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How to set up your barbecue

How to set up a barbecue

Setting up your barbecue doesn’t have to be complicated or a chore – if you follow a few simple rules you can make your whole cooking experience a lot more pleasurable. The most important starting point is to know your two main types of cooking – direct and indirect. Direct cooking is where food is close to the heat source – think of the grill in your oven, or a pan cooking on a hob – whereas indirect cooking is more like an oven, where the convective heat cooks food gently and thoroughly.

It’s common to think that you’re limited to one of these methods when you cook on a barbecue. In the UK we often associate barbecues with direct cooking, but that’s where setting up your barbecue becomes important. You can set up direct and indirect heat sources on your barbecue and move food between them, allowing you a huge amount of control over your food regardless of what you’re cooking. Use both of these methods of cooking to your advantage for the best results.

Direct cooking

So, when should we be cooking direct? Again, it helps to think about when you would use direct heat normally. The close proximity of the food to the radiant direct heat is what you need when you want to sear quickly without drying out the food. My basic rule of thumb is that if a piece of meat or fish is the thickness of your outstretched hand, then it should be cooked quickly using direct heat. There are a few exceptions – rare steaks and burgers, and fish such as tuna and swordfish – but this rule applies most of the time.

There are loads of things that cook well with direct heat – kebabs, seafood, flatbreads, grilled vegetables, steaks and chops all benefit from this method of cooking. Whenever you want to crisp something up quickly and build flavour on the outside of the food without losing moisture from the inside, direct heat is the way to go. You can have varying degrees of direct heat as well, be it a gentle direct heat over smouldering embers or a raging inferno. Tailor your direct heat for the food you are cooking.

You control the temperature of the direct heat with the amount of fuel you are using. You can then tweak and fine-tune by using air inlet vents (if your barbecue has them) to control the amount of air getting to the fuel. More fuel and more air will increase the heat, and reducing both will bring the heat back down again.

Aside from some dedicated smokers, pretty much any barbecue or grill is set up for direct cooking, whether that’s something simple like an open grill or cooking in the firebox of a large smoker. As long as you can place food in close proximity to or above the heat then you can cook direct.

Indirect cooking

Indirect cooking is the way forward for anything where you’d think about using an oven rather than a grill or a pan – larger pieces of meat or fish, large whole vegetables like celeriac, even whole animals if you have a big enough barbecue!

There are two basic ways of creating indirect cooking conditions – you can either put some distance between the food and the heat source, or you can place an obstruction such as a baffle plate or water pan between the food and the heat source. The idea then is to control the temperature inside the barbecue – this can be anywhere from under 100ºC for hot-smoking to around 160ºC for smoke-roasting – and close the lid of your barbecue to make it into an oven.

To set up your barbecue for indirect cooking, the simplest and most versatile way is to create two zones. Have your coals or burners on one side of the barbecue, and then have the other half with no coals or burners on – this is where you place your food. When you put the lid on, the temperature inside will build and you will have a gentle indirect heat. Try not to lift the lid too much whilst you cook – much like when you open an oven door, the barbecue will lose heat immediately as soon as you open it up. As they often say in barbecue, if you’re looking, you’re not cooking!

Once again, the temperature is controlled initially by the amount of fuel and then fine tuned with the air vents. On top of that, there are ways of setting up your charcoal that give you even more control over your temperature. There’s the minion method for example, where you place hot white charcoal on top of unlit charcoal – the heat from the lit charcoal will gradually light the rest, giving you a longer, more consistent burn. Or there’s the snake method, where you place your charcoal in a long line and light it at one end, allowing the heat to travel along the line like a fuse. Bear in mind where your vents are too – the heat will follow the airflow inside your barbecue so make sure the top vent in your lid is above your food. If it’s above the coals, the heat will go straight up, making your barbecue much less efficient.

Barbecues and equipment

Setting up a barbecue is simplicity itself, depending on the fuel. Gas is easy – ensure your gas bottle is safely attached, then turn the gas on and light your barbecue. Think about where you want your heat zones and try to learn where any hotspots are – you can do this by placing white bread on the grill and noticing where the bread toasts more and less.

Charcoal barbecues are also simple to set up given a little practice, and quicker than you might think to get going. You can use a chimney starter to get your coals going really quickly – place your coals in the chimney and set a fire underneath using newspaper, then pour your coals into your barbecue when they’re roaring hot. This means you can be ready to cook in just ten or fifteen minutes, and they’re not expensive to buy either. You can also use an electric charcoal starter – these will get lumpwood charcoal red hot in under two minutes – and charcoal starters are good too, but avoid paraffin lighter fluid or cubes as these will taint the food with nasty flavours in the confined space of a barbecue or smoker.

You really don’t need much more to be honest. A good set of tongs and a digital probe thermometer are essentials in my book. The fuel is really important and acts as an ingredient itself. Obviously using gas will impart no flavour to the food, but using good quality charcoal makes a huge difference and will add bags of flavour to your final product.

Wood is a great way of imparting flavour as you cook too, and there are many wonderful types of wood that can be matched with the type of food you are cooking. The purest way of cooking is with wood, where you allow a wood fire to burn right down and then cook food with the heat from the embers. You get a great flavour from good wood, but temperature control can be tricky and this is definitely one that takes more practice. However, wood pellet grills have become increasingly popular in recent years – they burn smoking wood pellets in a fire pot and are as straightforward to use as a gas barbecue, but with a wonderful subtle smoke flavour. If you’re looking for an entry point into wood smoking, these are definitely worth looking at!

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