Take a little time to learn how your barbecue works and you’ll see the results on the plate. Helen Graves, founder of Pit magazine, shares her practical tips on how to take your next grill from burnt bangers to best in show
HOW TO SET UP AND LIGHT A BARBECUE
Lighting a fire is simple, but it’s important to set up your barbecue correctly so you have maximum control over the cooking. A fire is a combination of fuel + oxygen + heat and all of these must be present for the fire to remain lit. Understanding
how they relate to one another, then, is crucial to understanding your barbecue. In a standard kettle barbecue, the fuel (usually charcoal) is placed in the bottom with a vent underneath for letting air in, and a vent on the top, for letting out heat and gases. These two features allow you to have some control over your fire. The more air you let in at the bottom, the more fuel you have coming in, which will lead to hotter coals inside. Think of the holes at the top as an exhaust pipe; I prefer to leave these open and adjust the heat using the bottom air vent. To be honest, cooking with live fire is pretty instinctive, and it’s best to just get a feel for what happens over time. Experimentation is the best way to learn, and it happens to be the most fun way, too.
SETTING UP THE COALS
In a standard kettle barbecue there are two cooking zones: direct and indirect. With direct cooking the coals are directly under the food, and with indirect – wait for it – they are not. Even if you’re not going to use the ‘indirect’ method, it’s important to have this area set up because it’s a great place to move fatty foods that are causing flare ups, or to rest nearly cooked foods while you finish the rest, e.g. chicken wings or corn cobs. You also have the option to cook larger pieces of meat slowly over indirect heat or to utilise direct and indirect techniques during the same cook. There are three main ways to set up your coals for cooking on a standard kettle barbecue. If you don’t have a kettle barbecue then you’ll be able to learn the basic principles anyway and adapt them to the shape of your grill.
1. Two zone direct/indirect: coals are set up under one half of the grill – cook direct, indirect, or both! Good for steaks, seafood, vegetables and boneless pieces of meat.
2. Parallel coals: coals are set up on both sides of the barbecue, leaving a strip down the centre with no coals – best for maintaining even cooking on whole birds like chickens.
3. The snake: coals are set up in a C shape curving around one side of the barbecue – best for very low n slow cooking e.g. ribs.
HOW TO LIGHT THE BARBECUE
Natural firelighters are the best choice and there are many brands on the market now. Avoid paraffin and other unnatural fuels because they will taint the food and you’ll be tasting them throughout the meal.
Using a chimney starter – basically a metal cylinder with a handle – is a very easy way to control the fire as it starts. Light it by scrunching up some newspaper and placing it in the bottom, then pack the coals on top and light the paper from underneath with a match.
After 10-20 minutes the coals will be ready – you’ll see grey ash on the topmost coals – then you tip them out into the barbecue. If you don’t have a chimney starter, just make a little ‘volcano’ shape with your coals, dropping a firelighter (or newspaper) into the centre and lighting that instead.
IF YOU’RE SHORT ON SPACE
Not everyone has room for a large barbecue so here are some ideas if you’re short on space…
+ If your barbecue is an adequate size but you don’t have room for cooking lots of different dishes, why not try one large piece of meat, fish or a main vegetable and concentrate on sides to bulk out the meal.
+ If you’ve only got a small barbecue then know your limits – wings and vegetables such as asparagus will work well. Briskets and pork butts will not.
+ There are many small barbecues on the market from portable versions to mini camping stoves such as the Prakti.
+ Instant barbecues will do at a push but bear in mind they’re unlikely to give very good results. Help things along by shaking the coals flat and waiting for the flames to die down fully before cooking.
+ Some parks have communal grill spaces so it’s worth checking to see if there’s one nearby.
+ Try a handful of wood chips (available online and from some shops) in with the coals for a more authentic smoky flavour without the need for a huge smoker.
TIPS AND TRICKS
+ Be sure to light you barbecue in plenty of time before you want to eat and have your ingredients ready before you start cooking!
+ You know the barbecue is ready when there is a layer of grey ash covering the coals. It’s important not to try cooking on a barbecue too early. At first there will be a lot of smoke which is known as ‘dirty smoke’ – it’s full of nastiness, just like the smoke coming from a ship’s funnel. What you want is ‘clean smoke’ or thin blue smoke before you begin cooking.
+ Use a digital thermometer to check when ingredients – particularly large cuts of meat – are cooked.
+ Use the lid of your kettle barbecue to create an oven, particularly when cooking over indirect heat.
+ Coals won’t last long on a kettle barbecue, so you’ll need to top them up every few hours and keep an eye on them.
+ Clean the barbecue when it’s still warm as it will be a lot easier. Use a stiff wire brush or a scrunched up piece of foil.
CHARCOAL VS. WOOD
+ Buy the best quality charcoal you can afford because better quality means a more even burn and better flavour. Cheap charcoal will give a nasty taste to your food.
+ Instant light charcoal is particularly nasty and will definitely taint the flavour of anything cooking over it.
+ A good quality lump charcoal will improve your barbecue experience by 100% as it’s easy to light and has a nice consistent burn.
+ Briquettes are generally poor quality and are a bit like buying ‘reformed’ ham – they’re full of fillers and other agents which bind them together. That said, good quality versions are available.
+ There are more sustainable options nowadays, such as briquettes and cubes made from coconut husks. These work well and are better for the environment.
+ Charcoal is all well and good but wood smoke will give a unique flavour and it’s what many barbecue professionals cook with. There are many different types which will give different flavours to your food but a good all-round starting point is oak. If you want to try using wood but don’t feel ready for large pieces try using wood chips with smaller pieces of meat like chicken. Remember to soak them for a couple of hours first then just chuck them right onto the coals.
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