Aaron Franklin owns the no-reserve Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas and is hailed as one of America’s barbequing elites. The fact that for every day of its existence folk have queued for up to four hours to get in is testimony to his art. Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass is an opportunity to learn barbeque from one of the best in the business.
Whether you’re a newbie to barbeque or a seasoned worshiper at the temple of smoked meat, I’m guessing you’ve arrived at this Aaron Franklin MasterClass review to determine if this is the right course for you.
But before we get to the details, and for anyone short on time or interested in key points, this summary is for you:
Learn how to:
- Build and maintain a great fire and understand the smoke
- Game plan your way to perfection
- Prep, smoke and serve simple and complex cuts of meat (including brisket)
- Grill foods that cook at different speeds
- Learn from a renowned expert in the field
- Great teaching style and depth of explanation
- Good balance of theory and practical elements
- Biased towards Central Texas BBQ
- Course workbook could be clearer
Course length: 16 lessons totalling just under 5 hours.
Best for: Anyone interested in Texan BBQ/the Franklin way – regardless of experience.
Overall: an incredibly thorough and engaging course on all aspects of Texan BBQ taught by one of the best pitmasters of our time (view details). Naturally the focus is exclusively on BBQ, so if you’re looking for a general cooking course this isn’t for you.
Now we’ll move on in more detail to the many strengths and virtues of the course as well as a few ways that it falls a little short.
Here’s what’s in store:
- About Aaron Franklin and MasterClass
- Inside Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass (an overview of the course)
- What I loved about Aaron Franklin’s Class and what could be Improved
- Who this MasterClass is suitable for, alternatives and uniqueness of content
- What others have said
- Is Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass worth it?
So, let’s get started!
About Aaron Franklin
Aaron Franklin is a Texan barbecuing legend and virtuoso pitmaster.
From humble beginnings operating out of a trailer, the no-reservation Franklin Barbecue has been awarded Best BBQ Joint in Texas (Texas Monthly), Best BBQ in the US (Bon Appetit) and has been listed by Texas Monthly as one of the 50 best barbecue joints in the world.
Amongst its many celebrity patrons are Jimmy Kimmel, Barack Obama and Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay famously tweeted that the BBQ was worth the four hour wait in line and the 16 hour flight it took to get there.
In 2015, Franklin was the first BBQ specialist to be nominated for (and receive) a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef.
Seriously, if you want to hone your pit skills, this is a MasterClass that you should definitely consider.
And if you haven’t seen the trailer, it’s an absolute must watch:
As the name suggests, the proposition behind MasterClass is to:
Get famous people to teach us what made them famous.
You can complete a single MasterClass for $90 or access all 80+ classes with a $180 annual subscription.
The annual subscription has other benefits too: to encourage you to renew each year, the platform has to keep expanding its offer. This means not just more celebrities, but a broadening field of topics from poker to space exploration!
But remember… MasterClasses are recorded, then frozen in time. That said, there are occasional opportunities to post questions and have them answered by the Masters themselves in a Live MasterClass session – and Aaron Franklin has participated in one of these.
There’s also a limit to what you can learn in the 3-5 hours a MasterClass takes. They’re usually more about overarching principles than minute detail.
But as founder David Rogier says:
“There’s just stuff you can learn from the absolute best that you can apply to whatever part of your own life.”
So, read on and find out if Aaron Franklin can help you boss the pit and have you barbecuing up a storm.
Inside Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass
“I’m going to teach you exactly like I would train someone at Franklin barbecue: how to pick up a piece of wood; how to look at a fire; how to look at a piece of meat and know exactly what it’s doing. That’s what I’m going to teach you.“
Aaron’s masterclass includes a short introduction and 15 lessons ranging from 4 to 34 minutes each. The total viewing time is just short of 5 hours.
Along with the video content you can download a PDF workbook to annotate and follow as you progress through the class. Its 66 pages include a wealth of diagrams, illustrations and a treasure trove of supporting detail that supplement the video content and should answer most of your additional questions.
And of course, you also have access to the community of other budding pit bosses in order to learn from their mistakes and successes as well as sharing your own.
Here’s a play by play breakdown of the lessons so you can decide if this is the right course for you. The first lesson is a short intro, which follows into:
Lesson 2: Fire and Smoke
“The fire is the most important part of what I do at Franklin Barbecue“
What this lesson covers:
- Why fire is the foundation of any cook
- Starting and working the fire
- Good smoke – and troubleshooting bad smoke
- Adjusting for weather conditions
For Franklin, the fire is “the most critical part of the cook”. After all he says, “what you’re doing when you barbecue is getting the flavour from the fire, right?” This session helps you understand how he grew to appreciate that and how you can benefit from that experience.
Franklin shows you his very specific way to build a fire and how to use a range of cues (not least the emanations from the smoke stack) to know when you’ve hit the sweet spot and got yourself a ‘clean fire’. And since that sweet spot will shift as variables come into play (wind, rain, damp logs, etc) he gives you some cool tricks to help you respond and adapt to those variables.
In a very practical and accessible way, Franklin reveals the science behind what works and why. Plus, when things go wrong he reveals how to hone in on the thing (no spoilers here) that will enable you to put it right!
With practice (and Franklin advocates lots of this – in a range of different conditions) you will find yourself “looking like you’re just sitting around – when you’re still really learning something.”
"Who knew there was so much to learn about fire? Fantastic breakdown" - Comment from the community
Lessons 3 & 4: Smoke: Pork Butt and Pork Ribs
For your first couple of cooks Aaron takes you through each and every step of smoking first pork butt, then pork ribs.
The butt’s a great place to start as it’s a forgiving cut and gives you plenty of wiggle room for error, which leads me to my next point..
A key takeaway from this lesson is the value of drawing up a game plan. This is super useful for all sorts of reasons. Not least because if something’s not quite right at the end, you have a written record of everything you did so it’s simple to backtrack to find out where you need to make a change.
On top of this, these two classes are choc full of surprising tips, tricks and visual cues that will help you develop, adjust and perfect your bbq know-how.
"These were the best damn ribs I’ve ever had. A lot of work but worth it. Working the fire is the absolute key in my opinion the rest is pretty easy. I’m highly critical when it comes to my cooking and I’m very proud of these." - Comment from the community
Lesson 5: Knowing your wood pile
“Regardless of what you’re cooking … wood is the primary flavour that we’ve got in a barbecue”
What this lesson covers:
- Selecting wood
- Sizing and quality
Aaron advocates using what’s growing around you – it’s locale that has helped to give different regions their distinct style.
Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone. But wherever you source your wood from, by the end of this session you should understand how to use tactile and visual clues to weigh up each piece of wood in your log pile and know how, where and when it’s going to fit into your cook.
"My head is exploding… all rules are out the window! Love this guy!" - Comment from the community
Lesson 6: Grill: Steak and Broccolini
To show he’s not all about the low and slow cook, in this lesson Aaron shares his grilling techniques.
Starting (as usual) with a game plan, Aaron reveals his methods for not only searing steak so it has a crisp outside and a tender inside, but also for charring broccolini so that its different parts (the stalks and the crowns which each need different cook times) both cook to perfection.
He achieves this by creating a cooler zone on the grill to provide indirect heat.
Why does this matter? Because these techniques play into the perfect cook for the “mother of all Texan barbecue cuts”: the Brisket – which also has two parts (muscles) which cook at different speeds.
So by the time you get to the end of this session, you’ll be thinking about how the texture and moisture content of the meat, the shifting nature of the fire and the use of direct and indirect heat are going to set you up for cooking up the more demanding brisket.
And in anticipation for that, there is a short session on Aaron’s tips for:
Lesson 7: Beef Quality and Selection
What this lesson covers:
- Grades of meat
- Grass vs grain fed and fresh vs frozen
- Anatomy of a brisket
- Buying for beginners
- Ethical considerations
Followed by no less than five lessons on the art and science of Aaron’s signature full packer brisket:
Lessons 8-12: Brisket: Prep, Smoke and Finish
Aaron starts out this section with his usual game plan – which you can annotate during and after the cook to troubleshoot if necessary.
Franklin Barbecue cooks and serves 100+ briskets a day. So Aaron’s a guy who knows his brisket. The fact that he can talk for half an hour just about the trim is testament to that expertise and the level of detail you can expect on this topic.
"Outstanding. Most detailed and well filmed example of how to trim a brisket, by far, that I’ve ever seen. Learned a lot of new things. Reconfirmed some things I already knew. Can’t wait to apply the techniques tomorrow." - Comment from the community
In these sessions, he’ll take you on a two hour journey from shaving and shaping, through slathering and spritizing to slicing (and all the minutiae in between).
Aaron not only gives you a shed load of tips to get every step of the process right, but also tips on how not to freak out and get a derailed cook back on track.
Lesson 13: Sauce
Central Texan pitmasters don’t generally ‘do’ sauce. But Aaron believes sauce has its place (especially for ribs) and has come up with his own unique recipe that he shares with you in this section.
Here’s a ‘taster’ of what’s inside, but there’s plenty more that make the sauce special that you need to do the course to find out!
Lesson 14: Offset Smokers
What this lesson covers:
- Why Arron favors offsets
- Buyer’s guide
- Modifying your smoker
Aaron learned to cook on a wood burning offset and has used them almost exclusively ever since.
Even cheap offsets are pricey bits of kit, so here you’re going to learn everything you need to know to make an informed choice and how to make sure that having bought the best, you always get the best out of it.
Of course, not everyone will have (or want to use) an offset. Aaron admits that most people stick with the type of smoker they learned on. If this is you, the workbook sets out how to make adjustments to your cook to cater for this.
Lesson 15 & 16: Aaron’s Journey to Pitmaster & The history of Central Texas barbecue
“No matter what happens, no matter what you think you know, there’s always so much to learn.“
The course continues with Aaron relating the steps of his journey from novice to pitmaster extraordinaire: from childhood memories of playing dominoes in a barbecue joint, through botching his first brisket, to opening the most famous barbecue joint in the country.
There’s then a closing lesson on how brisket came to be king in Texas.
My Experience of Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass
To help you decide whether this MasterClass is right for you, I’m going to set out here what I loved and what I felt could be improved upon. This is to provide balance and alert you to a few (in my view) small issues that could, nevertheless, be deal breakers for you.
What I liked about Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass
Proven teaching from a Master of the Art
Aaron’s award winning restaurant has been operating for over a decade. In this time, not only has he continuously honed his art, but shared it with all the budding pitmasters he’s trained.
You’re going to get that same training, which has also been refined during that time because, as he frequently reminds us, learning to BBQ is a continuous process.
Franklin’s teaching style
For all his expertise, Aaron has a humble and self-deprecating approach.
I found him passionate but not overly serious and his style made me believe in my own ability to get good at the cook.
He left nothing unexplained. I don’t have a scientific mind, but after each lesson I realised I had grasped some real technical knowledge that enabled me to understand (in a meaningful context) how and why his methods work.
He’s also great at fostering understanding through use of analogy – for example comparing wood to wine and thinking about how to make use of the logs in your wood stack like playing a game of Tetris.
Superlative production values
It’s quite simply lush.
The camera angles are super helpful and capture everything from what’s happening in the firebox to the blue smoke at the other end.
There are also frequent screen notes to direct you to supporting information or just to make things clear.
And the food….
Don’t watch this on an empty stomach, it’s enough to test the most committed vegan’s resolve.
Good balance of theory and practical
Following the MasterClass proposition, we are of course finding out what made Aaron Franklin a master of the art.
However, whilst Aaron uses scientific explanation to support his actions and methods, he’s mostly ‘doing’ rather than just talking. And the course is crafted (and supported by the workbook) in a way that enables you to take what you learn and apply it practically to your own cook.
This community is large and responsive. If you post a question, you’re likely to get a whole lot of answers. Whether it’s about buying a smoker, sourcing your wood or what cuts of meat to buy.
I have found no comments from Aaron himself, but he has offered a Live MasterClass session for which you can post questions in advance and, hopefully, get them answered by the man himself.
The workbook contains a wealth of extra supporting detail on most topics.
It’s especially good at helping you to transfer the techniques used by Aaron on his offset smoker to the kit and fuel that you may be using yourself.
A note on sustainability
It’s great to hear that Aaron sources his wood sustainably and supports animal welfare by advocating the use of grass fed, hormone and antibiotic-free beef.
What I think could improve
The workbook does not follow the flow of the course and you have to to-and-fro quite a bit if you want to annotate it as you go along.
And whilst it has a lot of additional supporting information, it also misses out some parts of the course, notably sauces.
OK, I probably would use a power saw with no protective gear – but I’m not sure I would do so if I was demonstrating to others!
Limited direct contact with the Master
As I said above, Aaron will be hosting a MasterClass Live session in June 2020, but other than that, there is no regular opportunity for users to submit questions. He doesn’t, for example, respond to questions in the community hub.
This MasterClass focuses almost exclusively on Texan style barbecue with a wood burning offset smoker.
There’s lots of advice (especially in the workbook) on how to adapt what you learn to other cuts of meat and types of cooker. But don’t expect to see him cooking Memphis dry ribs on a kettle!
Yes, I know I listed this as a positive. But have to say there must be a better place for the pre and post cook trimmings than in the bin? At least find a dog to give it to!
Who is Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass for?
On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is a total newby and 10 is a seasoned smoker, I would rate this course as 2-10.
If you fit into any of the following categories, you should seriously think about signing up:
- Got some backyard smoking experience and the itch to up your game
- A barbecue enthusiast who wants to establish a new level of confidence or entertain on a bigger scale
- A seasoned smoker who:
- wants to try out a different style of cook or alter their philosophy
- is considering opening their own BBQ joint and wants to benefit from Aaron’s success.
The only reason I haven’t recommended it to an absolute beginner is that it will make you want to run out and buy an offset smoker. And even a cheap one of these won’t leave you with much change out of $500!
How much does Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass cost?
At the time of writing, a MasterClass subscription costs $180 per year. AKA $15 a month.
With the subscription, you have access to all the 80+ courses on MasterClass.
The great thing about this offering is that the more classes you take, the less the effective cost per class is.
For example, if you’re able to find at least 4-6 classes you like, it means you’re effectively paying $30-$45 per course. ($180 / 6 classes = $30).
Bearing in mind that these classes are taught by world experts the value is unbeatable. It’s sort of a way to hack learning.
Whatsmore, MasterClass also offers a 30 day refund if you’re unhappy with your purchase.
If you want to buy the course individually, there is a way to do this — however it’s a little convoluted. You can buy a single MasterClass as a gift, and essentially gift the course to yourself. The price here is $90.
This may sound expensive but even a cheap brisket is going to set you back $50 and a decent one more like $200. So taking this course could actually save you money if it means you don’t turn a costly and difficult to cook cut into something inedible!
There are no other PitMaster or BBQ classes on MasterClass but their culinary selection includes MasterClasses from:
- Gordon Ramsay
- Thomas Keller
- Aaron Franklin
- Apollonia Poilâne
- Yotam Ottolenghi
- Niki Nakayama
- Wolfgang Puck
- Massimo Bottura
- …the list goes on!
A possible alternative to Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass is Rick Browne – Cooking with Smoke. The cost of this is around $200 but is longer with more recipes and makes use of the more common charcoal smoker.
Your other alternative is YesChef, which is an online platform like MasterClass that focuses exclusively on cooking.
However, if you want to learn from someone who creates world famous food that people are happy to queue up to four hours for, then there isn’t anything else that’s similar.
And if baking is your thing you might want to check our round up of the best baking courses.
Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass: what others have said
The community on MasterClass is overwhelmingly positive about Aaron’s MasterClass. Negative comments centre around navigation of the site (which is something MasterClass could improve on).
I have included comments from the Community throughout this review to give you a flavor of how participants have responded.
In terms of Reddit, the reviews are a little more mixed. Aaron certainly has his fans there too:
"I spent the money for it. He goes in to great detail and breaks down step by step his process. It also comes with PDF files of each lesson in his MasterClass. He has a pretty interesting and detailed lesson on starting and maintaining a fire. Well worth it [in my opinion]" - Comment from Reddit
Several commentators on Reddit have wondered whether to purchase the MasterClass since Aaron has so much free content on YouTube, I cover this in the next section.
However, in terms of the Aaron Franklin Master Class Review on YouTube, these comments need no elaboration from me!
"The Fire Management part is worth the price of the admission." "The amount of knowledge in the first 28 minutes is insane and you get to learn this while the sun is rising in the video in real time. His class is fantastic."
Is the course content unique?
One of the most common queries people have when considering the Aaron Franklin MasterClass is whether it has anything to add to the wealth of knowledge Aaron’s already given away for free on YouTube.
So a word about that.
In 2013 Aaron produced a web series with PBS called BBQ with Franklin. It can be accessed here and provides the content for what’s available on YouTube.
There is a discussion on this topic on Reddit and on the MasterClass community hub which is best answered by this respondent who has watched the entire PBS series as well as taking the MasterClass:
"... there is a definite difference between the YouTube videos and this MasterClass. First, the YouTube videos actually are clips from a PBS series that ran a few years ago. You can find the actual series on Amazon Prime Video. I watched all of those about 2 years ago, well before purchasing the MasterClass. His PBS videos were what I used to cook my first 4 briskets and my first 20 or so pork butts. But I can tell you that MasterClass totally changed the outcome of my briskets. In the MasterClass, Aaron walks you through his philosophy and technique for managing the pit temp throughout the cook. My last 3 briskets were cooked on that technique, and the outcome was significantly better. So, for my money, the MasterClass was totally worth it just for that technique alone. Plus, my kids liked some of the other MasterClasses on game design (Will Wright), comedy (Steve Martin), and directing (Ron Howard). Well worth the price of admission, in my humble opinion." - Comment from Reddit
The point this guy is making is that he found Aaron’s MasterClass was worth the money, despite having previously watched all of Aaron’s free content. And of course since he had clearly purchased an all access pass, his value for money was boosted by the family being able to enjoy some of the other classes.
What you will need
Well obviously, you are going to need a barbecue. This is a massive topic and, chances are, if you’re considering this MasterClass you already have (and are committed to) your smoker of choice.
If you want to emulate the Master, you’re going to have to invest big bucks in an offset smoker. After my research, I’m thinking of upgrading and am currently wavering between a budget Dyna-Glo and an Oklahoma Joe.
But whatever you’re using, there’s plenty of tips on how to adjust cook times and temperatures in the workbook that accompanies the class.
Aside from the smoker, you’ll need
- A cut of meat (pork butt, ribs or brisket)
- Something for the wrap (Aaron uses butcher’s paper)
- A great set of knives
- Time – the course totals just under 5 hours (though you can dip in and out at your own pace). And the cooks themselves, when you get around to them, are low and slow.
Is Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass worth it?
On balance, yes. The course exceeded my expectations, encouraged me to believe I could improve my cook and motivated me to invest in a better smoker and more demanding cuts of meat.
- the story of Aaron’s success from brisket botcher to brisket master
- how to select the best fuel for your fire and get it started and under control
- the secrets of reading fire and smoke and know when it hits the ‘sweet spot’
- the value of game planning so you always have a record of what worked – and if it didn’t a way to backtrack and do better next time
- to cook simpler cuts of meat low and slow and grill foods with parts that cook at different speeds – preparing you nicely to tackle ‘the mother of all Texan barbecue cuts’, the brisket
- the art and science of preparing, smoking and slicing that cut so that what you don’t know about brisket afterwards will fit on the back of a postage stamp.
Aaron’s put a lot of free content out on Youtube. Despite this, I feel this MasterClass is still worth the money. Not just because the free content is seven years old but also because this MasterClass has provided a professional platform for Aaron to consolidate all his new material in one place, in a structured way and with far more granular detail. And part of what you’re paying for is this convenience.
- Learning from a world-renowned smoker and skilled trainer
- Engaging, warm self-deprecating approach and great teaching style
- Full technical (but accessible) explanations of how and why things work
- Good balance of theory v practical
- Lush production quality and clever camera angles that really support your learning
- Workbook provides additional detail and advice on how to make adjustments for different smokers and fuels
- Lively and supportive community of other Aaron Franklin MasterClass students
- Good value for money, especially with an all-access pass
- Main focus is Central Texas BBQ with a wood burning offset smoker
- No ongoing opportunity to post questions and have them answered by Aaron – though he has done one MasterClass Live that can be accessed for free.
- Workbook does not follow the flow of the course or cover every aspect of it
As a stand-alone course, $90 can seem quite steep. However, for someone who is serious about understanding the art and science of barbecue, it’s definitely worth it in my view.
Generally, I think the annual subscription for unlimited classes is better value for money, and lets you learn a wide range of skills from the very best.
All in all, Aaron’s class was mouthwatering and motivating.
At the beginning of this review I revealed what the founder of MasterClass felt was the core value proposition of his company:
There’s just stuff you can learn from the absolute best that you can apply to whatever part of your own life.
If you fully embrace this proposition, then whatever you’re using to smoke with, Aaron Franklin definitely does have ‘stuff’ to offer that will enable you to up your game.
Frequently Asked Questions
A MasterClass all-access-pass costs $180 a year ($15 a month). This gives you access to Aaron Franklin’s MasterClass, alongside 80+ other courses.
16 lessons totalling just under 5 hours.
You can get a peek for free on YouTube. But the only way to get the entire MasterClass gratis is if someone is generous enough to buy it for you as a gift.
You can obtain a refund within 30 days of purchase from MasterClass. If you purchased from another provider your purchase may be subject to their returns policy.