Have you always wanted to try barbecuing? It’s not difficult! Here are some outdoor cooking ideas to get you started.
There’s something about cooking and eating out in the open that sets it apart from food eaten indoors. It’s almost romantic, and food cooked on a barbecue tastes so much better than food cooked on an indoor grill. Perhaps it’s the charcoal, which gives food a wonderful smoky taste; or maybe food just tastes better when you’re eating it with family and friends.
Barbecued food can be very good, or pretty awful, depending on who is doing the cooking! And barbecue food isn’t just blackened chicken drumsticks and undercooked sausages. So many foods can benefit from being cooked on the barbecue. But there are some things you need to know before you start cooking.
Gas BBQ v Charcoal BBQ
If you’re thinking about buying a barbecue grill, the first thing you have to decide is whether you should go for the traditional charcoal grill or a more convenient gas-powered grill. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons.
These are convenient and ready to use, taking only 10 minutes on average to reach the required temperature for cooking your food. They run on gas cylinders, so they’re fully portable as well as suitable for barbecuing in your back garden.
But some barbecue purists will tell you that you won’t get that delicious, smoky taste with a gas grill compared to a charcoal grill. They insist that it’s the smoke from the coals which makes barbecued food taste so good.
Not true – the flavour comes from fat and juices from the food dripping onto the surface of the grill and creating smoke; That’s what gives you that lovely smoky flavour. The charcoal itself doesn’t impart any flavour, it’s the smoke that does this.
So don’t think that using a gas grill means that you miss out on flavour. You won’t. Also, gas grills give you more control over temperature and have individual controls for each section. You don’t get this precision with a charcoal grill. And lighting the grill is as simple as pressing a button.
The disadvantages of a gas grill are that they are more expensive to buy and run than a charcoal grill. They don’t reach such high temperatures as a charcoal grill so they are more suitable for food that needs longer cooking, such as joints of meat and whole chickens. And the gas jets can become clogged up with dripping fat, which is then difficult to clean.
These are the more traditional of the two, food has been cooked over flames for as long as humans have been around. And this method of cooking can be fun, bringing out the cave person in us! You don’t even need to buy a grill, you can make a fire pit in the ground and place a grill rack over the top. This is ideal if you want to have a barbecue on the beach.
The disadvantage of a charcoal grill is that it takes longer to reach the optimum temperature, the grill can be tough to clean afterwards, and if you need to add more charcoal during cooking, you then have to wait a good 15 minutes for the coals to come back up to temperature.
If you’re going to buy a charcoal grill, it makes sense to choose one made from virgin solid cast iron. Recycled cast iron has impurities, bubbles and cracks which can cause problems when cooking. Buying a cheap grill is false economy. Buy the best you can afford and it will reward you with years of service.
How to Choose a BBQ Grill
So now that you know the advantages and disadvantages of gas and charcoal grills, the next step is to decide which grill is most suitable for you. Ask yourself the following questions:
How often will it be used? Is it only going to be used once or twice a year, or will it be wheeled out every weekend in spring and summer?
Do you need something portable that you can take out camping with you? If so, a solid, heavy grill without wheels is not going to work for you. Look at some of the smaller, lighter options instead. There are lots to choose from.
How many people are you planning to cook for? If it’s just a romantic barbecue for 2 then a smaller grill would be ideal. If you like to throw big parties and invite your whole family then you need something with more space for grilling. The good news is that there are models in every size to choose from so you won’t be limited in your choices.
What sort of food will you want to cook on your new grill? It makes a difference to the type of grill you choose; if you’re planning on cooking whole rotisserie chickens or a joint of meat then you will need a grill with a hooded lid and a metal spit for turning while roasting. If you’re not too ambitious about your food, then maybe a barrel barbecue is more your style.
The Different Types of Barbecues Available
There are so many different types of barbecue available, more than you would think, that choosing one might be a headache. Here are the pros and cons of each one.
Readily available in supermarkets, garden centres and petrol stations, these can be lit with a single match and are small and lightweight. They consist of a shallow foil tray filled with charcoal and come with a sheet of firelighting paper. They burn for a very long time, enabling you to get a serious amount of cooking done.
The disadvantages are that the grill rack is very close to the coals, so these are only suitable for cooking smaller, thinner items of food such as burgers and kebabs. Anything thicker would burn on the outside before the centre is fully cooked. The cooking area is small, so unless you have more than one portable grill you will need to cook food in rotation.
As they stay hot for a very long time disposal can be a problem. If you take one out camping with you then be very careful when disposing of it – you could easily start a fire. The safest way to deal with them is to pour a bottle of water over the coals to extinguish them, allow them to go completely cold (this can take up to 48 hours) then put them into the bin with your general household waste when you get home.
*Disposable barbecues are not recyclable so if you’re committed to saving the planet, they’re probably not the best choice.
These are shallow trays with short legs, originally from Japan, which can be set on the ground or on a heatproof surface. Their big advantage is that you can adjust the height of the rack, changing the distance between the rack and the coals for cooking different types of food. But they’re not suitable for cooking larger joints of meat, so if that’s your aim, don’t buy a Hibachi.
These are simple and portable, with an L-shaped rack. This can be used in the traditional way, with the rack sitting over the top of the hot coals, or it can be rotated so that the coals are turned into a vertical back-burner for spit roasting. They can be used on the ground or positioned at table-top height to save straining the chef’s back.
Upright Open-Top Barbecues
These vary in size and shape and are basically an open grill without a lid, either with legs or set into a wheeled trolley. They are best used for direct cooking and can’t be left outside in winter; you’ll need to buy a weatherproof cover or store them in a shed or garage when not in use.
These are my personal favourite. They remind me of a pot-bellied stove and are made of solid cast iron with an open-topped grill. Their main advantage is that they are easy to light and they reach the ideal cooking temperature within 10 – 15 minutes; a standard barbecue will take around 45 minutes, so quite a big difference there.
Pillar or Pedestal Barbecues
These are like a grill set on top of a pedestal and they work in the same way as a barrel barbecue. They are also quick to reach maximum temperature.
Covered Kettle Barbecues
These come in various sizes, with all kinds of accessories, such as ash-catchers, cleaning systems and built-in thermometers. They range in size from a small, portable model to ones mounted in a trolley with extras such as fuel storage containers and gas ignition systems. These are for serious grill fans!
You can cook in various ways; the traditional grill method, or as they have a rounded lid you can cook larger pieces of meat and the lid reflects the heat of the coals, resulting in more even cooking and less chance of flare-ups from fat dripping onto the coals. These are likely to be the more expensive out of all the different types of grill available.
These tend to be large and rectangular with a hinged lid, set into a moveable trolley. They work in the same way as a kettle barbecue. Extras such as moveable grates, rotisseries, warming racks and side tables are available and they often have separate burners for side dishes.
Home Built Brick Barbecues
It’s now possible to buy kits to build your own barbecue at home. They consist of a 3-sided brick structure with strong metal pegs to hold a solid tray for the coals and a metal rack above. A chimney is built into the design. These are ideal for people who do a lot of barbecuing, as they are ready to use whenever the mood takes you.
The secret to a good barbecue is a good fire. Controlling the heat and getting it evenly distributed is a skill and you will learn this as you go. But you need the right fuel to begin with. So let’s look at some of the different kinds.
Wood: Since wood doesn’t burn as hot or for as long as charcoal, this is best saved for a spur-of-the-moment barbecue, perhaps when you’re out camping and decide to have a barbecue. Dry hardwood is best. You can toss some herbs into the flames to give flavour to your food and herbs like sage and rosemary act as an insect repellent.
Charcoal: There are 2 main types of fuel for a charcoal grill; lumpwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Lumpwood charcoal is not a fossil fuel, as some people believe, but wood that’s been fired in a kiln. This process dries out the wood and removes impurities, giving a light and combustible form of charcoal.
Charcoal briquettes: These are my first choice for a barbecue but as they are made from trees, there is a conservation issue. The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) has been set up to monitor and regulate the use of trees from selected areas. Look for charcoal with the FSC logo if you’re concerned for the environment.
Instant Lighting Lumpwood Charcoal: This is a very convenient type of charcoal; it has an added lighting agent to speed things up. It comes in a bag which you simply open, lay in the hearth and light with a match, removing the need for lighter fluid. Once it’s alight, more coals can be added to increase the size of the bed of coals.
*Beware of cheaper types of barbecue fuel; they can contain things like sand, sawdust, and anthracite, bound together with a petrol-based substance. I personally avoid these cheap fuels and go for a more natural product.
So now that you have your barbecue and some suitable fuel the next thing is firelighters. Some barbecues can be lit with a single match. But for others you will need proper firelighters.
Barbecue Firelighters: These are waxy cubes or sticks specially designed to light barbecues without giving off any fumes. You simply push the required number of cubes or sticks in with the charcoal and light them with a match. They are safe, clean and easy to use. Do not use domestic firelighters, as they can give off paraffin fumes and taint the food.
Firelighter Fluid: A commonly used product which is odourless, clean and safe. But you must never squirt the fluid directly onto the fire as the flame can travel back up and ignite the bottle, which you don’t want to happen. Instead, pour a little of the fluid onto the coals, wait for 5 minutes and then light it with a taper or a long safety match.
Firelighter Gel: This is a thick, sticky gel that is squeezed directly onto the coals before you light them. Just be very careful not to get any of the gel on your fingers, or it could give you a nasty burn when you go to light the charcoal.
Electric Starters: These are made from looped heating elements fixed to a handle which are placed in amongst the coals, switched on and left until the coals ignite. The disadvantage is that you have to be close to a power source to use this option.
For extra flavour, aromatics such as rosemary, thyme or bay leaves can be added to the coals. These will add flavour to your food and a wonderful scent to the smoke. But you can also use many other things to add a variety of flavours and aromas.
Walnut, almond and hazelnut shells: These must be soaked in water for 30 minutes before adding to the charcoal to avoid them catching fire.
Soaked dried seaweed: This is good for when you’re barbecuing fish or shellfish. It adds a delicate, salty flavour.
Loose wood chips: These are made from whisky barrels or wood such as mesquite, hickory, oak and plum. They should be soaked for 30 minutes before adding to the fire.
Barbecue Tips for Beginners
Before you start out on your barbecuing career, there are a few things you need to know.
First of all, unless your grill has legs or is built into a trolley, make sure you place it on a level surface away from trees, hedges and fences. Try to find a sheltered spot so that if it’s a bit windy, you’ll have some protection.
Allow at least 45 minutes for the coals to reach the required temperature once you’ve lit them. A gas barbecue will be ready to use in as little as 10 minutes.
If you’re cooking meat, fish or poultry, remove it from the fridge an hour before you want to cook it, to allow it to come up to room temperature. This will cut down on cooking times.
Gather together the tools you need, marinades to be brushed over the food during cooking, and accompaniments like sauces and salads. Then everything will be ready to go for you to start cooking.
When lighting your barbecue, don’t be tempted to overfill the hearth as this is just a waste of fuel. And it’s likely that the fire will burn too hot to cook on anyway. Tip in a double layer of charcoal, then scoop it up into a mound and add the firelighters if you’re using them.
Open all the vents and leave for 10 minutes, by which time the coals will be glowing red. Rake them back into an even layer and leave for another 30 – 40 minutes until they’ve reached the required temperature.
There are 3 main cooking temperatures for a barbecue. Which one you use will depend on the food you want to cook.
Hot: The flames will have died down and the coals will be glowing red and covered with a fine layer of white ash. To test if the temperature is right, hold your hand about 15 cm away from the coals. You should only be able to keep it there for a couple of seconds. This is suitable for thin pieces of food such as fish fillets, thin sausages and chicken escalopes.
Medium Hot: The coals will now be covered with a thicker layer of ash, and you should be able to hold your hand over the grill for about 5 seconds. This temperature is suitable for cooking most types of food.
Cool: At this stage, the coals are no longer glowing red and are covered in a thick layer of ash. You should be able to hold your hand over it for about 8 seconds. This is fine for foods that just need warming up, like parcels of fruit.
To regulate the temperature, knock some ash off the coals and push them closer together. This will increase the heat. To cool it down, spread the coals out and partly close the vents. If you intend to cook for more than an hour, you will need to add more coals to the grill. Push the coals closer together and add the new ones around the edges.
There are 3 main methods of cooking on a barbecue.
Direct Cooking: This is where food is placed directly onto the grill over a solid area of heat (hot coals or a gas burner) with the food covered or uncovered. Turn the food during cooking so that it’s evenly browned. It can be moved to the edges of the grill to finish cooking so that the outside doesn’t burn. These areas tend to be cooler than the centre of the grill.
Indirect Cooking: This method is used on lidded barbecues, with the main heat source around the edges of the grill, leaving a clear space in the middle for the food and a drip tray. The lid is lowered and the food will cook evenly because the lid reflects the heat back onto the food. This works like a conventional oven, so the food won’t need to be turned during cooking.
Spit Roasting: Some barbecues have the facility to attach a spit roaster, or they come with it already included. The food then cooks slowly, rotating continuously, powered by a battery or an electric motor.
Barbecue Cooking Utensils
There are many different tools and utensils available, some are essential, others useful but not essential. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to start with and tools that can be added later on.
- Long-handled tongs, spatulas and forks, for turning food and lifting things off the rack.
- A long-handled basting brush for brushing glazes and sauces onto food during cooking.
- Oven mitts. A must for handling things like kebab skewers, which will get very hot during cooking.
- Assorted skewers. Long, flat metal skewers are ideal for chunky meat and fish kebabs, while bamboo skewers are best for more delicate foods or those that have a short cooking time. Cocktail sticks can be used to hold together rolled foods.
Non-Essential but Useful:
- Hinged wire racks are good for holding whole fish, burgers and sausages. It makes it easier to turn them and it also stops them from sticking to the rack.
- Finer wire mesh racks hold small items of food which would otherwise fall through the gaps in the grill rack.
- A stiff wire brush and a metal scraper is useful for cleaning the grill rack during cooking if any bits of food have become stuck to it, and also for easier cleaning when the grill has cooled down.
- A meat thermometer will tell you when a joint is cooked properly.
- Kebab racks enable you to cook and turn several kebabs at once, and as they don’t touch the grill rack it’s less likely that they’ll stick.
- Plastic covers for storing the grill when not in use and protecting it from the weather between uses.
Some final tips:
Keep raw food indoors until you’re ready to cook it. If it’s a hot day and you leave it in direct sunlight, there’s a risk that it won’t be safe to eat.
Don’t pack too much onto your skewers. Leave some gaps between the pieces so that they can cook properly.
Always soak wooden or bamboo skewers in cold water for 30 minutes before using them, otherwise they could catch fire.
Flat metal skewers stop the food from spinning around as you turn them. Even better, thread the food onto 2 skewers to hold it firmly in place.
Lightly brush the grill rack with oil before you start cooking. This will help prevent food from sticking.
Remove most of the marinade from food before cooking, this helps to minimise flare-ups from the coals.
If your food needs a sugar-based glaze, only baste it for the last 10 minutes of cooking time, otherwise it will burn.
Use thick, heavy-duty foil to cook food in a parcel. Ordinary kitchen foil isn’t strong enough.
Keep a spray bottle of water to hand to put out any flames that might suddenly flare up during cooking.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article and that it’s given you the confidence to try barbecue cooking for yourself. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.