Barbeque cooking: part 1 - the equipment and how to use it

12 Aug 2018

Introduction

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.

Equipment

First, the essential equipment:

Optional stuff:

The Fuel

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:

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…

Cooking

Is the barbeque a grill or an oven?

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:

Exceptions to using the lid:

Serving

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.

Afterwards

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.

Bad weather

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.