Bringing the indoor vibe to outside living is what many of us want this summer. There are 101 tasty decor flavours to plump for but what you really want to prioritise is creating a fully functional space in which to eat, drink and have a good time with family and friends.
These days, thanks to the popularity of cookery shows and culinary magazines, most families can claim a resident chef. Home cooks are getting more creative and so it’s not only hamburgers and hot dogs that get thrown on the barbecue. Master grillers are experimenting with seafood, stocking up on gamey meats, and trying out exotic marinades, sauces and salads.
There are plenty of ways to barbecue – direct heat, indirect heat, with gas, with charcoal, with wood chips, with split logs – but if smoking out your neighbours is going to be an issue, charcoal and gas are your only real options.
Charcoal or gas?
Purists will tell you to avoid gas grills, that the smoke is an ingredient in itself, and without it, you’re missing out on the nuanced flavour. Gas devotees point to the way gas barbecues rely on heat distributing materials which work to vaporise drippings and create an aromatic smoke. But what’s important is whether you can taste the difference. Do you prefer meat grilled on gas or charcoal?
One thing’s for sure, it’s easier and quicker to barbecue with gas. You need to wait around 40 minutes for the initial flames of charcoal to die down before you have the whitened cinders essential for your first hamburger. Gas, on the other hand, requires no real warmup time, though you might wait 5 minutes or so to allow the griddle to get nice and hot.
Added to which, gas gives you more control. Even though both types can utilise a higher rack for lesser heat, gas barbecues have genuine adjustable heat controls. With gas, you are able to adjust the temperature to your own needs and not overcook things. Generally speaking too, you can stop and start gas barbecues with ease, whereas charcoal is a lot more problematic to keep going or restart.
On the other hand, if you are looking at barbecuing as a pastime – if you really want to make a meal of it – then gas is simply no fun. What you’re after is a fiery, challenging experience that can’t be compared to cooking at a stove; you picture yourself huddled around the grill with a group of friends disagreeing over whether the coals are hot enough. Or maybe you simply prefer the strangely delicious over-done beef that only charcoal can provide.
If grilling with charcoal is the way you want to go, the proper technique can be summed up in three words: low and slow. Be patient. Flame-grilled is a very misleading term! You need to wait for the flames to die down before you begin. (You want the coals grey and glowing for the hottest, most even heat.)
There’s also a knack to controlling the temperature across a charcoal grill. The easiest technique is the ‘half and half’ – put all the coals to one side, so one side is super-hot and the other is a lot cooler, with no direct heat.
Tools and accessories
Once you’ve decided on your preferred grilling method, consider whether you want your barbeque inbuilt or freestanding and/ or portable. This will largely depend on where you will be hosting your barbecue parties. Similarly, when working out what size model you want, think about the size of your outdoor space, and factor in how many people you will be regularly entertaining.
Your best bet is to go for as big a barbecue as you can afford, not least because meat needs to have space around it as it grills. You don’t want your hamburgers and kebabs crammed up against each other, or against the sides of the cooker while they are cooking.
If barbecues now come in all shapes and sizes, they also vary widely in style, so you can plump for a modest no-frills model that does the job, or something hi-tech with all mod cons. Maybe your grilling experience would be transformed if you had a barbecue with stainlesssteel side shelves, integrated utensil holders and a cart to push it around on. Illuminated control knobs that allow you to grill after dark could well be a godsend, as could a charcoal tray add-on to your gas grill.
One thing your barbeque really needs is a lid. It locks in flavour, keeps the temperature constant and opens up a world of culinary possibilities. Without one you can’t do beer-can chicken, or melt cheese on burgers, or smoke ribs…
Barbecuing is all about getting the temperature bang on, so you may want to splash out on a fancy digital thermometer (or choose a grill with one built in). Alternatively, you can always test the heat – caveman style – by holding your hand around 12 centimetres above the grill. If you can hold it there for just 2 seconds, the grill is white-hot, 4 seconds, it’s medium heat and 6 seconds, it’s low heat.
Speaking of tools, the one bit of kit you simply must have, in addition to a heavy-duty oven glove, is a decent pair of tongs. They give you the most control, and reduce your chances of dropping a succulent slice of wagyu between the grills.
Tricks of the trade
The phrase ‘leave for a few hours, ideally overnight,’ applies doubly to barbecuing, to make sure the flavours aren’t overridden by the addition of the smoke. Continue to brush your meat with the marinade as it cooks. It will add moisture, trap the smoky flavour and make the meat caramelise gently.
Don’t ruin the vegetables
What you want is that lovely charring along the bars, so slice your vegetables thin, then grill straight away – no oil, no seasoning. Once cooked, you can add flavour with some quality olive oil and a bit of vinegar.
Get the sides right
If you’re trying to serve a balanced meal, the sides will make up two-thirds of what you eat. So, prepare a couple of simple salads, steam some couscous, warm up a few flatbreads and get some corn cobs on the grill.
Rest the meat
After removing your meat from the grill, let it sit for a few minutes to seal in the juices, and don’t cut it until you are ready to serve. Another juice-saving tip, don’t poke holes in your meat while it’s cooking – turn it using tongs or spatulas.