What People Get Wrong About Smoking Meat, According To Michael Symon - Exclusive

No one knows their way around a barbecue quite like Michael Symon. The celebrity chef has made grilling meat into an art at Mabel's, his Cleveland-style barbecue restaurant, where he uses a mix of Eastern European spices, a ballpark mustard-based barbecue sauce, and local fruitwood smoked meat to create some truly exciting dishes (via Michael Symon). Symon's passion for this style of cooking even led him to team up with Bobby Flay and Eddie Jackson on Food Network's BBQ Brawl, a show where each chef leads a team of pitmasters and grillers to compete over barbecue-based challenges (via Food Network).

Symon has seen it all, and over the course of his professional life, has learned what works and what falls flat when it comes time to smoke some meat. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the chef dished out what amateurs need to know and what pitfalls to avoid for great barbecue. Symon shared that his love of cooking over an open flame started back in his childhood, when he learned the first fundamental rule many of us forget when it comes to imbuing meat with the perfect smoky flavor.

Don't expect to get a smoked taste with propane grills

Symon learned from an early age that you have to use charcoal or wood to get a smoky taste in meat. "I had one of those families that just loved being outside on the grill and cooking with live fire," Symon said. "So that was always a passion for me, so one of the things with the shows, the restaurants, all those things, I'm always trying to show people how easy it is to cook with live fire. And you know, not that there's anything wrong with the gas grill, but you're certainly going to get a lot more flavor and impact of flavor over coals and wood than you would by just turning a handle. And it's not hard. I think it always shocks people how easy it actually is to start a fire. You know, you can get more intense heat, you can control the heat more, and you just get so much more flavor."

Once aspiring barbecuers make the move from propane to wood-burning fires, Symon warns that you have to always stay on the lookout for flare-ups — and whatever you do, don't abandon your food to the fire. "[Grillers] create an inferno sometimes," Symon said. "It's like, they put the food on and they run. They're like, 'Oh my God.'" When it comes to open flames, it makes sense you need to pay attention.

Make sure to create heat zones

Once you temper your nerves and get the fire under control, Symon notices that many aspiring pitmasters forget to build heat zones. "With the 'Symon's Dinners' where Liz and I are cooking in our backyard, I always really try to show people, okay, you set up your grill," Symon said. "Get one side hot, get your coals going on one side. And then on the other side of the grill really have no coals at all. I think sometimes people get confused that when you put the lid on the grill, the grill now is an oven, so anything that you could do in an oven you can do on the grill, it's just all about controlling your heat."

"So I think once people understand that you don't want the whole grill ripping, that you actually, create zones in the grill, so to speak, of a hot side, a medium side, a cool side, depending on the size of your grill," Symon continued. "But even just then, I cook a ton on a little $60 potbelly Weber. And you put the coals on one side, you get them going, and you have no coals on the other side, you get the food marked, you move it over, you close the lid, and it's super simple."

Michael Symon says don't bite off more than you can chew

After you master controlling the heat on your grill, it might feel like you can take on anything the BBQ universe throws at you. Symon warns that this cockiness can spell disaster for chefs of all calibers, and you need to take your time to learn about each kind of meat you work with. "I think if you're [grilling] at home, you should start simple, and then build your way up. And for me, whether I'm out ordering [BBQ] or I'm making it at home, I always think that the crust is the sign of someone who is comfortable and skilled working a grill or smoker."

"If you're working a smoker and it's a brisket, you want that beautiful bark on the exterior, you don't want a big hunk of steamed meat," Symon continued. "If you're having a burger, I want there to be that char and that texture on the outside. So it enhances and accentuates the juiciness of the inside. So, whether I'm going out to eat it or making it myself, or teaching people how to do it, that's one of the things that I really look for." Treating each piece of meat the correct way will help you avoid any wasted food or disappointing meals.

Don't place too much value on the smoke ring

If there's one takeaway BBQ expert Michael Symon wants to impart on any grill fanatic, it's that you shouldn't strive to create the perfect smoke ring above all else. "People are so funny about it, the smoke ring," Symon said. "People, they've watched too many barbecue shows now. And so they'll comment on if they think something's great or not great because of the smoke ring. And I always try to tell people, it's like, look, I could manipulate, I could make anything have a smoke ring if I choose to. And often I do, it's not that I'm anti-smoke ring, but you could have awful barbecue that has a smoke ring, or spectacular barbecue that does not. You can't enhance, you can't cheat bark. You can't cheat tenderness. You can't cheat the moistness of meat. The smoke ring, you could cheat all day."

There are a ton of ways to force a smoke ring, shared Symon. "For example, you should let meat come to room temperature before you start smoking it. [But] if I start it super cold, it's going to have a smoke ring. The wood should be aged, not green. If I put on green wood, it's going to have a smoke ring. If I do it with charcoal, from start to finish, it's going to have a smoke ring. If I put baking soda in my rub, it's going to have a smoke ring. Admire the smoke ring if the barbecue is still delicious. If the barbecue is terrible, the smoke ring? People will say like, 'It doesn't taste great, but look, the smoke ring is perfect.' I'm like, 'Who cares if it doesn't taste right?'"

For additional tips on BBQ and more, you can follow Michael Symon's Instagram page. The chef also recently began a partnership with Diplomático Rum, so be sure to check the company website for recipes and cocktails featuring the liquor.