THERE are times when it seems a barbecue is less a way of cooking than a ritual in which we give thanks for a sunny afternoon. Men solemnly pull on the uniform of the barbecue high priest – the comedy apron – to indulge a primeval instinct requiring us to do heroic battle with smoke and fire, while trying not to turn the burgers and sausages into burnt offerings.
The first rule of barbecuing is to take the macho out of it. “The primary misconception is that men instinctively know how to barbecue,” says Raymond van Rijk, the Kiwi king of barbecue-ing who has written books on the art and travels the world giving barbie masterclasses. “They think they can do it, then they throw on every bit of meat at once without any knowledge or thought for times and flavour, and destroy everything.”
The common refrain of barbecue party poopers is that you may as well just bung everything under the kitchen grill and eat it outside if you must, for all the difference it makes to the food. They of course miss the point that that cramming your friends into a tiny, smoke-filled back yard really is a pretty good way to celebrate summer. But they also fail to appreciate that barbecue food cooked properly is magical, infused with wood-smoke flavours impossible to achieve indoors.
To enhance that smoky flavour, throw woodchip onto the coals (or into a smoke box on gas barbecues). Different woodchip produces different flavours – in America, old Jack Daniels oak barrels are sought after for this – but van Rijk says even DIY shop woodchip will do, as will branches pruned from fruit trees in the garden. Ensure the wood has been dried, then soak it in water for 20-50 minutes (to stop it from simply burning up), and throw it on the charcoal. You can further use dry-climate herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme, and spices like cloves and nutmeg, to add extra exoticism to the smoke.
That won’t prevent anyone serving up food burnt black on the outside and raw in the middle, however – something usually due to a mistaken assumption that everything requires maximum heat. There’s the fail-safe method of partially cooking things in the oven first and finishing them on the barbecue, but van Rijk says that, used correctly, a barbecue should be versatile enough to cook things properly, and you don’t have to resort to the expensive, gas-powered cheats’ versions.
“Charcoal tastes so much better than gas,” he says. “If you pile the charcoal higher on one side and low on the other, you’ve got the heat differentiation you need to cook things pretty accurately. Just forget about getting everything ready at the same time, there’s no point.”
Good planning is all – knowing what you’re cooking, how you’re going to cook it and when, which means that barbecues in which guests bring their own items for you to cook are doomed to failure. Take control, says van Rijk, and experiment a bit. For instance, many barbecues come with hoods, but most of us don’t know how to use them. Van Rijk divides things into direct and indirect cooking: smaller cuts and items like burgers and sausages are cooked directly over the coals, while bigger items such as a whole chicken or large fish are cooked on a lower heat with the hood closed and the coals piled at the sides, creating an oven effect. Try some lid-down cooking, but leave it alone when it’s down, since opening it repeatedly achieves nothing but dropping the temperature.
When it comes to food preparation, the most important thing is the quality of the ingredients. But avoid also the common pitfall of overdoing the marinade. If you’re only marinating for flavour rather than to tenderise the meat, leaving it in the fridge overnight will overpower the taste of the meat itself. A few minutes is enough to coat the meat in ingredients that, when cooked properly on the barbecue, become the very taste of summer.
Raymond van Rijk is taking part in Toast Festival 2009, a celebration of New Zealand, Australian and South African culture, on Clapham Common from 27-28 June. See: www.toastfestivals.co.uk