Food Network star Michael Smith is one of Canada’s best-known chefs — and also a barbecue fiend. The Chopped Canada judge recently launched Fireworks, a restaurant celebrating everything barbecue, and is Prince Edward Island’s hottest new eatery.
“We have every live fire cooking method known to man,” he says. “We have a smokehouse, a hearth, and a wood-oven. It allows us to do different techniques, and every single one using live fire and coals.”
If you can’t make it to Prince Edward Island to enjoy the fine barbecue at Fireworks before the end of summer, don’t worry. Chef Michael shares his top tips for throwing an amazing Labour Day barbecue at home. Before you get grilling, read this!
Start with the right equipment.
It may seem old-fashioned, but Chef Michael swears by the power of cast-iron cookware for grilling.
“Cast-iron is a revelation to us,” says Chef Michael. “It radiates heat so evenly; things just don’t burn in it! We cook with cast-iron every single thing we do. Dutch ovens, skillets, planchas. That’s one big take-away: consider using cast-iron.”
Cook with live fire (if you can).
Whether you’re a first timer or a barbecue master, Chef Michael encourages those with backyard space to use “real wood fire” for grilling.
“Have one fire that’s generating your coals,” says Chef Michael. “Then sweep the coals over to the other side of the hearth — that’s where you do your cooking.”
The type of wood matters too; always use dried-out hardwood over softwood, which tends to leave an oily film on food, spoiling the flavour. “Hardwood burns hotter, slower, and tastes better,” says Chef Michael.
Don’t cook over a flame.
When grilling, avoid direct contact between flame and food. Instead, let the flame die down to a hearty, thick bed of coals, no matter what fuel source you’re using. “We don’t cook over flame,” says Chef Michael. “Flame scorches food, and leads to black.”
Dress to impress (your meats, that is).
Add a gorgeous aroma by smoking meats with fruit wood chips like apple, available at most hardware stores.
“These are the caviar of wood,” says Chef Michael. “The wood has a distinctive flavour, tasting fruity. Reserve this special aromatic wood if you’re smoking food.”
It’s easy; just let the fire burn down to embers, and then top dress with fruit wood at the last minute. Or for a flavour-packed punch, consider brining your meats.
“If you’re really looking to amp up your barbecue game, brine,” says Chef Michael. “Chicken and pork in particular really benefit.”
It’s all in the technique.
To master the art of barbecuing, follow Chef Michael’s essential grilling tips:
- Pre-heat your grills: “It’s probably the biggest tip of all. Food will not stick to hot metal. It sticks to cold metal.”
- Sauce at the end: “Never, ever put barbecue sauces on your food before you grill it! Many sauces are packed with sugar, and immediately burn. Brush your sauces on towards the end of the cooking process.”
- Be patient: “Often, we rush the process and miss the opportunity to fully cook the meat. If there’s a little tugging or sticking, that’s the meat saying, ‘I’m not ready to flip yet!’ Take your time — it’s very much in your favour.”
- Understand the process: “The whole point of searing meat is to build flavour. Searing meat encourages juices to come out of the meat. If you’re rushing and not pre-heating, then you’re not adding flavour.”
Have fun with the menu.
Lots of foods are grill-able, and consider broadening the barbey beyond burgers and hot dogs. Chef Michael suggests smoking freshly-shucked oysters on the grill for 2-3 minutes, top dressed with fruit wood. Or make a Grilled Pineapple Salad, Chef Michael’s “all-time favourite.” For drinks, seared lemon or lime make great garnishes, or whip up a pitcher of grilled lemonade. Best of all, barbecued fruits work beautifully as a fiery dessert.
“Use the grilled fruit component as a simple dessert,” says Chef Michael. “Big thick rings of grilled pineapple served with some kind of funky ice cream. I like to grind up fresh cilantro and sugar in a food processor, and then sprinkle it onto grilled pineapple — delicious stuff!”
Last but not least, invite plenty of friends and family, and “don’t worry so much about the food.”
“It’s really about who’s at the table, not what’s on the table,” says Chef Michael.
All this talk of food got you hungry? Check out Michael Smith’s Best Seafood Recipes.