Barbecue entertaining

The British summer is doing its best to surprise us, with its usual mixture of rain, gales and glorious sunshine all in one day. In many parts of the UK, Coronavirus restrictions are gradually being eased, and we're getting used to socialising outdoors and at a distance. The traditional British barbecue of burgers and hotdogs with a range of unmatched salads and plenty to drink doesn't hold the same attraction in the circumstances. Do not leave your barbie to gather dust, though. There is so much you can cook on it, and our current circumstances provide just the opportunity to experiment.

A barbecue - charcoal or gas - is nothing more than a fire and a wire rack. It's just a heat source. That's it. And anything you would normally cook under a grill, in the oven or even things you'd do on the hob, can be cooked on a barbecue. All the flash gadgetry of a top-of-the-range gas barbecue is designed to make the heat more controllable, but you can achieve great results on the cheapest bucket barbie if you have a think about what you're doing. 

Come back with me, if you will, to Mrs Hitchen's Home Economics class in the early 1980s. What we learnt there was that cooking uses heat in three ways: radiation, convection and conduction. The first of these is the most used in barbecue cooking: the last is the least used. Radiation cooks just one side of the food at a time by placing it near (usually under or over) a fierce heat source. Convection depends on the food being enclosed in a hot environment, where heated air, moving around the food, cooks it from all sides. Conduction works by heat passing through a liquid in a container that's in direct contact with the heat source.

tuna, not quite there yet
Now think about your barbecue. Most frequently, we light the coals and place our food on a rack above the fire, turning it to make sure it's done all over and throughout. It works in the same way as the grill in your cooker, so anything you normally grill at home - not just burgers, but chops, steaks, sweetcorn, halloumi cheese, mackerel, tuna and even lettuce - can be cooked over coals to achieve a delicious result. Try barbecuing tuna steaks before breaking them up into a salade niçoise. One of those square basket things will hold padron peppers for char-grilling, before you serve them with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of good salt.

Your oven works by convection. If you want to roast food on a barbecue, giving it that lovely, smoky edge, you need to find a way to enclose the space and move the heat source away from the food. If your barbecue has a lid, this will serve to enclose the space. If not, you can improvise. For years I've roasted joints of meat big enough for six on a small bucket barbecue. I used a domed wok lid to contain the heat, leaving the bucket with enough ventilation to keep the fire lit. We've recently bought a chiminea that has a cooking rack. It's wonderful. I light a charcoal fire to one side and get it good and hot. I place my meat directly over this fire and sear it on all sides. Once I've grilled each side, I move the meat to the other side of the rack, so it's not directly above the fire, and put the top on. It's important to get the fire hot and use enough charcoal to keep it burning for an extended time. Don't forget it's going to get cooler as time goes on, so keep an eye on it and turn your food from time to time.

Because cooking over fire is less controllable than a kitchen stove, it's important to make sure your food is cooked thoroughly before you serve it. The fierce heat involved in fire-cooking can give food a deceptively charred exterior. A probe thermometer costs less than £10 and it will give you confidence to cook and serve all kinds of fish and meat without worrying how cooked it is inside. You can find details of safe, internal cooking temperatures for meat and fish on various internet sites. Here's one from  Heston Blumenthal's barbecues site:


Of course, the only valid advice about drinking with outdoor food is to drink what you enjoy. The more relaxed, casual style of dining engendered by fire-cooking demands a similarly casual approach to drinks. So what if one guest wants IPA, while another is drinking cloudy lemonade and a third is sipping rosé? A barbecue is not the right time to bring out your best wines. Better to stick to "quaffable" reds and popular whites. I've written a few weeks ago about my favourite summer wines ( ). I'm not a fan of heavy reds in the summer, so even with grilled beef I'd still serve a youngish pinot noir or a Chianti. There are some exciting craft beers around at the moment, and they make excellent companions to fattier foods like sausages or pork belly. If your food has more spice about it, try something a touch sweeter, like a malty bitter or an amber ale. Or Pimms & lemonade - why not?

Next time: Italian ideas for Ferragosto


  1. Another great blog. Never even considered putting a joint of meat on the barbecue.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I would only do a joint if you have a thermometer. It's important you know when it reaches the right internal temperature.


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