Smoke Points: The Ultimate Guide to Summer Barbecue
We consult pitmasters, butchers and chefs from across the city to get their tips on mastering the grill
- By Jon Sufrin -
Fire and meat. Two things. A universe of possibilities. This is what is so enticing about barbecue season: it’s a chance to return to our most primitive roots, to cook food the way we did before we sat at the top of the food chain.
Barbecue came into being when humans were forced to figure out how to make tough, sinewy cuts of meat taste good. The answer is to cook those cuts as slowly and patiently as possible, to coax out their flavours over hours and hours – sometimes even days.
Surely, if cavepeople could cook with fire, it must be easy. And many people think it is. Then you realize you’re not even sure how to properly start a fire.
So you start to learn how to barbecue. And if you’re a good student, you’re rewarded with some of the best food you’ll ever have: ribs, chicken and brisket blacksmithed with the essence of wood.
Yeah, knowledge is important. And you’ll find some in the article below.
Maybe you’ve heard of this stuff before. Or maybe you’ll find something new to incorporate into your repertoire. Because that’s another great thing about barbecue: no matter how many opinions you stumble across – and there are many – you can always create your own style.
BBQ Myth-Busting with David Neinstein
The world of barbecue is filled with cooks who think their way is the best way. As such, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Barque’s David Neinstein, a certified judge with the Kansas Barbecue Society, clears up some stubborn barbecue myths.
1 Myth: Fall-off-the-bone is good
Barbecued ribs should have a bit of pull. Fall-off-the-bone means one of two things: either the ribs are boiled – which leaches out all of the flavour – or they’ve been overcooked.
2 Myth: Grilling = barbecuing
Canadians think barbecuing is done with direct heat using a grill, but true southern barbecue uses indirect heat to cook low and slow.
3 Myth: You should soak wood chips
There is a misconception that soaking wood chips will make them smoke better, but what you’re actually seeing is steam, not smoke. I stopped soaking my wood chips, and the food is still delicious.
4 Myth: Pink is bad
Some people think that pink indicates undercooked meat, but with barbecue it’s just a smoke ring: a result of the meat cooking with the smoke.
5 Myth: MSG is dangerous
I’m an advocate for using MSG. It’s just a type of salt. I use it in some of my rubs – around a teaspoon per pound of meat. It adds umami to the rub.
Regional BBQ with Lawrence La Pianta
"Authentic" barbecue means something different depending on which region of the U.S. you’re talking about. Lawrence La Pianta, pitmaster at Cherry Street Bar-B-Que, gives us a quick and simple overview of the most influential styles of southern U.S. barbecue.
Much of the cooking here will be done with post oak wood. You’re going to see a lot of simple salt-and-pepper rubs. It’s more of a purist’s style. Many classic barbecue places in Texas feel that if you need to use sauce, they didn’t do their job. It’s very beef-centric, whether it’s beef ribs, brisket or shoulder.
Whole hog cooking is very much a part of Carolina barbecue. You get a lot of beautiful pork crackling, which they’ll incorporate into the food. They’ll use brick pits and cook over hot oak coals. Carolina barbecue sauce is distinct: it’s very thin, vinegary and tangy.
Very sauce-centric, and they’ll cook everything: chicken, pork, beef, turkey. You might even get some mutton in there. The sauce is usually tomato-based and is sweet, spicy and tangy. You’re going to get a lot of hickory wood, which is very distinct and powerful. Brisket burnt ends are a classic Kansas dish.
There are two types of barbecue here: wet and dry. One is dry-rubbed, and the other is a very sweet, sugar-based style with sauce. They’ll often mop the meat with sauce as it cooks, which caramelizes in a layer on top. Baby back ribs make a big appearance in Memphis. This is where you’ll start seeing those complicated 17- or 18-ingredient rubs.
with Matt Sullivan
Matt Sullivan, chef at Real Sports Bar & Grill, serves a lot of meat to a lot of people. The key to a good barbecue sauce, for him, is that it complements what you’re serving instead of covering it up. This Carolina-inspired sauce – with a bit of Asian influence – is powerfully tart on its own, but it makes a great sparring partner for fatty meat.
◆ 5 cups apple cider vinegar
◆ 11/2 cups ketchup
◆ 1 cup chicken stock
◆ 5 tbsp brown sugar
◆ 2 tbsp smoked paprika
◆ 2 tbsp onion powder
◆ 2 tbsp garlic powder
◆ 2 tbsp chili powder
◆ Lemon juice from 2 lemons
◆ 1⁄4 cup gochujang
◆ 1⁄4 cup honey
◆ 1 tbsp sesame oil
◆ 1⁄4 cup fish sauce
◆ 1⁄4 cup soy sauce
◆ 1⁄4 cup rice vinegar
◆ 1⁄4 cup mirin
Bring the ingredients together in a pot and simmer on low heat. Cook uncovered for around an hour, until it reduces to about a third of what you started with. Chill and serve. Makes around 3 cups of sauce.
The World of Spice Rubs with Hidde Zomer
A coating of spices makes meat taste, look and smell delicious, and it creates the crispy, desirable crust known as bark. It also helps smoky flavours cling to whatever you’re cooking. Hidde Zomer, chef at the Carbon Bar, lets us know what goes through his mind when putting a spice rub together.
1 Keep it simple. I swear by 50/50 salt and pepper. Most of my rubs start with that base. For our brisket, we use just salt and pepper. Brisket has a beautiful flavour, so I don’t like to add a lot of other spices. With pork, you can get a bit more creative.
2 Easy on the sugar. Many rubs contain a lot of sugar. That is cheating, in a way. Sugar caramelizes, so it will give you more bark, but sugar also tends to burn. I use very little of it.
3 Don’t overpower. Stay away from garlic powder or onion powder – granulated is better. Fresh aromatics can be very strong, and they can burn. Stick with pre-ground spices, and be careful with bold spices like turmeric or coriander. For ribs I like to use smoked paprika and chili powder, and I even have rubs that use coffee.
4 Do the Salt Bae. I’ve seen people really pack in the rub, and that can get too aggressive. I like to go up high. I shake the spices off my hands. That’s the best way, because it floats down in the air and gives a very even distribution.
5 Use moisture. I use just a bit of oil so when you season the meat, it sticks. You could also use hot sauce, a good barbecue sauce or even just plain water.
The Best Chicken Ever with Adam Skelly
North York's Adamson Barbecue draws winding lineups for its superlative Texas-style brisket, ribs and sausage. But while the chicken doesn’t get as much attention, it’s some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the city. Co-owner Adam Skelly reveals his secrets for ridiculously good poultry.
1 Brine it. We leave our chicken in pickle juice for 7 to 10 days. It’s just leftover pickle juice from our dill pickles, with a bit of salt added. If you don’t have a ton of pickle juice sitting around, you can dilute it with water.
2 Dry it. Pat the chicken dry and leave it in the fridge uncovered overnight. This allows the skin to get crispy.
3 Rub it. We use a little bit of salt and pepper.
4 Cook it. Our chicken takes around an hour and a quarter in the smoker. The skin should get a nice colour on it.
5 Glaze it. We take the chicken out and cover it with Frank’s RedHot, butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar and a little bit of ketchup.
6 Cook it again. Until the glaze gets nice and shiny and the brown meat is cooked through. Let it rest before serving it.
Side Notes with Racquel Youtzy
Sides are a crucial element to any barbecue spread. The Texas-inspired AAA Bar serves a wide assortment of them, some traditional and some not. Co-owner Racquel Youtzy takes us through her side-dish all-stars.
This is a staple. Anywhere you go in Texas that has barbecue, they’ll have coleslaw. It’s the whole palate-cleansing thing. Ours is both creamy and vinegary.
2 Mac and cheese
We use four different types of cheese: house-smoked cheddar, Kraft singles, Parmesan and mozzarella. Plus butter.
We use Mrs. Whyte’s, which are vinegary, not sweet. We taste-tested a bunch of pickles and these are the ones we liked.
Our baked beans are cooked with maple syrup and a little bit of bourbon. A lot of our menu is savoury, so the sweet beans help break that up a bit.
5 Brussels sprouts
We deep-fry our sprouts so they’re delicious. They’re better than French fries, which sounds crazy, but it’s true.
6 White bread
If you go to a Texas barbecue place, they will give you a half a loaf of white bread. You can take that bread and make a little sandwich with whatever you’re eating.
Know Your Cuts with Leila Batten
Spices will permeate pork more than beef
Leila Batten, owner of Whitehouse Meats St. Lawrence Market, says any piece of meat can be good if it’s cooked properly according to the cut. Herewith, she takes us through some of the most common barbecue cuts and shares tips for preparation.
Do you want fatty and flavourful, or lean and dry? Look for the “double end” of the brisket, which is the fattier end. You need to rub brisket and give it a day or two to let the rub sink in. Let it come to room temperature before you cook it low and slow for hours.
Rub away and cook low and slow. They can be very tender if you cook them properly. You might not find beef back ribs at the supermarket, but any good butcher shop should have them.
The side rib is not as tender as a back, therefore you have to cook it longer and slower. In the end, you can make both of them taste exactly the same, you just have to treat them differently. There are two schools of thought on the silver skin; I like to leave it on, but a lot of people like to take it off.
Shoulder (otherwise known as Boston butt) is what you’ll use for pulled pork. Rub it, let it sit, bring it to room temperature and cook it. You can use more powerful spices with pork – such as smoked paprika – because the flavours of pork are easier to manipulate. Spices will permeate pork more than beef.
Wood 101 with Darryl Koster
Cooking with wood is the first step toward authentic, deeply flavourful barbecue. There are many options to choose from, so we had Darryl Koster from Buster Rhino’s Southern BBQ break things down for us. Some key points to keep in mind: use wood that has been aged for at least six months, and try to use bigger logs – with the bark removed – whenever possible.
Not too light and not too heavy. You can do long term smokes with it, and it’s good with any kind of meat. If you’re using maple that is heavy with syrup, you can get a serious maple syrup flavour added to your meat. It lends a beautiful smoky, sugary-sweet flavour.
A classic smoke for barbecue. When you hear about Texas barbecue, generally they’re using post oak. The older the oak the better. It adds a smooth, mellow, buttery flavour, and it’s not overpowering. Even novices to barbecue can easily tell the flavour difference.
Very prevalent in Ontario, but apple should be used sparingly. It should never be used for a long-term smoke – it can be very acrid.Apple can be either a finishing wood, or used on chicken or fish at the very beginning.
This is a strong but awesome wood. It has a really good flavour without being acrid. I’m not against cherry for a long-term smoke, but it is a very smoky smoke. Fruit woods can add flavours to your food according to their corresponding fruits.
An oily wood, and very strong. It’s one of the three granddaddy barbecue woods along with hickory and pecan. It’s one you hear a lot about down south. It has a very distinct, very sharp flavour. Mesquite is great as long as you know what you’re doing. A lot of what is sold as mesquite is not actually mesquite – so buy it from a reputable source.
This is the one wood that everybody knows about. You always hear hickory-smoked this, hickory-smoked that. And it’s a beautiful wood to smoke with. It works with everything, but it can be overpowering. Good hickory is hard to find here in Canada.
Nobody knows about pecan, but everyone knows the smell. It’s the smoke that is used to do smoked chipotle peppers or jalapenos. It’s a beautiful, mellow wood, a gorgeous piece of wood to smoke with. If I could smoke with pecan at my restaurants all the time, I would, but I can’t get enough up here.