodynamic” meat.
“Eventually we’re going to trim the briskets so they’re like little sports cars in the pit,” he says. “Because of all the airflow and with fluid dynamics in mind, you don’t want a big clunky looking piece of meat. You want something the smoke can flow over nicely; rounded corners and no real hard edges.”
At Franklin’s the team of butchers trim and cook 106 briskets per day. “We spend about six hours a day trimming,” he said, starting at 6 a.m. Trimmed briskets are chilled overnight, rubbed in the morning and then go onto Franklin’s pit, at which time the trimming of the meat for the following day begins. During the cooking process, he admitted being a bit obsessive in checking fires, air flows and feeling briskets for doneness every 5 to 10 minutes throughout the 10- to 12-hour process.
With bellies bulging after taste testing three brisket-heavy meals, not to mention an authentic sunrise chuckwagon breakfast to start Day 2, campers listened intently as the final pitmaster panel discussed their experience working in the barbecue industry. Before a final brisket supper, stories were shared about how each person’s path in life led them to a fire pit and what it is that keeps their internal flame aglow in a business that is ultra-competitive, physically demanding and time consuming. It was then that the Camp Brisket experience came full circle and it became apparent that for industry veterans like Tootsie Tomanetz, slow cooking meat and satisfying loyal diners isn’t a job, rather a calling. Tomanetz is an 81-year-old Texas barbecue legend who’s worked as a pitmaster for 50 years. A longtime cattle producer, she currently practices her trade at Lexington, Texas-based Snow’s BBQ, where she’s worked since 2003. “I’m a workaholic,” she admits, proving that with a schedule that has her working in maintenance and groundskeeping with the local school district Monday through Friday and every Saturday she manages the pit at Snow’s, which opens its doors just once a week, “Open Saturdays only – 8 a.m. till sold out.” When asked how she spends her downtime on Sundays, the answer didn’t surprise: “I go to church.”
Many of the pitmasters were born into a family barbecue business and they took it over. Bryan Bracewell, owner of Southside Market & BBQ Inc., based in Elgin, Texas, is one example. An A&M alumni, he echoed the points of other panelists, pointing out that making good food is just part of the recipe for a successful business and only a part of why he and others devote their lives to it.
“What we do, it’s all about people,” Bracewell said. “What my grandfather did and what I try to do is build a little community in Elgin. We unlock the doors each day and people come in and that’s because of the blood, sweat and tears over all the years and I’m a benefactor of that and I’m real thankful.”