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4 simple techniques to take your barbecue to the next level

How to make the most of your barbecue

by Great British Chefs 13 August 2019

Barbecues are so much more than just grills – they’re charcoal-powered ovens, capable of baking, roasting, smoking and a whole host of other cooking methods. Discover the different ways your barbecue can take your cooking to the next level.


We all look forward to barbecue season – it’s a chance to get family and friends together in the summer sunshine and enjoy delicious food together. Regardless of all the stereotypes around British summer (not to mention the necessity for umbrellas and back-up plans), we normally get plenty of chances to fire up our barbecues and catch a few rays with a sausage or two. There was a time when barbecue meant a fairly limited array of offerings – burgers, sausages, chicken, maybe a potato salad – but these days we’re more au fait with what our barbecues can do.

The truth is, though we tend to use them as outdoor grills, most barbecues are far more capable than that. As long as your barbecue has a lid, you can use it to smoke, roast, bake and steam all sorts of things – not just meat but also vegetables, fruit – even nuts if you want to. These techniques aren’t especially difficult; they’re more a case of knowing how to set up your barbecue than anything else. It’s important to grasp the idea of direct and indirect heat – the former means cooking your food directly over your coals, whilst the latter means placing something in between (usually a ceramic heat deflector) which protects the food from the harsh direct heat and allows you to create a consistent temperature around the whole barbecue (a bit like an oven). Take a look at our barbecuing guides below to get to grips with these different methods of barbecuing, then read on for a deeper dive.

Once you’ve set things up accordingly, all that’s left is to get cooking! We have a huge collection of barbecue recipes for you to get stuck into, and they all use barbecues in a variety of different ways. Whether you want to try your hand at a bit of smoking, start slow-roasting big joints of meat for a Sunday roast or turn your barbecue into a pizza oven, we’ve got something for everyone below, along with some handy hints on how to get the best out of your barbecue.

Grilling and searing

This is what most of us use barbecues for, and with good reason – it's one of its biggest advantages over a hob. Cooking a steak in a pan is all well and good but there’s no replacement for the lick of flame and the extreme heat of a barbecue. Good ceramic barbecues will get above 400ºC, and that takes the Maillard reaction – (the caramelisation of sugars on the surface of the meat which creates bags of flavour) to incredible new levels that you just can’t recreate in any other setting.

Naturally the first thing we think of searing on a barbecue is red meat, but you can apply this principle to all sorts of other things. Searing white meat and fish on the barbecue works equally well (though fish is delicate and requires a bit more care and a lower heat). Vegetables also respond well to this method; our green romesco sauce with barbecued nectarines and asparagus is a perfect example of this. Fruit is fantastic when seared over coals – all you’re doing is caramelising the natural sugars in the fruit, adding extra depth with notes of sweetness and bitterness. Some simply seared fruit with ice cream and nuts makes a great easy summer dessert.

Smoking

One of the great advantages of a ceramic barbecue with a lid is that it allows you to hot-smoke your food. Once your barbecue is up and running and your coals are white, you can add wood to the embers – these will catch fire and create plumes of smoke, which rise and imbue your food with an amazing smoky flavour.

Different types of wood give you different flavours, too. Fruit woods like apple and cherry tend to be more delicate, whilst the likes of hardwood and hickory are more robust – perfect for smoking red meat. If you have good access to wood, go for freshly cut chunks – wood dries out after it has been chopped, and the higher moisture content in freshly chopped wood will help to keep your food moist.

The key to good smoking is low temperature – if you smoke above 120ºC, the smoke will be acrid rather than aromatic, and you’ll end up with an unpleasant bitter flavour in your food. Smoking is all about low and slow cooking – the barbecue essentially becomes a smoke oven – so set aside a day to enjoy the process. Try this classic Texas-style smoked brisket for starters, or if you want something a little quicker, this artichoke with smoked garlic mayonnaise is a simple crowdpleaser.

Roasting

Because we associate barbecue with searing and grilling at high heat, we often worry about the idea of roasting food in a barbecue, thinking that it’ll overcook, burn and dry out. Fundamentally, barbecue is all about temperature control – good ceramic barbecues allow you to maintain a consistent temperature over a long period of time. By creating an indirect cooking zone, using a thermometer (ideally built-in) and closing the lid, you're effectively creating an oven – just one that uses charcoal rather than gas or electricity.

Indirect cooking on a barbecue opens so many doors to cooking a vast array of dishes. We like to leave a tray on top of the heat deflectors to catch any drips from whatever we’re roasting – you can also leave some water in the tray to make the barbecue into more of a steam oven.

A rotisserie attachment can turn your barbecue into something seriously swish – this take joints of meat and poultry to the next level, partly by ensuring a consistent caramelisation across the whole surface of the joint, but also by keeping the meat moist. As the meat rotates, the internal fat renders and melts through the meat, rather than simply dripping into the bottom of the roasting tray. Our rotisserie chicken with apricot, pine nut and freekeh stuffing is one of the most delicious roasts we’ve ever eaten, largely because of the transformative powers of the extra smoke and the consistency of the rotisserie.

You can also roast things directly in the coals if you like – it gives you more space to work with on the cooking grates above and lends extra smokiness to your food. It’s one of the best ways to cook aubergines, for example, but it also brings an amazing flavour to the smoked apple purée in this barbecued pork shoulder steaks recipe.

Baking

If you can turn your barbecue into an oven, it makes sense that you can also bake things in it! Jacket potatoes are an easy starting point – you can just wrap them in foil and bake them as you would on a bonfire, nestled in among the coals until they’re fluffy and tender. Even better, why not make a salt crust out of salt and egg white and salt-bake your potatoes! It’s an easy, delicious way to feed a crowd, and doubly impressive when you break open the salt crust to reveal the perfectly cooked and seasoned potatoes within.

If you want to take things a step further, ceramic barbecues really come into their own when you start using them to make flatbreads and pizzas. The main hurdle between you and delicious Neapolitan-style pizza is oven temperature – most wood-fired pizza ovens are around the 400ºC mark, far beyond the outer limits of your average home oven. A good ceramic barbecue, however, can easily reach such a high heat. Pop a pizza stone in there, wait a few minutes for it to heat up and you have a pizza oven in your own back garden.

The key is to roll your dough thin and go fairly light on the toppings – this allows the heat to penetrate quickly and keeps the oven hot, letting you cook your pizzas and flatbreads in just a few minutes. Keep it classic with a tomato passata and some good mozzarella, or experiment – try our baba ganoush and brussels sprouts flatbread, or this gorgeous cauliflower shawarma wrap!

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