BBQ Tips from Rusty Johnson



Rusty Johnson

World Burger Champion


Hello, Everyone!

I am Rusty Johnson and I’m the Pitmaster/Head Chef of Rusty’s BBQ! I am a competition cook who specializes in live fire cooking. Our barbecue team travels across North America competing and continually perfecting our craft. We have earned some cool awards over the years and have always enjoyed sharing what makes us successful. Some of our favourite awards include:

• 2015 World Burger Champion
• 4 x Canadian National Burger Champion
• 2012 3rd Place Pulled Pork at the World BBQ Invitational
• 2019 6th Place Ribs at the World BBQ Invitational
• 17 x BBQ Grand Championships

On June 16, I had the pleasure of sharing some top-secret backyard barbecue tips with RGF Integrated Wealth Management. This was centred around the crucial yet simple approach I use when making a world championship burger. Being able to share my learnings with others is such a joy for me. I love helping people with the simple and correct building blocks to begin their culinary journey. These things are not hard as they can sometimes seem.

For this article, I want to summarize some of the philosophies we cover in the video. These are my BIGGEST and best tips for cooking any dish! Before we start, please understand that what I’m laying out here isn’t a set of rules. Everything here allows you to be creative with your preferences. Keeping your dishes simple and understanding the fundamentals of anything is how you grow in life. Play around with your food, make a mistake, back off that much salt, and discover what your favourite temperature to finish that chicken thigh is. This is how I learned to cook, not through set instructions.

Every person’s flavour profile is different, but we all like to have some level or variety of the five basic tastes.
Five Basic Tastes
a. Sweet – Sugars, fruits, honey
b. Sour/acidic – Vinegars, citrus fruits (lemon/lime)
c. Salty – Well … things with salt in the name
d. Savoury/Umami – Meats, cheese,
roasted tomatoes, mushrooms
e. Bitterness – Some leafy greens or herbs

When we layer in more “tastes,” we create what chefs call “depth.” When we have something that could be considered salty, we should always see what we could do to add some sweet or some acidity. You don’t need every “taste” in your dish but adding more will quickly be picked up by your guest’s palate.

Example 1: Steak seasoning. Simple salt and pepper is a staple for any steak. But to take that simple rub over the top, add a pinch of raw sugar (sweet) or maybe a pinch of lemon pepper (acidity). These don’t have to be a pronounced flavour, but these elements hidden in the background will create a more complex flavour that your guests will love. It’s all about balance. (Insert ancient proverb about balance here.)

Example 2: You have a turkey gravy for Thanksgiving dinner. The sauce is lacking depth or is overly salty. Try using the balancing technique to improve it. You could add a pinch of lemon juice or white wine (just a splash). Try adding fresh pureed tomatoes for sweetness.

When dishes lack depth, think about which of these “tastes” are missing and how you can add them in. One note – not all tastes are always required

Texture is one of those cooking topics that lots of people overlook. Texture to me is as important as flavour. The best sauce and seasoning will not taste good on a steak cooked double well done. For an example, let’s use burgers, though these guidelines can be used with any dish. In the video we look at layering different textures based on our ingredients. If we have a lot of soft/squishy ingredients like mushrooms, burger patties, or melted cheeses, we would want to counter-balance with a crusty ciabatta bun or add something like a crispy onion ring. Or, if we have ingredients like crunchy iceberg lettuce and crispy bacon, let’s balance that texture with a softer bun like a brioche. The blend of textures in your mouth combined with flavour begins to create something special. Think about what you want in the burger, and then what you can add to enhance it.

Tenderness is also part of the texture of your dish. Get yourself a good temperature chart to better understand when food is properly finished. As a barbecue competitor, I know tenderness is the most important aspect of my cook. You can’t cover up an over- or undercooked dish with any amount of flavouring. The best advice I lend cooks is to get yourself a good instant-read food thermometer. Try and stay away from feel or timing when it comes to finishing. There are too many variables that can change the result. Let science and engineering handle that. Despite what you see on TV, all cooks carry a good thermometer on them at all times.

Before they get a chance to put that food in their mouths, your guests will be analyzing your dish with their eyes. We eat with our eyes first. This doesn’t always have to be something that is plated like food at a five-star restaurant, you could just think about the colours laid out in front of you. In competition cooking we like to ensure we mix our colours up. Colours can come in the form of garnish or edible ingredients. In barbecue contests we have simple dishes like barbecue ribs, which are covered in red sauce, so we make sure to contrast that colour with bright-green kale. We don’t eat the kale, but the contrast of colours can highlight the meat and get the judge excited to eat. One good way to visually elevate a simple steak is to try a simple pinch of red chilies and finely diced parsley. The hints of green and red on the brown steak canvas give the mind the impression that the dish is more complicated than it really is without really changing the flavour. Lots of vegetables come in different colours, so try and let those colours pop and let your guests’ eyes get excited to jump into your dish.

Thanks to everyone who watched the presentation and to RGF for the invitation to come share some barbecue tips with you.

Happy Grilling! ■

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of RGF Integrated Wealth Management, which makes no representations as to their completeness or accuracy.

Rusty Johnson is one of Canada’s most active barbecue competitors. He enters up to 18 barbecue competitions a year and is the first-ever champion on Food Network’s Fire Masters. Twitter/Instagram: @Rustys_BBQ Facebook: Rusty's BBQ

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