Light my fire

Jane Pikett shares some top tips for the best barbecues

Most of us have done it… sausages cremated on the outside, raw on the inside; the coals never hot enough; not enough hands to juggle plates, sides, skewers etc. 

But barbecuing is easy; keep it simple, and plan ahead – this is how to barbecue…

Light a barbie as you would an open fire – a layer of scrunched-up newspaper in the bottom, kindling on top and then some charcoal. Light the paper and when you have a good flame, add more charcoal (without drowning it). Let it burn for a good 25 mins – you’re ready to cook when the smoke has gone right down and the embers are glowing. 

Lump charcoal is fast lighting and burns for about an hour, while briquettes can burn for up to 3 hours. Charcoal from oak can release subtle smoky caramel tones, and if you soak wood chips in water and put them on the hot coals when you’re ready to barbecue it creates steam which lends an oaky flavour. This is good for pork, as are hickory wood chips. 

Use a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat (65C for pork and beef and 70C for chicken). Use a grilling basket for barbecuing fish without sticking to the grill (or smear the grill with half a lemon to stop fish sticking). 

Take a bunch of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil and parsley and tie to the end of a wooden spoon with twine. Dip in olive oil and brush over meat before grilling. 

Horseradish and mustard are essential. Crowd-pleasing sides include potato salad (we like it warm), tomato and red onion salad, frittata, guacamole, broad bean or pea hummus, and coleslaw. They’re all better homemade and you can do them the day before.

If you have fantastic organic beef from a farm down the road, just brush lightly with oil, season it and barbecue as it is. Otherwise, marinating is essential to tenderise meat and allow moisture in. Don’t use extra virgin olive oil in marinades because it burns and smokes, so use light olive oil or vegetable oil.

Marinate in strong plastic bags tied securely, or place food in a non-reactive container such as glass or stainless steel and cover with clingfilm.

Marinate meat overnight, or if you’re tight on time, prick it and leave in a marinade for as long as possible in a sealed freezer bag, massaging occasionally. Fish and shellfish only need to marinate for a couple of hours. Never use salt, lemon or lime juice in a marinade for longer than 2 hours and never put cooked meat back on the same dish you used for marinating – use a clean plate. 

Take raw meat or fish out of the fridge at least 20 mins before barbecuing. If it’s too cold when it hits the grill it could burn on the outside.

Put thin cuts like steaks, burgers and fish directly over the heat and it will sear nicely, resulting in good flavour and texture. 

Roasting joints that require slow cooking on a lower heat should be placed next to, not directly over, the heat source. 

Piling charcoal over to one side of your barbecue will give you a hot side for searing meat and a cooler side for finishing the cooking process. You can put a pan of water on the cool side to absorb heat and radiate it back, controlling temperature fluctuations and helping to keep the meat moist by reducing evaporation.

To control the proximity of the food to the coals, use a rack system with three different heights, shuffle food from hot patches to cooler parts, or put food on foil to slow things down. 

Expensive cuts of beef like sirloin, rib-eye or fillet steaks are best cooked quickly at very high temperatures, searing and maximising flavour without over-cooking. Chicken or sausages have a tendency to burn on the outside and remain raw inside, so cook them at the lower temperature end of the grill. 

Using a small sharp knife, cut into the centre of the meat to check it’s cooked and the juices run clear. For flaky fish such as salmon, press with your finger or a fork to check that the flakes come apart, indicating that it’s ready.

Resting meat after barbecuing is essential to allow the sinews to reabsorb the juices. Rest meat on a warmed tray away from direct heat covered with perforated foil.

Start with the veggies so they don’t take on a meaty flavour, or contain them in their own section. Grilled veg such as portobello mushrooms, corn on the cob, onions and aubergine barbecue well. Wrap potatoes in foil and put directly on the embers while everything else cooks. You can also bake fruit like this, or grill it directly on the bars. 

Instead of cutting halloumi across the block, slice horizontally through it into four equal slices. These chunkier slices don’t get lost through the bars of the grill, and you can serve them as a burger alternative.

Toasting the cut side of a bread roll over the coals gives extra flavour.

Insert two skewers into each kebab for extra support, and soak wooden skewers in cold water for 15 mins before use so they don’t burn.

To slow down the cooking process so the inside of the meat can catch up with the outside, fill a spray bottle with water or apple juice and spray to add moisture to the outside and slow down the colouring process.

After everything is finished and while the BBQ grill still has some heat, attach half an onion, flat side down, to the end of a fork and rub over the hot bars. The onion releases water that steam-cleans the bars, helping to release charred-on debris and sticky bits.

BBQ corn on the cob

BBQ fillet of hake with roast veg, potatoes and pea dressing

BBQ aubergine and spinach

Pesto and goats’ cheese mushroom burgers with caramelised shallot topping

Watermelon, red onion, rocket and feta salad

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