Rehabilitating the Barbecue: Advice for Modern Outdoor Eating
It has been another hot day, but the air outside is cooling. We are sitting at the patio table, enjoying a glass of wine and the sound of evening birdsong: mostly sparrows fighting at the bottom of the garden, but there are also skylarks over the fields, and one solitary and very noisy blackbird. From the barbecue, the smell of lamb, spices and woodsmoke.
Barbecues have acquired something of a bad reputation: simultaneously an unknowable ritual of meat and fire, and also an (often dangerous) combination of novelty aprons, burnt-yet-still-raw sausages and charred eyebrows. Both images are also inherently male: the unchallenged assumption is that barbecuing is hard work – mentally and physically – and therefore somehow man’s work.
In truth, there is nothing challenging or masculine about cooking a barbecue. Unlike the challenges presented by the cooking a roast dinner, for instance, even the most complex barbecues are comparatively easy: invariably, much of the cooking time is spent waiting, occasionally adding more charcoal or wood, and making sure that nothing burns. The hardest part of any barbecue is ensuring you don’t have too much of a good time and forget to look after the food.
Advice for a Great Barbecue
Types of barbecue
There are a huge range of barbecues available, from tiny disposable things to expensive ceramic ovens, but it is best to decide how you want to use the barbecue before you buy anything. Do you just want to cook sausages and burgers a few weekends a year? A small kettle charcoal barbecue would be a good choice. Are you planning on cooking for a large number of people? Then a larger barbecue grill might be the best option. Only interested in smoking large joints of meat? Probably invest in a specialist smoker.
My own barbecue is an offset smoker, which can also be used as a conventional barbecue if needed, with two cooking areas. I find this answers most of my cooking needs.
As well as the type of barbecue you use, you will also need to think about the style of cooking you plan to do.
Direct and/or indirect: The most common style is direct and/or indirect cooking: this means that you will have one area of the barbecue that is very hot, over which you will cook on metal grills for those distinctive chargrill lines. Other areas will be less hot, for gentler cooking or keeping things warm. This method is best for cooking burgers, sausages, steaks, kebabs, chargrilled vegetables and butterflied joints of meat. Some recipes may ask you to cook over just one of these areas.
Smoking: Another method is to have an indirect set-up and create a lot of smoke – either through burning logs or wood chips – to both cook and cure your food. This adds a delicious smoked flavour to your food, but can be more time-consuming. An offset smoker is ideal for this, though standard barbecues can be used the same way. This method is best for larger joints of meat, especially joints of meat and sides of fish, though some vegetables smoke very well as well.
Open fire: Alternatively, you may cook directly over fire, either using long kebabs or a specialist spit-roast. Depending on how hot your fire is – and how close your food is to it – this method can be used for either fast cooking or longer, slower meals. Either way, it is a more hands-on form of cooking, as the fire will need very close attention.
Your cooking style and choice of barbecue will influence what fuel you cook with. If you are using a small kettle barbecue, and planning to for direct and/or indirect cooking, then charcoal is your only real option.
If you have a larger barbecue, or are planning to smoke your food, wood is ideal. My favourite fuel for outside cooking is sweet fruit woods like cherry and apple. Not only do they burn slower than most of the commercially available kiln-dried logs, the smoke doesn’t overpower the flavour of your food.
Lighting your barbecue
No matter how you are cooking, you will want to light your barbecue at least 20-30 minutes before you start cooking. If you are using an offset smoker, you may want to start even earlier, up to an hour before, to make sure you have a steady temperature.
For lighting charcoal, I recommend building a small pyramid of lumpwood charcoal around 1-2 firelighters, and then lighting them with a long match. I use carbon neutral, 100% biomass firelighters from If You Care, which are made from FSC certified wood and vegetable oil.
For lighting a wood fire, you’ll need some dry kindling, some scrunched-up newspaper and some smaller logs. Build a small, open stack of kindling, interspaced with the newspaper. Light the newspaper, but only add the smaller logs once you can see that the kindling has caught.
However you choose to light your barbecue, always do it safely: don’t use anything other than firelighters to get it started, and it’s a good idea to keep some water nearby in case things get out-of-control.
When most people think about barbecues, they think of meat. There is good reason for this – chargrilling brings out some of the best flavours – but, as with all cooking, your food will only be as good as the quality of the meat. With barbecuing, this is even more important: poor quality meat from badly treated animals will be more watery, saltier, tougher and less-flavoursome than free-range, organic meat from a butcher.
Sausages, burgers, steaks and kebabs are always good options for direct cooking, but it is also worth exploring some alternatives: whole fish, sides of salmon and lamb chops also respond well to quick cooking. Larger cuts such as beef brisket and pork ribs are perfect for indirect cooking and smoking. You can find my recipe for slow-smoked shoulder of lamb here.
Barbecues aren’t only about meat, and the same processes that enhance the flavour of meat will also make vegetables sweeter and tastier. Vegetables like asparagus, chicory, aubergines, sweet peppers and mushrooms all chargrill well, while tomatoes, fennel and sweet potatoes are best cooked wrapped in foil.
The real work of the barbecue happens in the kitchen: the preparation, the salads, the sides, the breads. These stages can often take as long as – or longer than – the cooking itself, so – unless you are cooking a really low-and-slow recipe (more than two hours), I’d recommend getting these done first.
After eating a lot of delicious, barbecued food, the thought of cleaning-up can feel pretty daunting, so getting at least some of the washing-up done while the barbecue is going will save a lot of work later on. Once you have finished cooking, it’s worth getting the barbecue really hot, and scraping-off anything that has charred to the grill. Also, unless you are planning to be barbecuing again quite soon – within the next few days – it would be best to wait until the barbecue has cooled, remove any ashes, and protect it from the elements with a cover.