There’s a signature sign that summer is here in Alberta. It’s not the short-shorts, the blaring sun or even patio beers. It’s that hazy float of backyard smoke in the air that can only come from one thing: barbecue.

As barbecue-forward restaurants line summer menus with smoked meats, veggies, jams and jellies, we asked local chefs what makes smoked foods so special, and some tips and tricks for pulling it off at home.

Relatively new to Calgary’s southern barbecue scene, Belle Southern Kitchen + Bar, in Mission, boasts a mouth-watering spread of comfort foods like Cajun-roasted chicken with honey butter, pan bread smothered in smoked garlic butter, and sliced brisket picnic lunches.

Executive chef Aaron Scherr says the trick to smoking foods is subtlety. Smoke can easily overpower a dish, and Scherr says it’s critical to choose your wood carefully before cooking. For beginners, he recommends apple or cherry chips, which impart a brighter flavour compared to a more powerful mesquite woodchip.

“We like to be a little sneaky,” he says with a laugh. “For example, we’ll use a smoked paprika instead of Spanish paprika. Customers get a little hint of something, but can’t quite figure out what it is right away.”

Scherr says using rubs and properly seasoning meat beforehand makes a huge difference when smoking. It takes a bit of practice, but maybe one day you could be on par with Scherr’s Coca-Cola brine for his signature beef brisket.

Start small and try out Scherr’s tangy recipe for Smoked Tomato Jam!

Calgary’s Booker’s BBQ Grill and Crab Shack executive chef, Joel Smith, argues his ribs are the best in town. One of the city’s longstanding southern barbecue joints, low and slow is the technique at Booker’s, where chefs slow smoke more than 200 pounds of meat per day.

Whether you’re using a professional smoker or a barbecue, Smith says all you need to pull off a great smoked dish is patience.

“Don’t rush it, with smoking there’s no fast way to do it,” he says. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by smoking, but it’s really easy once you do it a few times. You just have to take your time and do it right.”

Get your rib on with Smith’s quick and easy St. Louis Rib Rub!

There’s no one better to speak to smoking meat than Terry Sept, who travels all over the continent searching for the best barbecue. Sept and his wife run SmokeHouse BBQ in Edmonton, and actually teach monthly “Smoking 101” classes.

“One thing I found that’s common everywhere I go is barbecue,” Sept says. “How you do it isn’t all that different, but what makes it unique is you can put any kind of spin on it you want.”

A testament to Sept’s “Bacon Bomb” (a smoked pork roast stuffed with cheese, jalapeño barbecue sauce, and wrapped in bacon), the beauty of barbecue is its versatility.

“The biggest thing for anyone doing their own smoking, is take the time to experiment,” he says. “Find a technique you want to try, and play from there.”

Start experimenting right now with Sept’s recipe for the Best Beef Ribs You’re Ever Going to Eat!

Also relatively new on the restaurant scene in Calgary is Elbow Room in Britannia, which offers gourmet Canadian comfort food like hot, flaky smoked trout, and gnocchi with smoked paprika jalapeño cream.

Ryan Blackwell, executive chef and owner at Elbow Room, said for the home cook, you don’t necessarily need a high-end $300 smoker to get a great smoky product. With a high-quality piece of meat, you can achieve an Elbow Room-calibre dish (well, maybe not your first time around) on a barbecue or over an open fire.

“The thing with smoking is there’s so many different levels,” he says. “I’d use high heat to start to ignite your chips, and lower the heat down for a longer penetration into the muscle. For the backyard barbecue home cook, most people are actually looking for that flavour.”

Try Blackwell’s recipe for a rich, savoury smoked chicken pasta filling.

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