Choosing and using your barbecue

Choosing and using your barbecue

Ben Tish
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
978 1 84949 715 2
Kris Kirkham

Once upon a time, more than likely when the first summer sun had just popped out, I’d wheel out the rusting barbecue, brush away the cobwebs and burnt-sausage debris and load up the barbecue with briquettes I’d bought from the local garage. It didn’t really occur to me that this piece of borderline scrap could enhance the flavour of food as it cooked and be used to create some sublime dishes.

There’s nothing remotely complicated here, but it’s probably the most important section in this book, and I’d recommend you read it before you get started. This will really show you how to make the most of your barbecue and what you cook on it.

Not wanting to complicate things, I decided to use two simple barbecues to cook everything in this book: one a round kettle-style barbecue with a 56cm cooking area; the other a rectangular drum-style barbecue with an 80 x 54cm cooking area. Each has a lid, top and bottom vents, a built-in thermometer and one level of grill; to control the heat, food is moved from one side to the other, rather than up and down. If your barbecue has an upper grill shelf, that can also be useful for resting meat or fish after cooking and for keeping food warm.

One point worth mentioning is size: a larger barbecue can obviously hold bigger things; if you want to cook a whole fish and some vegetables, then a smaller one won’t do. The dimensions of the barbecues mentioned above are big enough to cope with anything called for in these recipes – and if you’ve got two fired up at the same time, then the world’s your oyster. For example, when I’m cooking a dinner party for a few friends, I’ll have both barbecues going, so I can cook the different elements at the same time – rather like having two ovens and the stovetop working simultaneously.

Barbecues and accessories

The barbecue you choose will depend on your preference, style and budget, but as long as it is sturdily built, and has a lid and vents, you are ready to roll. If your chosen barbecue doesn’t have a built-in thermometer, you can easily buy one separately – and it’s well worth it, especially for cooking larger items like joints of meat.

I’ve mentioned Weber and the Big Green Egg. I also recommend the Drumbecue. Look up their websites for their ranges and stockists.

If you’re a barbecuing novice, start with some simple, functional kit. As you progress and get more into the art of cooking over charcoal and wood, you can add to your equipment and accessories as you see fit – there really is a whole world of equipment out there.

Other kit I recommend without going mad (no combat-style barbecue attire required here!) are:

temperature probe, for checking when meat is done – especially chicken, which needs to be cooked through properly

two good, solid pairs of tongs, at least one pair with long handles

poker, to stoke the fire

fish-grilling basket, for cooking larger, flat fish – highly recommended, as it’s tricky to cook them without sticking otherwise

sturdy fish slice or spatula

barbecue brush, for basting and brushing marinades and oil onto food as it cooks

barbecue gloves – go for heatproof gloves, as opposed to the more cumbersome mitts

large and sturdy two-pronged fork

wire brush, for keeping the grill nice and clean

I also like to have some short wooden planks to hand, such as you might cut from old floorboards. When soaked for a few hours, these are really good for sitting cakes and tarts on when you’re baking over the coals; the damp wood acts as a perfect heat diffuser, so that the outside of whatever you’re cooking doesn’t get scorched. This pleasingly low-tech solution was discovered after much frustration and several burnt tarts while developing and testing the recipes for this book…

Lighting your barbecue

A charcoal chimney starter is by far the best, easiest and most economical way to light a barbecue, I think. Simply put a couple of firelighters in the centre of your barbecue and place the chimney on top. The ‘chimney effect’ will light the coals evenly all the way through the chimney, so they are ready to be tipped straight into your barbecue. The coals are ready for cooking when they are uniformly ashen grey. One load should be sufficient for a 56–60cm barbecue and will happily cook whatever you throw at it for around 2 hours. A chimney starter is also great for topping up the barbecue if you want to keep cooking for several hours; just re-light the chimney (separately from the barbecue), then use the fresh batch of coals to top up the barbecue, so you have continuous heat.

The alternative is the good old-fashioned and perfectly acceptable method of spreading a layer of charcoal in the desired area of the barbecue, dotting a few firelighters here and there and lighting them. This is then followed up with more chunks of charcoal on top. When the charcoal has turned ashen grey, you are ready to cook.

Setting the barbecue for direct/indirect cooking

Now is when you start to make a difference in terms of how and what you cook. Whether you are using a rectangular drumstyle barbecue or a round kettlestyle barbecue, the cooking area can be differentiated into two zones.

If all you want to do is fast grilling, simply fill the base of your barbecue with charcoal, then light as described above. This is known as direct cooking, as you are cooking directly over the hot coals.

Leaving a charcoal-free space of, say, a half or a third of the barbecue, allows for direct/indirect cooking. This enables you to grill or sear in the direct heat zone and then finish the cooking in the indirect heat zone, which is a slower-cooking, more oven-like environment. With indirect cooking – and some direct cooking – the lid of the barbecue needs to be closed, in order to capture the heat and smoke.

Larger cuts of meat that need long and slow cooking can also be started from scratch on the indirect heat zone where, over time, they will develop caramelization, rather like a roast chicken or leg of pork in a conventional oven. Some foods have a tendency to dry out during this lengthy cooking, however; to avoid this, sit a deep baking tray or roasting tin, or one of those disposable foil trays in the direct heat zone, next to whatever it is you’re cooking, and fill it two-thirds-full with water. This will create steam and a moist environment, which will help the cooking process. I’ve mentioned this in the recipes where I think it’s necessary.

Controlling the heat

All charcoal barbecues have two vents: one at the top and one at the bottom or side. These should remain open during cooking for maximum heat, as they allow air to flow throughout the barbecue, which fuels the fire. If the barbecue is getting too hot and you want to moderate the heat, close the vents slightly to reduce the flow of air. Only fully close the vents when you want to smother the flames

Setting the barbecue for direct/indirect cooking gives you a range of cooking temperatures and zones, and with experience you’ll soon understand how the various zones work – the hottest, of course, being in the middle of the direct heat zone, and the coolest at the perimeter of the indirect heat zone, with everything else in between. This range of temperatures is really useful when cooking more than one dish or multiple elements of a single dish.

Using wood on the barbecue

It’s by no means essential to throw logs or wood chips on your barbecue. Charcoal alone will cook things just fine. The use of wood is all about adding flavour and smoke. Throughout the book, I’ve included suggestions for using wood chips or wood dust in the cold-smoker; or wood chips, lumps and even small logs on the barbecue, to hot-smoke food as it cooks.

Ember cooking

This is a great way of cooking fruit and vegetables with a high water content. Burying the wrapped food in the embers helps to intensify its flavours by reducing the moisture content, and the moisture in turn helps to prevent burning. Simply wrap your fruit or vegetables in foil and nestle the parcels in the embers after the fire has died down. Ensure the parcel is completely smothered with the hot coals to get the full effect and ensure it will cook evenly.

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