Itís impossible to recommend any one type of barbecue over another. More often than not, it comes down to what youíve got, whatís available at the time or what youíve inherited. If youíre looking to buy a new barbecue, consider the following:
Size is important. As barbecue activity is often at the centre of a social gathering, you might find yourself cooking for more than just your family. Make sure the barbecue you choose is big enough to comfortably cook extra food when the need arises. There should also be plenty of room to turn food and enough room where you can put food if it flares up or starts cooking too quickly, usually in the cooler areas around the edges. Small barbecues can get awfully crowded, and then they donít function well. If buying a gas barbecue, a three-burner barbecue is the best because you can cook keeping one burner on high, one on medium and one on low, and have the freedom to move food around according to how it is cooking. On those occasions when youíre just cooking for two, you donít need to light all three burners so there is no waste of fuel.
If youíre buying a portable barbecue, make sure the barbecue is steady Ė flimsy barbecues with wobbly legs are dangerous.
The rest is up to you and what you can afford: be it a basic barbecue or a state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen-on-wheels, or anything in between!
Devotees of wood-fired barbecues, which are generally purpose-built and not portable, claim they produce the best-tasting barbecued food. While itís true that the smoke from the wood imparts a distinctive flavour to food, this can be replicated in most types of barbecue by adding small amounts of tree twigs to charcoal ashes or by placing woody-stemmed herbs such as rosemary and thyme on lava rocks on gas barbecues. It really comes down to how you feel about fire. For some, a barbecue is not the real thing unless a fire is involved. This can mean collecting or drying off wood, cutting it into kindling, lighting the fire and waiting for it to burn down to ashes. Itís not quick. (Wood and charcoal take around 45Ė60 minutes to burn down to embers. The flames should have died down and the embers or coals should be reduced to grey ash or glow red in the dark before you start to cook over them.)
This is the way barbecues used to be, and the smell of the smoke was a tantalising draw-card for miles around. I think this kind of barbecue still has a place, but itís more of an event than a quick way of cooking the evening meal. Summer and smoke seem to go together, and during summer holidays when everyone generally has a little more time, lighting a fire and waiting for it to burn down is an activity that most of us enjoy. It also keeps us outside, which is where we want to be in warmer weather.
Although most of the food is cooked above the embers, some items, such as potatoes wrapped in foil (see Normanís potatoes in the embers on page 103 and Escalivada on page 94), are cooked in the embers or directly on them.
Fixed or portable, this kind of barbecue uses charcoal, which is clean burning and holds its heat for a long time. Charcoal can also be used in purpose-built wood-fired barbecues when wood is not available. While you can use firelighters to get charcoal started, never use petrol Ė itís dangerous and toxic.
Treat charcoal the same way as wood, i.e. wait until the charcoal burns down to embers before cooking the food. If you need to add more charcoal to the embers to bolster the fire, add them to the side so that the main heat is not dispersed. Or you could light a second batch of charcoal to use for topping up in a second barbecue or in an old metal drum or tin.
If you need to create a cool spot, heap the coals up more on one side than the other.
Convenient and fast, gas barbecues can be fixed or portable and run on mains gas or LPG. They provide instant heat, which is easy to control Ė just like a gas ring in the kitchen. Theyíre easy to clean and keep clean, unlike charcoal-burning barbecues, which get dirty and grimy after the first barbecue. Gas-burning barbecues are generally more economical than charcoal-burning barbecues, too.
Some come with all the bells and whistles Ė a wok attachment, gas burners on the side, a smoker, rotisserie, cupboards and drawers, a timer and temperature gauge, racks for hanging tools Ė everything bar the kitchen sink (some really flash barbecues actually have a sink!). Most now come with a hood, and you can use them as you would an oven, especially for roasting large joints of meat. You donít get the smoky flavours that you do from a wood-fired or charcoal-burning barbecue, but you can create them to some extent by using lava rocks or ceramic bricks (see below).
Providing a fast heat source that lets food sear and sizzle with little added fat, a grill rack is responsible for creating a smoky flavour in food Ė the true barbecue taste! Meat should be trimmed of as much fat as possible because excess fat dripping onto the embers (or heat source) can flare up and burn the food.
Place a layer of pumice or sand or similar (we use clean cat litter at our house) on the drip tray underneath the grill rack to absorb fat and oil. Whatever you use, it will need regular changing. Clean the grill rack with a stiff wire brush kept specifically for the purpose Ė and hot soapy water if necessary.
When using a gas barbecue, grilling is best done in conjunction with either lava rocks, ceramic bricks or pumice laid out on a tray. The tray should sit on top of the gas burners, below the grill, so the heat can be spread, making it more even and providing a wider grill surface. As juices drip onto the hot rocks, they make smoke that flavours the food. The rocks should be turned over from time to time to let the drippings burn off, or washed according to the manufacturerís recommendation.
The hot plate is an invaluable part of a barbecue (be aware that not all barbecues come with a hot plate and you may need to buy one separately). Itís a heavy, solid piece of metal on which food is seared and cooked. The food retains a little more fat or moisture than when cooked on the grill rack because it sits in oil or in its own juices (these drip off the grill rack, but on a hot plate they slowly pool to the sides and are funnelled to the drip tray).
Whether you cook on the grill rack or hot plate depends on the food to be barbecued. Sliced aubergine, brushed with oil, is best on the hot plate because it can go dry and rubbery over the dry heat of the grill rack. Steaks do well on either because generally they have a marbling of fat throughout, which helps keep them moist. Prawns in the shell can also be done on either, but have more flavour if done on the grill rack because the shells, which protect the delicate flesh, singe a little in the flames. Use the hot plate for delicate items such as fish cakes, which could crumble and fall through the grid of the grill rack. Itís also good for small items such as slivers of garlic, pieces of pared lemon rind, and narrow fillets of fish that could slip through the grid. Think of the hot plate as a giant non-stick frying pan, on which you can sizzle bacon, make pancakes and crÍpes, cook eggs over-easy or sunny-side-up, cook satay and steaks, chicken fillets and lamb cutlets Ė just about anything you fancy. Food can also be reheated on the hot plate Ė use a sturdy saucepan or a wok or frying pan, or place the food to be reheated in an aluminium foil pouch over a low to medium heat.
Food cooked on the hot plate will not necessarily have a smoky flavour, but some things, such as cutlets and steaks, can be put over the grill rack for the final moments of cooking. This will impart a hint of smoke and if youíve got lava rocks in place, itís just about as good as the flavour youíd get from grilling from the start. Once youíve transferred the food from the hot plate to the grill rack you should fan the heat source several times so that the flames gently lick the food at least once or twice.
You will quickly get to know your hot plate and how to judge the temperature, but hereís a quick test: hold your hand 4Ė5cm above the source of heat. If itís uncomfortably hot after 2 seconds the hot plate is really hot; if it gets hot after 4 seconds, itís a medium heat; and if you can hold your hand there for 6 seconds or more, itís a low heat.
What you cook and how you cook it is not always the main motivation for cooking on a barbecue. Because youíre cooking outside, all the splatters will fall on the grass, or onto bricks or concrete and subsequently get washed away in the rain or burnt off in the sun. It sure saves on housework!
Overloading the grill rack or hot plate should be avoided because it makes food difficult to turn, stops juices from evaporating and can make food steam instead of sear and sizzle. The correct cooking temperature is also vital. Most food is better cooked on medium heat or even cooler than that to start. Take sausages, for instance. Start them off slowly or they will quickly char and form a hard glazed skin that the heat will have trouble penetrating. Increase the heat during the cooking and at the end to finish browning.
Charred food is not healthy and while a little bit of charring adds an interesting hint of bitterness or caramel flavour, it is better to keep it to a minimum (however, charring red capsicums and aubergines is fine when they are going to be peeled before serving).
Always preheat the barbecue (10 minutes is all it should take to heat a gas barbecue Ė any longer and you may be wasting fuel or risking meltdown) unless you are cooking steaks, which require an even source of highish heat. It also pays to keep one part of the cooking area cooler than the rest so you can move food to a cooler part once it is done while waiting for other pieces to finish off.
Resist the temptation to constantly move meat around. Leave it alone. Donít prod, poke, stir or turn unnecessarily. Food often sticks at the beginning of cooking, but frees itself quite nicely as the proteins start to cook. If you interfere with that and forcibly try to prise stuck meat off the hot plate, youíll tear the fibres, making it stringy, and ruin the surface of the meat.
Another disadvantage of moving meat around too much is that it will cool down and may lose its cooking momentum. If this happens it starts to get a bit stewy underneath Ė in other words itíll lose its sizzle. And if you prod and poke youíre likely to pierce the meat and let out juices Ė what youĎre trying to do is to keep juices in the meat so that it will be nice and juicy when you come to eat it. Those fierce-looking barbecue forks with the pointy prongs should be banned from barbecues! Itís hard to give exact cooking times for meats (see chart on page 151 for doneness) because it depends on the thickness of the hot plate or the heat from the embers and the wind or chill factor.
Metal skewers conduct heat and so are good for chunky food and thicker pieces of meat. Use bamboo skewers for vegetables, fish and for satay made with thin strips of meat. To prevent bamboo skewers from scorching at the ends, soak them in cold water for 30 minutes before use.
Rosemary stalks make excellent skewers as well as flavouring the food they are skewering. Choose firm stalks; remove most of the leaves other than a little cluster at the tip of each, then let them dry off and harden for a day. If you find it difficult to pierce the food with a rosemary stalk, use a pointed metal skewer to make the hole, then skewer with the rosemary stalk.
Lemon grass stalks can also be used and are particularly good with seafood and chicken.
Never marinate food in copper, cast-iron or aluminium and preferably not in aluminium foil containers. This is because the acids (e.g. wine, tomatoes, lemons, etc) in the marinades can react with these metals, causing discolouration of the food or affecting flavour. American recipes may call for a non-reactive bowl for the marinade; in other words a bowl made of glass, china, ceramic or plastic that wonít react with marinade ingredients.
Always scrape off marinades or spice pastes before putting food on the barbecue because they can burn. Any left-over marinade can be brushed over the food for the final few minutes of cooking.
Big joints of meat are more easily marinated by putting them in a sturdy sealable plastic bag to which you then add the marinade. Put the bag in a large bowl, in case of leakage, then turn the bag over and over until the joint is coated in marinade. Thereís no messy turning with spoons Ė all you need to do is turn the bag over from time to time as the contents marinate.
Tender meats and fish need hardly any marinating; they will actually lose texture and structure if left in an acidic marinade for too long (I once turned a bowl of squid rings to mush by marinating them overnight in sliced kiwifruit!).
Do not use marinade juices in a sauce or in a finished dish unless they have been boiled first. This is because they are likely to contain raw meat juices, which must be cooked to make them safe to eat.
Chicken drumsticks take a long time to cook thoroughly on the barbecue. Speed up the process by slashing them once or twice to the bone with a sharp knife (this has the advantage of letting in the marinade, too). Chicken breasts can be butterflied (split open) for quicker cooking, and whole chickens spatchcocked (cut down the backbone and forced to lie flat by snapping the ball and socket joints of the thighs and wings). Boned chicken thighs will cook more quickly than thighs with the bone in. To speed up cooking sausages, split them in half down the length.
If using a disposable barbecue, remember that they are good for thinly sliced meats, bacon, browning cooked corn, satay made with thinly sliced meats, fish, burgers, cutlets and chops and the like; but not so reliable for dense-fleshed food or big joints of meat. Cool the barbecue completely before disposing of it.
Itís much easier to clean a gas barbecue while it is still hot. The best way I know to clean it is to splash a cup of water onto the plate, then scrape it clean. Dry it off with a piece of towel kept for the purpose. Even burnt sugar or stuck-on gunk will come off this way.
Charcoal barbecues should be left until they are cold before being emptied. Ashes should be completely cold before you dispose of them.
Open-air cooking and eating should be incident-free so everyone can enjoy themselves.
While barbecuing in the dark with the rain pouring down and the only light coming from a candle or a minerís hat can be done, itís no fun. A good overhead light that shines onto the hot plate or grill is a real asset as is protection from the elements (preferably via see-through material that doesnít block natural light).
Provide plenty of paper serviettes and rolls of absorbent kitchen paper. A bin lined with a plastic bag will make tidying up quick and easy.
Finger bowls are helpful when serving mussels or prawns in the shell or sticky satay.
For those times when you want grilled food, but itís raining cats and dogs so you just canít face the barbecue, I suggest you invest in a ridged cast-iron grill pan. With one of these youíll be able to cook steaks, shellfish and vegetables, albeit in small quantities at a time, indoors out of the rain.
Preheat the pan over a medium heat. Oil the food, not the pan. Once you have put the food in the hot pan, donít attempt to move it until it has been cooking for some time. This is because it will stick to the pan in the beginning; donít worry, this is normal. Brown one side of the food to a good golden colour. Turn and cook on the second side just enough to sear (to avoid overcooking). Serve it golden side up.
Leave the pan to cool before soaking it in water, then wash it by hand. Cast-iron pans should not be washed with soap. Dry it thoroughly then rub with a little oil to prevent rusting.
Picking the right porker, or beef, chicken, lamb, venison or any other type of sausage, is crucial. Little joy is to be had from mass-produced sausages full of extenders and cereals, or from precooked tubes of solidified gloop that look as if they have been piped on the mortuary slab.
Good sausages will cost you more. So be it. Think of them as a good meal rather than something to throw on the barbie to fill in the gaps, with leftovers going to the dog. Would you throw leftover pieces of fillet steak to the dog? Probably not. Itís more likely youíd keep them for sandwiches or a salad. A good sausage should similarly be respected not least because leftover sausages are good tucker. Just remember to put them away in the fridge as soon as possible after cooking.
The word Ďsausageí can be traced back to its Latin roots, salsus, which means salted. Basically, it was a way of preserving meat, especially all the unmentionable bits after a pig was slaughtered. Some sausages would be air-dried, others were smoked. Weíve been eating them since time immemorial. Germany has over 1000 types of sausage, but Italy produces the biggest. Baby mortadella sausages (an aromatic and spicy pork sausage) weigh as little as half a kilo, but the big mammas can weigh over 100kg. They take their sausages seriously in Europe. I wish we did the same here.
Snarlers or snags, or whatever else you may call them, sausages have been the butt of too many jokes and have been unfairly incinerated too many times. Chosen with care and cooked with attention, they are the quintessential barbecue food, perfect for any situation or occasion, and pleasing to everyone. Quality vegetarian sausages can be found at specialist butchers.