This is the first of a two part blog on practical barbeque techniques, concentrating on the equipment and how you use it. The second part looks at cooking techniques for different types of food.
First, the essential equipment:
The barbeque itself. I use a Weber kettle grill - a large metal kettle with a lower charcoal grate and a cooking grate that sits a few inches over the charcoal grate. Crucially, it has a lid
- Two pairs of tongs: one for moving raw / partially cooked food, one that is only used for food that is cooked or in the final stages of cooking. I’m really strict about not mixing up the raw and cooked tongs, and mine have different coloured handles so that I don’t get them confused
- Firelighter cubes. These are marketed with varying degrees of eco-friendliness, but I use the ones that light most reliably (the white petroleum-based variety). I don’t use gels or lighter fluid
- A lighter - either long safety matches or a butane gas lighter
- Some sort of hand protection (oven gloves, leather garden gloves, etc) for handling really hot metal such as the kettle’s ventilation covers, skewers and pan handles
- A pair of tongs for moving coals around when lighting the barbeque. You could use the raw food tongs for this as well, if you don’t mind tiny specks of coal possibly getting on the food
- A chimney charcoal starter - a fat metal cylinder with holes punched in the side and a shielded carry handle. An old discarded kitchen frying pan makes a base for the chimney to stop hot ash falling through onto the ground or feet
- Metal skewers - ideally the sort with a fat handle at one end for ease of turning. Double pronged skewers are good for delicate items (e.g. mushrooms)
- Grilling pan. This looks like a frying pan but has lots of holes punched in it. It’s good for burgers or similar that you want to slide around and flip but that might fall through the slats of a regular cooking grate or stick before their surfaces are sealed
- A small rack to support things like chicken
- Other cooking tools including spatulas, forks etc
- Flavoured smoking wood (such as mesquite) to enhance the uniquely smoky taste of certain foods
- A small smoker box to hold smoking wood
- Dustpan and brush for collecting ash when the barbeque has completely cooled down
Charcoal comes in two different forms:
Both types have their place. They are equally easy to light (as discussed below). Lumpwood is generally cheaper and reaches an even cooking temperature faster. However, the sizes of the individual pieces can be variable, ranging from tiny fragments to over-large lumps. Briquettes, although expensive, are more even in size and manageable than random bits of lumpwood and they pump out heat for ages, allowing long duration cooking (e.g. two hours or more).
Personally, I use lumpwood for small quick grills (e.g. cooking a few sausages for two people) but prefer briquettes for larger, multi-course meals. Briquettes are essential for cooking joints and smoking because lumpwood won’t stay hot for long enough.
Lighting the barbeque
Put the barbeque in an open-air area and check that all of its air vents are fully open. If necessary temporarily close nearby windows to stop ignition smoke going inside. Never ever use the barbeque inside or at the entrance to an enclosed area (like a tent) because of the whole ‘carbon-monoxide-makes-everybody-die’ thing.
To light the barbeque:
- Put a single flat layer of coals onto the charcoal grate, shaped into a rough circle
- Place four of five firelighter cubes near the centre, and light them using the lighter
- Working quickly, make a crude pyramid of coals over the cubes, using tongs to reposition the ones that roll off
- Leave it for several minutes (waiting longer for briquettes) before doing anything, so that the outer coals are mainly unburnt, but there is a good red glow in the middle. It might seem that nothing is happening once the firelighters are burnt out but if you wait patiently you’ll eventually see that the middle coals are acquiring white ash, which means they are coming up to temperature
- Poke the pyramid a bit and rebuild it, using tongs, to gradually move the unburnt coals closer to the centre
- Repeat the process a couple of times over the next 10 to 20 minutes. It’s ready to cook when most of the coals are covered in white ash, and there are no real flames visible
The barbeque will generate quite a lot of smoke just after ignition but this should clear well before you start cooking.
Alternatively, use a starter chimney: put a layer of coal and lighter cubes on the chimney base, light it, and then fill the chimney to its brim with coals. When the coals are ready, tip them onto the charcoal grate. Chimneys are faster and you don’t need to fuss over them. However, you are limited by the size of the chimney: a small one can’t make sufficient coals for a large barbeque in a single batch.
If you are using smoking wood, add it just before putting the food on the grill (the wood is wasted if the food isn’t there to be smoked). You can put it directly onto the charcoal although a smoking box will make it last longer. Spraying the wood with water before adding it will also make it last longer, although obviously if the wood is dripping wet it will kill the heat of the charcoal.
Personally, I think barbeques should be unhurried, and I because I enjoy the process, I prefer the ‘pyramid’ approach, unless I am actually in a real hurry, or it’s raining (see below for more on bad weather barbeques). Either way, the next step is to get cooking…
Is the barbeque a grill or an oven?
- If you spread the lit coals (when they are ready) evenly on the charcoal grate, and put the food above them on the cooking grate, then you are using the barbeque like a grill (‘direct heat’)
- if you scoop the lit coals to two sides of the kettle, and put the food between them, then the barbeque is more like a slower oven (‘indirect heat’)
Cooking with direct heat is ideal for the traditional barbeque foods (sausages, burgers, skewers, etc). Indirect is best for large items (like chicken, or joints of meat) where you need a longer cooking time that doesn’t carbonise the surface. For indirect heat, I usually put the food in a small rack over a foil tray, and then put this on the charcoal grate between the coal piles, i.e. not using the cooking grate.
The half-way house between direct and indirect involves using a cooking grate but leaving one side of the charcoal grate coal-free to create a heat gradient of very hot, hot and quite hot. Use the hotter side for direct cooking, and put things to be cooked more slowly over the less hot side. When the food on the hot side is ready, you can serve it, and either leave the stuff on the cool side (for a long cook while you help eat the first course) or move it toward the hotter side to finish off. If you are cooking on a slope (e.g. in an uneven campsite field) make sure the hot side is uphill, so that round things like sausages don’t keep rolling downhill into the heat.
However, regardless of how you position the coal, the secret of good barbeques is to use the lid. Once you’ve put the food in position (making sure nothing will really get scorched), put the lid on and then leave things for at least five minutes before lifting the lid. You can then open the lid to check progress and perhaps turn things or move them closer to or further away from the heat. Occasional turns like this also help to ensure that food is evenly cooked on all sides. When cooking solely using indirect heat, I might not lift the lid for really long times, perhaps 30 mins to an hour depending on what I’m cooking. As the old adage goes: “If you’re looking, it’s not cooking”.
The lid has three really useful effects:
- Heat builds up inside the kettle, rasing the overall temperature and getting more even heat everywhere. The barbeque becomes a combined oven-grill
- It concentrates cooking smoke and builds the flavour, especially if you use smoking wood
- It reduces the tendency to continually faff around. As you build confidence, and by placing food correctly, you stop worrying that everything will be instantly burnt
Exceptions to using the lid:
- Starting burgers - using a grill pan to seal each side (by sliding and flipping). Once sealed, you can transfer the burgers to the cooking grate - or move the pan away from direct heat - before replacing the lid
- Just before serving - finishing food off by turning it to get good ‘grill marks’
To significantly speed up serving (retaining heat and flavoured smoke and reducing stress on the cook), put the cooked food on a clean plate (not one used for raw food) and take this to the table rather than serve people directly from the grill. This lets other people get involved in making sure that everyone gets a fair potion, especially when children are present. The saved time also gives the cook a chance to eat while other courses are cooking indirectly.
Close the air vents to stop the cooking and let the ash get completely cold before brushing it out or taking the barbeque inside. Really, really cold.
Clean burnt residue from the cooking grate with a metal scouring pad (crumpled foil works at a push). Avoid fine wire brushes because broken bits of wire can (apparently) stick to the grate, transfer to food and then get ingested, which makes for a hard-to-find internal bleed.
If it rains, use a starter chimney to get the charcoal going. The more intense heat will drive off light drizzle. If you don’t have a chimney, light the coal and immediately place the lid at a jaunty angle (it should have an internal flange to hold it partially open) to keep rain out but let air in. It will take a bit longer, but eventually the charcoal will be ready and you can revert to a normal lid-on mode.
In cold weather, once the cooking is done, the barbeque will make a good outdoor mini-campfire to keep three or four people warm.