One critical factor in the success of a BBQ is the fuel used, and the truth is it’s often a neglected one. We’re going to focus on solid fuels in this article as for gas grills there’s really only one standard in the UK.
When it comes to charcoal and wood, it really is worth making it a priority. Budget is of course a factor, but it makes little sense to spend good money on quality meat, only to ruin it with your choice of fuel.
First of all, there’s a big difference between lumpwood and briquettes. Lumpwood is the traditional product, produced by burning wood without oxygen present (retorting), to leave a product rich in carbon. Briquettes are made by processing lumpwood and coal dust together into uniform shapes, and although cheaper are usually an inferior product. Lumpwood is faster to light, burns hotter, and leaves very little ash. It’s also much more sensitive to oxygen, so is much easier to control through the use of vents. It will however burn a lot quicker than briquettes.
Good quality, sustainably produced charcoal may seem to be a more expensive option, but trust us, in the long term it’s not. It will not only burn more efficiently and evenly, it will burn for longer, so you’ll use less overall. On top of that, because they’re all natural wood, they’ll burn with a cleaner smoke and impart a delicious flavour that can’t be beat. Cheap charcoal has often been treated, and is often mass produced, giving a bitter flavour that can ruin your food. The great news is that there are a number of small local producers around, including Whimple based Orchardman, stocked by Colyford Post Office and Stores next door.
Depending on your BBQ, and the menu at hand, you might also want to use wood. This can greatly enhance the flavours of your food, and there are a huge variety of options available. Your first consideration should be size. Chips, chunks or logs? This will be mostly decided by the size of your BBQ and how you’re going to use the wood.
Cooking over lumpwood on a small kettle BBQ, the addition of a handful of wood chips will undoubtedly add flavour. Just don’t soak them first, whatever it says on the packet. They will last longer, but wet chips will knock back the temperatures and affect your grilling.
On a larger grill good sized chunks will add a richer, deeper smoke, burning for an hour or so. Logs are also great, but are really the preserve of open fire pits or large offset smokers.
Another factor is availability. Chips are widely available in supermarkets and garden centres. For chunks and logs, you’ll probably need to source them over the internet, but the good news is there’s plenty of options out there that aren’t that expensive.
Finally, different woods have different flavour characteristics. Intense hard woods such as oak, hickory and mesquite are great with big flavours such as beef. Cherry is a classic favourite with pork, and lighter woods from other fruit trees, such as apple, pear and maple, work well with fish or vegetables.