Does firing up the grill bring visions of steaks, burgers, hotdogs and corn on the cob to mind? While the barbeque can be used any time of year, summer is surely it’s time to shine. I would always recommend keeping it really simple, the more complicated you make it, the more likely is that things will, and often do, go horribly wrong.
If you really want to hone your skills and can afford the time and expense, there are plenty of barbecue courses on offer so that you can become a real expert and get lots of tips and advice, but in the meantime here are just a few things to bear in mind.
Tools and Fuel
It’s important to remember that anything that takes less than half an hour or so to cook can be done directly over the glowing coals, but anything larger, that requires longer cooking time should be cooked in a kettle barbecue with the lid on using indirect heat so that it doesn’t burn on the outside whilst not cooking properly on the inside (this means that the coals are on one side underneath and the food is gently cooking on the grill on the other side, always with a drip tray underneath to catch any dripping fat and prevent burning). Therefore, depending on how ambitious you are will determine the kind of barbecue you use.
Open grill or kettle barbecue?
Are you a sausage and burger type of barbecue chef, or are you planning something much more elaborate? such as a smoked pulled pork extravaganza? If you’re only planning on burgers, kebabs and chicken portions you will need no more than an open grill, but if you want to cook joints of meat or a whole chicken you are going to need a kettle barbecue, which has a lid that reflects heat off the curve back onto the food and also restricts the flow of air through the coal. Please note that for the best results you should keep the lid on as much as you can during the cooking, and however counter-intuitive this might seem don’t burn too much fuel. If you decide to go down this route it really is worth investing as much as you can to be sure of owning a kettle barbecue that feels heavy and solid, works properly and will last beyond this summer, with a really well-fitting lid and good quality enamel, all made of thick, robust metal.
Having an open barbecue is much cheaper and is also relatively easy to use, even a flat grill simply laid over some bricks to raise it up, with a mound of embers formed from burning charcoal of wood underneath will work, just make sure it is sturdy and safe to use, albeit rustic. As a child in Italy, my parents were obsessed with picnics and there always had to be a fire to grill steaks on. The first job we kids always had to do when we’d reached the perfect picnic spot was to gather enough large flat, steady stones to make a circle in the centre of which the fire would be ceremoniously lit, using whatever wood we could find lying around. Once the embers were red hot and evenly glowing, the grill would be laid on the stones and the steaks, transported in a simple marinade of Extra Virgin olive oil, crushed garlic and chopped rosemary and black pepper, would soon follow – they were always absolutely amazing and so tender – no fancy barbecue food I have eaten since could ever beat that flavour.
If you are not going to use wood – wood from fruit trees is especially wonderful at imparting flavour to the food – the choice of solid fuels is between lump wood charcoal, or briquettes, which are essentially charcoal dust bound together with a kind of glue. There is much debate about which is best, but personally, I would always use seasoned wood if at all possible. Lighter fuel is to be avoided as in my humble opinion it will inevitably make whatever you are cooking taste slightly chemical.
The most important thing you need apart from the barbecue itself is a really good pair of long-handled tongs so that you can move things around and turn them over easily. A pair of really good heatproof gloves or the best of oven gloves are also essential for safety.
If you are cooking a whole fish, you will need a fish-shaped cage to keep it intact during the process. Fresh mussels, which are truly marvellous on the barbecue, will need to be laid in a shallow metal tray laid on top of the grill and turned frequently as they cook – they are ready once they have all opened up. Make sure you have a handy table nearby so you can rest plates and food waiting to be cooked within easy reach.
If you want, you can also have a food thermometer handy to check the core temperature of anything you cook – you need it to be at 75 C ideally.
Timing is everything
One of the issues is always about getting the barbecue ready in time (e.g. achieving a nice even temperature right across the grill for ease of cooking and not keeping your guests waiting too long). A chimney starter will help speed things up. This is basically a large metal tankard with a grille at the bottom. This means you measure out the right amount of charcoal and you can get it burning evenly in around 20 minutes. If you are going to do a lot of barbecuing, this could be something you may like to buy. Otherwise, make sure you allow enough time for all the flames to die down before you even think about starting to cook. Allow at least an hour in most cases. Just remember that the rule with barbecuing is always “low and slow” – keep the heat relatively low and take your time, you can’t rush these things.
Make the food taste great
I really can’t stress enough that for many types of food, a marinade, however simple, is absolutely essential to successful barbecue results – marinating tenderises the meat and adds depth of flavour to fish, seafood and vegetables. You can buy marinades ready-made, or make up your own. Personally, I think rubbing steaks with olive oil, garlic and a handful of finely chopped soft-leaved rosemary is hard to beat for flavour and simplicity. Remember never to add salt to a marinade as it will draw out too much moisture and you risk ending up with food that it has somehow dried out. During the cooking, brush your meat or fish with the marinade every 10 minutes or so, to add moisture, trap the smoky flavour and caramelise the outside of the food gently. Also, please do remember that meat is always much better when it has been allowed to rest before serving and that this also applies in a barbeque scenario! And of course, fish is also fantastic on a barbecue, so don’t forget to introduce fish steaks or even a whole fish to the grill.
Messy but necessary
Cleaning up really is key to good barbecuing practice. Make sure the grill, tongs and everything else you use are perfectly clean, dry and ready to use before you begin. NEVER use a detergent to clean your barbecue. Barbecues tend to be porous, so a nasty detergent after taste is almost inevitable. Just burn off as much of the residue as possible and then brush everything clean with a stiff, good quality heatproof brush. I know the post barbecue clean up operation is not the most fun of jobs, but it really is important that you make sure everything is as shipshape and food remnant free for the best results. After all, you would not want to cook in dirty, greasy saucepans, would you?
Finally, if you are thinking of buying a barbecue my own recommendation is Broil King, I think they really are the best you can get, and they come with all sorts of fancy attachments: there is even a pizza stone. They may not be the cheapest, but you will not regret the purchase once you eat truly amazing results.
Last, but not least, make sure that all your guests are comfortable and have a drink in hand before you start barbecuing!