Our ancestors first cooked meat over an open flame about 700,000 years ago. No one really knows how exactly this came about, but one thing is for certain: once homo erectus got a taste for all things flame-broiled, there was no going back. From asado in Argentina, to yakiniku in Japan, and all the places in between, grilling food over fire is a global tradition, one that brings people together for good food and good company.
Whether you’re relatively new to the concept of cooking al fresco, or you’ve been at it for years, there’s a good chance your knowledge is a combination of things a relative or friend told you (and perhaps a little advice, friendly or otherwise), and trial and error. And really, this is what’s at the heart of barbecuing: sharing experiences and experimenting with the myriad of options for cooking outdoors.
Barbecuing With the Nolands (bbqingwiththenolands.com) is a Calgary-based, grill-focused blog run by husband and wife team Ken and Tara Noland. Ken Noland, a retired accountant, developed a love of cooking when he met Tara, and from that stemmed a passion for outdoor cooking. Along the way, he has gained his fair share of grill experience.
Noland cooks everything outdoors, from breakfast options to desserts, and anything in between. “Cooking low and slow on your barbecue or in a smoker develops flavours in your food that you simply cannot get any other way,” says Noland.
Being able to adapt to the cooking environment is something every outdoor cook has to contend with – rain, shine, and in Noland’s case, strong winds on a chilly October Thanksgiving weekend. Taking on the task of smoking the turkey for a crowd of people, he found it difficult to keep a consistent temperature. “I had to build an impromptu windscreen on my back deck,” says Noland. “It worked, thankfully, and everyone enjoyed a wonderful smoked turkey dinner.”
When it comes to cooking things like seafood, veggies, fruit, or anything that is soft or fleshy, Noland says to oil the grill with spray or a cooking brush dipped in oil, and to do this before you turn your grill on.
Whether you oil or not, once the grill is on, let it preheat: “You shouldn’t put anything on the grill or in the smoker if it is not preheated,” advises Noland.
Be patient, he adds, and allow meats to cook on one side before turning them. “If you try to turn your meat and it is sticking to the grill and tears, it is not ready to turn. Once it is cooked to the right temperature, it will release with a gentle pull and should not tear.”
And, once you’re done cooking and the meat is removed from the grill or smoker, Noland says to let it rest to allow the juices to be absorbed back into the meat. “If you cut your meat right after cooking, you will lose all the wonderful juices and a lot of the flavour, too!”
Edmonton’s You Need a BBQ is not only a retail business specializing in wood pellet grills (those fired by small pieces of hardwood like hickory, cherry, and mesquite), but also offers grilling classes.
“I love seeing others make amazing food,” says pit-master and owner Russell Bird. It’s one of the main reasons he started the business and began offering classes. “It’s a way to make sure everyone has access to the skills and knowledge of what it takes to make amazing, world class food.”
Bird explains that there’s a lot to decide when it comes to outdoor cooking, from what to cook (poultry, fish and seafood, beef, pork), to how to cook it (gas grill, charcoal, or smoker), to how to flavour it (rubs, sauces, and injections).
“When you cook outside you can add more flavour cooking with fire and more importantly, smoke,” he explains. Still, he says not to fret about the type of grill you have. Instead, “Be prepared to experiment with different woods, seasonings, sauces and more, to find the combinations that are right for you.”
“Knowing what is going on the outside of your meat is easy,” Bird adds. “Knowing what is going on inside of your meat is the biggest challenge in barbecue.” For this reason, he recommends keeping a thermometer nearby to monitor internal temperatures. “[It’s] a barbecuer’s most important tool.”
Find Russell Bird's recipe for Sticky Asian Braised Pork Belly here.
At Paddy’s Barbecue and Brewery in Calgary, owner Jordan Sorrenti and his wife, Kerry, serve up Texas-style barbecue and in-house craft brew in a casual setting. With a menu that boasts smoked and slow-roasted brisket, pork side ribs, and pulled pork, Sorrenti has an epic outdoor grill game, both at work and at home.
“Outdoor cooking is the best,” he says. “It’s always a challenge, but with planning, you can cook anything on a grill that you could cook in your home. And you can’t beat the ambience of the outdoors and that campfire smell.”
Sorrenti explains, “I cook two different ways on my outdoor grill at home: fast and furious, and low and slow.” The former method is best for getting a quick sear on steaks, to “get the fat flying.” Low and slow sees Sorrenti turning his grill into an oven with indirect heat, achieved using two of the three burners.
This method also allows Sorrenti to use a cast iron pan to cook: “My cast iron pan has hosted frittatas, stews, countless veggies, roast chicken, pizza, and even fruit crisps for desserts.”
Sorrenti’s best tip for cooking outdoors, no matter the method, is to keep it simple when it comes to the meat. “Most of my meats are seasoned simply with Kosher salt and coarse black pepper.” The exception to this, of course, is his recipe for beer can chicken, which uses a blend of herbs and spices. And you’re in luck – Sorrenti has shared that blend with us!
Find Jordan Sorrenti's recipe for Beer Can Chicken here.
Pitt County BBQ in Edmonton is a North Carolina style whole-hog barbecue catering company that cooks onsite for bigger gatherings (when safe to do so), but also offers drop-off options, allowing them to not only showcase, but share, the regional style BBQ with Alberta.
“[Outdoor cooking] allows you to connect with your surroundings,” says owner and operator Peter Zukiwski. “[It’s] about slowing down, connecting with friends and family, and disconnecting from technology.”
While Zukiwski knows his way around a whole hog, and has even taken on a whole lamb, one of his favourite things to cook outdoors is vegetables. “You can cook most vegetables directly on the coals,” he explains. “It gives them a nice unique flavour and it removes having to do dishes!”
Cooking with coals can be a bit of a challenge, especially when it comes to lighting them and keeping them going. In this case, Zukiwski recommends using a coal chimney to keep you from losing your cool. “There’s no shame in utilizing something that’s proven to work. And while it’s lighting it gives you time to prep and season the meat.”
Zukiwski also says experimenting is key when it comes to finding flavours you enjoy. “I personally like a 50/50 blend of cherry to hickory pellets or chips but use the blend or wood that you enjoy using the best. At the end of the day, you’re the one eating it.”
Find Peter Zukiwski's recipe for North Carolina Style Pulled Pork here.