The sun is out (for now). You’re allowed into other peoples’ gardens (for now). This can only mean one thing: barbecue season is upon us again. Usually that can mean joylessly navigating a minefield of potential food poisoning while drunk and surrounded by wasps. But is there a better way? We asked the experts for 10 tips.
1. Go two-zone
The biggest mistake home barbecuers make, by common consent, is cooking their food at too high a temperature. The best way around this is to set up your barbecue for two-zone cooking. Helen Graves, editor of the indispensable Pit magazine, explains: “It just involves stacking the lit coals to one side, creating a hot zone and a cooler or ‘indirect’ zone. It’s perfect for cooking fattier pieces of meat like chicken wings or lamb kebabs that will otherwise cause flare-ups when the hot fat drips onto the coals. You can cook safely and for longer without having to worry about a raging inferno setting fire to next door’s topiary. If you’ve got a barbecue with a lid, two zones also means you can use the barbecue like an oven, searing a larger cut on the hot side before moving it over to the cooler side and putting the lid on.”
A platter to flatter … barbecue bonanza. Photograph: Marianna Massey/Getty Images
2. Don’t overlook vegetables.
It’s 2020, and nobody wants to destroy their mouths eating turbo-heated peppers off lethal metal skewers any more. Genevieve Taylor runs the Bristol Fire School and is the author of Charred, a near-definitive book on barbecuing vegetables. People tend to think that the maillard reaction (of browning and caramelisation) is purely a meat thing. However, “All those lovely root vegetables undergo it, too,” she says, adding that if you’re going to cook vegetables, schedule for it. “They often take longer than you might imagine. Cauliflower or carrots or parsnips are really dense, so they need long, slow cooking,” Taylor says. If you don’t have much time at your disposal, try to blanche your veg in the kitchen before grilling them. “It opens up the cell walls of the vegetable, and then you can hit it with a marinade when it’s hot. It’s very hard to marinate a cold carrot,” Taylor adds.
Time is of the essence … allow enough space in your schedule to ensure vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Photograph: Fabian Krause/Getty Images/EyeEm
She recommends cooking parsnips on your grill. Put a kilo of peeled and quartered parsnips into a fireproof roasting tin with some oil, salt and pepper. Throw some smoking wood chips into the barbecue, place the tin on the barbecue and shut the lid for 45 minutes, tossing the veg once or twice. When they’re tender, sprinkle over parmesan and cook directly on the grill bars for 7-10 minutes, turning regularly. Taylor serves hers with hazelnuts and fennel butter.
3. Elevate your sides
Salad days … don’t forget the side dishes. Photograph: Brett Stevens/Getty Images/Image Source
Treat sides as an opportunity to offset the richness of the meat. David Carter runs Smokestak in Shoreditch, east London (now operating a takeaway and delivery service through lockdown), and says that acidity is the key factor. “We use lots of citrus dressings, lots of vinegars, anything that tastes fresh and clean to counterbalance the decadence of the meat.” One of his favourite sides is grilled kale. “When you put a bit of oil on a veg like that, it’ll drip on your coals and char the edges, which gives it a really amazing flavour. But then we’ll cut that with a ponzu [a citrus-based soy sauce] with ginger and lemon juice and honey. You’ve got the charry, smoky kale with this super-light, super-refreshing ponzu that cuts straight through the richness of the meat.” To reinforce this notion, his meats are all served with pickles.
4. Go low and slow
In for the long haul … smoky barbecued chicken. Photograph: Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images
It’s hard to replicate Smokestak’s incredible slow-cooked slabs of meat with a home barbecue, but not impossible. They pick tougher cuts and smoke them under indirect heat for 16 hours, until it takes on the texture of braised meat. If you’re determined to try, Carter advises using the Minion method. This is where you put a few hot coals on a bed of unlit briquettes, then carefully control the air vents to prevent the whole thing going up in flames at once. Master the Minion method and you can keep a fire going for up to 18 hours.
5. Get a chimney
Charcoal barbecues are, in general, a slightly cheaper and more versatile choice. But they’re not perfect. If you’ve ever bitten through a crust of blackened chicken skin and ended up with a mouthful of blood, chances are it was cooked on charcoal. If you want to improve the consistency of your charcoal, David Wade from BBQ Barn in Sidcup, Kent, suggests investing in a chimney starter. It’s a cylindrical device that looks like a giant metal tankard; you fill it with charcoal and place it over lit firelighters on your rack. “The chimney effect pushes the flames through the charcoal and in around 15-20 minutes you have a starter full of even-temperature charcoal that you can carefully pour on to your rack. It’s a life saver!”
6. Flavour your smoke
As quick and easy as gas barbecues are, it’s often difficult to escape the sensation that you might as well have cooked in your kitchen. If you want to inject any sort of authentic barbecue taste to gas-cooked dishes, Wade suggests buying a smokebox. “These are normally stainless steel boxes with holes or slots in the lid,” he explains. You sit them on top of the flavouriser bars – the metal zig-zags found on many gas barbecues designed to keep burners clean and vaporise fats back into your food. “Fill them with wet flavour wood chips and, with the BBQ hood down, the resulting smoke and aroma will permeate your food and add to the overall cooking.”
7. Probe, don’t poison
Finished article … never be without a probe thermometer. Photograph: Danielle Wood/Getty Images/Cultura RF
James Palmer-Rosser is the head chef and owner of the Kent Cookery School, and runs regular barbecue masterclasses. “For as long as I’ve been a chef, I’ve never been without a trusty digital probe thermometer,” he says. “It allows for accurate and, more importantly, safe cooking by allowing you to see instantly the internal temperature of food. This is great for getting the right doneness on your steaks but also for ensuring that foods that need to be cooked through – like chicken thighs – have reached the correct temperature.” Chicken should reach an internal temperature of 73C (163F), burgers 71C (160F), sausages 65C (149F) and steak between 60C (140F, rare) and 71C (well done).
8. Faultless fish
A skin thing … always oil fish before putting on the grill. Photograph: puhhha/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Fish is probably the trickiest barbecued food to pull off; its window of doneness is so tiny that even a momentary lapse in concentration can result in its being raw or overcooked. Plus, anyone who has tried to barbecue fish has ruined one by accidentally searing it to the grill then tearing it to pieces trying to remove it. The trick is to pick a fish with a tougher skin, such as salmon or monkfish, and oiling it before cooking. Alternatively, wrap it in foil with a glug of liquid.
9. No thick burgers
Don’t insult your guests by serving them thick burgers. Christian Stevenson, author of The Burger Book, has seen a huge uptick of people cooking his smashburgers: thin patties squashed down on to the heat with a spatula. “I’m so over thick burgers”, he says. “I tried to make thick burgers for my kids, and they’re like: ‘I want McDonald’s, dad.’ So I thought: ‘Why don’t I do thin patties but double, triple, quadruple them up like at McDonald’s, so my kids eat them?’.” Smashburgers require cooking fast and on the hottest surface possible. Stevenson recommends brushing a little American yellow mustard on one side of the burger, then flipping it over and cooking it in. “The yellow mustard hack will take your burger to the upper echelons of tasty town”, says Stevenson.
10. Don’t waste a steak
Easy does it … never cook streak straight from the fridge. Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy
If you’re planning to push the boat out and barbecue steak, Stevenson has some choice words for you. “Everybody pulls their steak out of the fridge and puts it straight on the grill. Don’t. Steak’s a muscle. You want it to relax. Take it out of the fridge to rest 30 minutes to an hour before you cook it. And then you only salt the steak. Don’t put pepper on it. You put a steak on a hot grill, that pepper’s going to burn and taste bitter. You pepper at the end. What I normally do is, right near the end of my cook, I hit the steak with pepper and a tiny bit more salt, and then I rest it for half the amount of time that I cooked it. The juices go back into the muscle and you’ll end up with a juicy, juicy steak”.