While most joints proclaim there's just salt and pepper in their rubs, there is a key ingredient that even Aaron Franklin fesses up to using.
Texas barbecue’s reputation is built on beef, wood smoke, and salt-and-pepper seasoning. And while kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper are the backbone of briskest at most joints in the state, there are often more ingredients added. Inside the prep rooms of several top-ranked pitmasters, there’s also commercially produced seasoned salt.
Last June, Jonny White released a video on his Jirby BBQ YouTube channel describing his method for brisket seasoning. He’s the pitmaster and co-owner of Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth, which Texas Monthly recently named the best barbecue joint in Texas. He held up three containers: one with kosher salt, one with coarsely ground black pepper, and another filled with Lawry’s seasoned salt, which White called the “best secret ingredient in barbecue.” Holding the bottle high, he rained the fine powder onto the brisket, whose white fat cap went orange from the seasoning. He confirmed to me over the phone recently that Lawry’s goes on all the briskets at Goldee’s, and the pork ribs get “an insane amount of Lawry’s on them.”
In barbecue circles, it’s not much of a secret anymore. Tim Carman of the Washington Post recently released his updated list of the best barbecue in the D.C. area. He wrote that the brisket seasoning at Grubbing Hard Barbecue relied “on one of Texas’s worst-kept secrets: Lawry’s seasoned salt.” In a video for Chud’s BBQ from last year titled “Texas Pitmaster Reveals All Brisket Secrets,” Bradley Robinson touted the popularity of Lawry’s. “And because it’s seasoned salt,” he said, “they can still get away with saying ‘it’s just salt and pepper.’ Kinda sneaky.” Back in 2013, John Lewis, who owns Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina, and was then the pitmaster at La Barbecue in Austin, shared his brisket rub recipe. It included Lawry’s, black pepper, and garlic powder over a slather of mustard and pickle juice.
The Lawry’s name and the stylized “L” in the logo are probably familiar to most people reading this, but you may associate it with your parents’ dusty spice drawer. The mixture was developed by Lawrence Frank and was first sold in stores in 1938. That same year, Frank and Walter Van de Kamp opened the first Lawry’s the Prime Rib restaurant, in Beverly Hills. Today the company has locations in Las Vegas and Dallas. The seasoning line is now owned by McCormick & Co., but the restaurants remain in the Frank family. Their specialty is prime rib seasoned with Lawry’s, which, according to the ingredients label, contains salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion, cornstarch, garlic, sunflower oil, and other unnamed spices. I use Lawry’s often in my home kitchen and on steaks. I haven’t tried it much on smoked meats, but my guess it that its embrace by a new wave of Texas barbecue content creators will spread its popularity.
Pitmasters’ love for seasoned salt may not be much of a secret anymore, but the Lawry’s name is still whispered in discussions of the supposed secrets of the most famous barbecue joint in Texas. In my 2013 interview with Lewis, he hinted that he’d used it at Franklin Barbecue before his departure the year before. “I’ve never cooked a brisket in my life, whether it be at La Barbecue, at Franklin Barbecue, or on the competition circuit, with just salt and pepper,” Lewis told me. In 2011, Andrew Knowlton made a similar claim when he called Franklin the best barbecue joint in the country in Bon Appétit. “Franklin swears he uses only salt and pepper to season it,” Knowlton wrote. “Judging by the complex flavors of the finished product, I think he’s withholding a spice or two, but he promises it’s all about time and the temperature of the pits.”
Given all this renewed interest in Lawry’s, I asked Aaron Franklin if they used it at Franklin Barbecue. “We’ve totally used Lawry’s, and we kinda go back and forth,” Franklin said, adding that, “A place isn’t going to be doing the same thing forever.” What about right now? “We’ve been on the red stuff since we started making it with Fiesta,” he told me, referring to the BBQ Spice Rub bottled under the Franklin Barbecue label. It recently hit store shelves, alongside the Brisket Spice Rub (which is just salt and black pepper), and the staff has been using it at the restaurant since last July. The rub includes ingredients such as garlic, shiitake mushroom powder, chile peppers, and brown sugar.
Franklin’s admission was a surprise to me. He has been the salt-and-pepper poster boy since the restaurant opened. Franklin has used only salt and pepper to season briskets in his online videos and in his 2019 MasterClass course. I wondered why he didn’t mention the seasoned salt then. “I’m trying to get people to make clean fires, and all those other flavors get in the way,” he said. Franklin is more open to the idea of seasoned salt in his book, where he writes that nothing more than salt and pepper is required for good brisket, but adds, “That’s not to say that playing with seasoning salts, garlic powder, onion powder, or any of the hundreds of other spices and seasonings that are available at most grocery stores would be wrong. I’m just saying that you don’t have to have a complicated rub to make great barbecue.”
Like any barbecue joint, Franklin Barbecue is entitled to its secrets. Then again, I’m not sure how recently Franklin has been directly questioned about the seasonings at his restaurant. I’ve been guilty of a lack of curiosity in the past. I told Anthony Bourdain that Franklin “just uses salt and pepper,” when we filmed No Reservations at Franklin Barbecue in 2012. In my book The Prophets of Smoked Meat, published a year later, I wrote, with Franklin in mind, that “The best briskets I’ve eaten have a rub that consists of only two ingredients—salt and pepper.” And maybe it was that simple back then. Restaurants change their methods. Goldee’s recently switched from kosher salt to table salt, so that Jirby video is already outdated. “It’s easier to make it the saltiness you want,” White told me, referring to table salt.
Franklin and Goldee’s aren’t alone in their love for seasoning salt. I asked every pitmaster from the top ten barbecue joints on our most recent list for their seasonings. Here are their replies:
Kosher salt, black pepper, and granulated garlic.
Mustard and pickle juice slather with kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic powder.
Kosher salt and two different black pepper grinds. Lawry’s goes into the potato salad.
Diamond Crystal kosher salt and 16-mesh black pepper on the smoked brisket (which is served only on weekends).
Lawry’s is part of their brisket seasoning.
Kosher salt and black pepper is applied after a dunk in pickle juice.
Table salt and 16-mesh black pepper
Lawry’s, kosher salt, and black pepper are three of the six ingredients in the brisket rub.
In total, four of our top ten joints use Lawry’s (or another seasoned salt), while two use only salt and pepper as their seasoning. Then again, from what we’ve learned, we may have to take their supposed transparency with a grain of seasoned salt.
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