A guide to different types of barbecue

A guide to different types of barbecue

by Marcus Bawdon 13 July 2018

Marcus Bawdon takes a deep dive into the different styles and methods of barbecuing, from the indirect smoke ovens of the American Deep South to the scorching hot grills of Japan.

Editor of UK BBQ Mag, barbecue blogger at CountryWoodSmoke and father of three mini barbecue critics, Marcus is a bonafide expert when it comes to barbecue.

Editor of UK BBQ Mag, barbecue blogger at CountryWoodSmoke and father of three mini barbecue critics, Marcus is a bonafide expert when it comes to barbecue. He loves to inspire others to cook outdoors, and runs the UK BBQ School from his home in Devon, where he cooks al fresco whatever the weather. As well as writing features for Great British Chefs, you can also find Marcus' excellent barbecue guides – such as how to smoke using your barbecue and how to set up your barbecue – in our how to section!

Barbecue is the oldest and most diverse cooking method in the world. When we think of barbecue in the UK, we often think hot, fast, direct cooking – sausages, burgers, chicken and steaks grilled directly over hot coals – but this is just one small part of a huge global tradition. Travel the world and you’ll find different methods everywhere, all with their own unique traditions and equipment. That grill tradition exists in Japan too, where tiny tabletop grills are used to cook yakitori skewers, but head to the USA and you’ll find barbecue means something entirely different, with huge trailers employed as smoke ovens to slow-cook entire pigs and huge pieces of beef brisket.

Basically, as long as you’re cooking using live fire and smoke, you’re barbecuing. The main difference comes in the form of whether you are cooking with a direct or an indirect heat source. Direct heat is where the heat source is close to or directly below the food you’re cooking – this would include the aforementioned Japanese and European-style grills, as well as South American parillas. By comparison, indirect cooking is where there is a separation from the cooking food and the heat source – this includes American-style smokers and cooking al asador in South America, where whole animals are strung up around open fires to cook with indirect heat from the embers.

Direct barbecues

Small tabletop grills like hibachi and konro are hugely popular in the Far East, where skewers like yakitori are cooked over searingly high heat. These are generally used to cook smaller items of food – the food is in extremely close proximity to the heat, and the high heat helps to crisp and char the edges without drying out the insides. Fans are often used to get a high airflow over the coals and really pump up the temperature, and specific charcoal is helpful too – Japanese Binchotan, for example, is a super high grade of lumpwood charcoal that is smokeless and offers long-lasting high heat. These grills are often made from heat-retentive material such as cast iron or diatomite clay to help maintain a stable temperature. As the food is cooked, it is often marinated or brushed with sweet-savoury sauces like teriyaki, which chars and caramelises in the heat.

The UK has been somewhat of a barbecue wasteland until very recently, but it wasn’t always that way – we used to be experts in cooking over open fire. Most of our cooking was indoors in front of huge hearths, on rotisseries and spits or using huge cast iron pots and pans. This style of hearth cooking is coming back into fashion now, but it still exists as a huge part of barbecue culture in much of Europe, South Africa and South America. The basic idea of direct fire cooking is to have a wood fire producing embers. These are placed underneath a cooking grate, which can be adjusted to move your food closer to, or further away from, the direct heat. In South America these barbecues are called parillas, while in South Africa they are known as braai, but they have different names all over the world. Some are open affairs, others have hoods, but they’re all born from this same basic premise. This also includes campfire-style cooking, where rocks form a container for the fire and grates are laid over the top. You can cook pretty much anything in this fashion, from quick little grilled items right up to slow-cooked chunks of meat. Vegetables and fish are particularly wonderful cooked like this, as the heat chars and crisps the edges and intensifies the flavours. Let’s hope we continue to see more of this style of direct fire cooking reappearing here in the UK.

Indirect barbecues

Popular types of barbecue

Gas grill – Quick and easy to get hot and cook on, but gas will never get as hot as good charcoal and lacks flavour.

57cm kettle barbecue – Great to learn on, with lots of space for indirect cooking. Coals don’t last too long, and will probably need topping up every few hours.

Offset smoker – Gives authentic barbecue flavour, with plenty of room for food. These can be tricky to run though – they need constant tending and temperatures aren't always stable.

Pellet grill – So easy and efficient, just turn on and forget. Some feel these don't create as much smoke as wood/charcoal, and perhaps take the challenge/fun out of barbecue!

Bullet smokers – Great to learn smoking with – reliable with consistent results. Not a huge amount of room for food though.

The best known examples of indirect barbecue come from the southern states of America. There’s incredible variation across the Deep South in terms of the meat they cook, but the methods stay largely the same – they all rely on large smokers, cooking indirectly over long periods of time, using local woods. These smokers are more elaborate than the simple grills of the Far East – a lot of the early smokers actually originate from oil workers, who utilised their welding skills to start building commercial barbecues when the bottom fell out of the American oil industry in the 1980s. The basic idea is slow and low cooking – a firebox is fed with small amounts of wood at regular intervals, and the heat and smoke then pass through into the main cooking chamber where the meat sits. Whole hog barbecue is common in the USA – particularly in the Carolinas – but whole briskets, ribs, pork shoulders and more are also smoked in these indirect barbecues, generally at around 110ºC until the meat literally falls apart. Barbecue has become a way of life in huge swathes of the USA, and it’s no surprise – you can cook an awful lot of food in this way to feed the masses!

If you think whole hog cooking in the US is something, wait until you get to South America. In Argentina particularly, they cook meat on a scale not really seen anywhere else in the world. You’ll see row upon row of whole lambs, beef ribs and sides of ox, strung up on big metal crosses and cooked over wood fires, so the smoke and heat lick at the edges of the meat, cooking it slowly for hours on end. This is a style known as asado – outdoor cooking in all its romantic glory. It’s a style that relies on touch and experience, judging the strength of your fire and adjusting accordingly, but it’s as much about the theatre and the beauty of wild cooking as it is about perfect cookery. The food is rustic and glorious, served in chunks with smoked sausage, a torn-off hunk of bread and lashings of chimichurri – check out legendary Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann if you’re after a true taste of asado.

If you don’t have a smoker, a cross or a grate, what do you do? Well, you bury your food in the ground! Pit cooking is one of the oldest forms of barbecue – not something we immediately think of as barbecue, but the same principles of fire and smoke still apply. Dig a big hole deep in the ground, line it with something to soak the heat and store it – rocks or metal both work well – then light a big fire on top and let the rocks absorb the heat. Once the fire has burnt down to embers, lay down some sacking or leafy material – in some cultures they use seaweed – to protect the food, and put your food on top in layers. Finish your barbecue with more protective layers of sacking, then cover the whole package in earth. This is serious slow-cooking – the earth insulates the heat stored in the rocks, which gently steams the food inside your subterranean parcel. We often associate this style of cooking with the Pacific Islands and New Zealand – there are hundreds of indigenous words for pit cooking among the many Pacific Islands – but this type of barbecue is practiced in many different variations all over the world. You can even give it a try in your own back garden!