The great British BBQ. An institution you might think, as at the first sign of good weather the nation seems to be gripped by BBQ fever. It hasn’t always been that way though, in fact, you could say we were pretty late to the (garden) party.
Believed to originate in the Caribbean, where ‘babacoa’ refered to the stick based grill structures that produced beautifully charred and smoky meats, it took us Brits a long time to get hooked on outdoor cooking. Although our cousins in the US and Australia have a BBQ culture stretching back hundreds of years, when BBQ arrived here in the 16th century it’s fair to say that, far from embracing the idea, it was seen as a novelty, with some labelling it un-British!
Things have moved on a lot since then though, and whilst we may not have that long tradition, in recent years we’ve more than made up for it with our enthusiasm and passion. From humble beginnings of badly burnt sausages and dry overcooked burgers, Brits have embraced the idea as only we know how, with over 80% of households now believed to own an outdoor grill of some description. And of course, at a time when outside entertaining is the norm, more and more are discovering it’s delights, and its pitfalls.
A good BBQ needn’t be difficult. In this guide you’ll find everything you need to get it right every time, as well as links to more detail and recipes. We’ll also be updating this series through the summer with different techniques for cooking and grilling, such as multiple zones, the ring of fire, bullseye and of course how to perfect low and slow.
Whether you opt for gas or solid fuels, at heart of a good BBQ is the grill itself. And this is the area where it’s really worth investing if you can. There’s no real wrong or right, it’s about personal preference and circumstance, apart from staying well clear of disposable grills. Not only are they single use and terrible for the environment, they are practically useless for cooking on. Because they are so small, and only have a small amount of fuel, you’re likely to be cooking on too hot a grill to start with, only to run out of heat before you’ve finished grilling.
So what are you looking for? Well, obviously you need a fuel source, and something to burn that fuel. There should also be a grill to cook things on. Ideally, you’ll want a lid with a vent, so that you can cook using both conduction and convection. And of course if you’re using solid fuels you’ll want vents in the bottom so that you can control airflow and consequentially temperature. That’s about it. There are a lot more options you can consider, and lots of different ways of cooking BBQ, but if you’re using solid fuels, a simple kettle BBQ with a lid is a great place to start.
So is there a difference between gas and solid fuel grills? Absolutely, but again it comes down to personal preference, and what you want to get out of your BBQ. We’re firmly in the solid fuel camp. Charcoal and wood can give a higher temperature, and with a little experience can be much more versatile, as well as imparting that much loved smoky flavour. But there’s a steep learning curve, and of course more preparation. If time is not on your side, nothing can be easier than firing up the gas and getting straight to the cooking. Plus having that extra level of control makes everything easier. Just remember to check the bottle before you start… there’s nothing worse than getting half way through and having to port everything to the kitchen because you ran out!
The fuel used is often a neglected area. It’s not so much of an issue for gas, especially in the UK where there’s really only one standard, but when it comes to charcoal and wood, it’s really worth making it a priority. Of course budget is a factor, but it makes little sense to spend good money on quality meat, only to ruin it through your choice of fuel.
We’ve set out the pro’s and con’s in a more detailed article here, but suffice to say, we recommend buying a quality product. You won’t go wrong using the premium grade retorted charcoal made by Orchardman from Whimple (£7.50 a bag at the time of writing), stocked by Colyford Post Office and Stores.
If you browse online BBQ articles you’ll be confronted with all manner of exotic equipment, but the truth is you really don’t need that much to get the most out of your outdoor cooking. It’s more than likely that you’ve already everything you need. We recommend that alongside your grill you arm yourself with a chimney starter (for solid fuel), a good set of utensils, a heatproof glove, a silicon brush and a decent temperature probe. Check out our BBQ equipment section here for more.
Planning and Preparation
A successful BBQ requires a little planning and preparation. Taking a moment to consider who you’re cooking for, how many, what the conditions might be, and what equipment you’ve got. Decide what you’re going to cook, and also think about how you’re going to cook it. Do you need to marinade anything ahead of time? How long will it take to cook? Is it worth considering reverse searing some items? This is an ideal way of cooking larger items on the BBQ, where you cook them low and slow, either in your oven or on the BBQ if you can, and then finish them up over a high heat to get that all important sear and crust.
You should of course give all your equipment the once over, and ensure that you allow enough time to get your grill fired up and ready to cook. More details in the BBQ Equipment guide.
BBQ can all too easy become a juggling act, constantly turning and moving items to avoid burning them. A hot grill gives a high temperature, cooking food hot and fast. This is ideal for smaller, thin cuts of meat such as kebabs, steaks, chops and burgers, but doesn’t give you much in the way of control and is disastrous for bigger pieces.
A far better option is to set the BBQ up with coals to the one side, giving you a zone of hot direct heat, and a cooler zone where you can cook with with indirect convection. If you’re using gas, leave the burners switched off on one side. Because the air will flow from hot to cold, this creates an area of gentler heat which is perfect for larger items that need more time, such as chicken thighs and drumsticks. Start them off on the cooler side, with the lid on if possible, and then finish them over the flames for that great seared flavour. This also helps to minimise fat flares.
Using the lid is a great way to not only ensure larger items are cooked through and it also helps to trap in that wonderful smoked flavour. Most BBQs these days come with one, and some will also have a temperature gauge helping you to monitor cooking closely.
Finally, don’t forget to use the controls. On a gas grill this is as simple as turning the dials up or down. On a solid fuel BBQ this is where the vents come into play. When you open up the vents the coals will get a greater amount of oxygen and burn more intensely. Things getting a bit too hot? Simply shut them down partially for a slower cook with more smoke.
Getting the temperatures right is key to a successful BBQ. We’ve touched on adjusting temperatures, but when the recipe says a medium high heat, just what do they mean? Luckily, there’s a tried and tested way to tell using just your hand. Carefully hold your hand above the grate, close enough to feel the heat but not burn yourself, so about 30cms. Count until you can’t tolerate the heat any longer, and you’ll have a rough idea. The guidelines are:
- 1 Second – Very high heat
- 2 Seconds – High heat
- 3 Seconds – Medium high heat
- 4 Seconds – Medium heat
- 5 Seconds – Low heat
Finally, don’t forget to check that everything is cooked through before serving. A quick check with the probe will ensure that everyone’s still having fun long after they’ve finished eating. We’ve included a table of recommend temperatures below.
|Internal Temp (C)
|Burgers & Sausages
|Well Done Beef