The great barbecue debate
ACCORDING to anthropologists, in our hunter-gather days men only ever prepared food in two situations; at feasts for special occasions, or making quick, simple meals of meat cooked over open fires when they were out on hunting trips. In other words, they were either chefs, or they barbecued. Sound familiar?
In this heat, nobody wants to come over all Heston Blumenthal, they just want a burger and a can of beer in the back garden. But if you are considering buying a barbie, there is one big question: gas or charcoal? Gas is quick, modern and efficient, while charcoal is more primordial, with all that smoke and fire flying about. But which is best?
Colin Wint, the head chef at meaty Belgravia restaurant Boisdale says: “With the charcoal you get more of that smoky flavour, but you’ve got to know your equipment. It’s not an easy thing to do, cooking over charcoal.” The results can be the dreaded banger that’s burned on the outside and cold inside, which is not just unappetising, but potentially poisonous. With a bit of skill you can avoid that, says Wint. “You’ve got to cook on different parts of the grill at different times, and know when it’s hottest in different parts.” If you are a trained chef, that is probably second nature, but for the rest of us it’s easier said than done. To help us amateurs, he recommends getting a barbecue with an adjustable grill so that you can move the food closer to and further from the flames.
That might all make the alternative sound appealing. Nobody wants to spend their time at a barbecue faffing about moving food backwards and forwards and worrying about listeria, especially after a few drinks. With gas you don’t have any of those problems. Plus, these days gas barbecues have side grills for sauces and so on and thermometers so you have more control, and you just hit a button to light it – there is no messing about with matches and lighter fuel. It sounds like the perfect modern remedy. But it’s maybe not quite that simple. “I used to have a gas barbecue for the convenience,” says Robin Gill, chef at City restaurant Sauterelle. “You can turn it on and go, and you can do a barbecue for two with no preparation, and with a charcoal one it takes so long to get going that you don’t use it unless you have people coming round.”
Gas is not always as convenient as it seems; living in London you often have to drive to pick up gas canisters, which spoils the spontaneity. Plus, says Gill, “if you are using herbs and oil then that can get all over the barbecue and really mess it up, with coals you can just bin it at the end.” As for taste, he’s a charcoal man. With coals the flavour is “10 times better. The gas gives you an almost chemical taste.”
For speed, gas is the way forward. But if it’s all about the theatre of applying
fire to flesh and you don’t mind working for your respect, then the caveman way is still the only alternative.
Gas: It’s fast and you can have a spur-of-the-moment barbecue. The flavour might not be quite as charcoal, though, and cleaning the thing can be a pain. Go for gas if convenience is what you are after – but check that you will be able to buy gas locally.
Charcoal: Takes longer to get the heat going and takes more skill to cook, because the
heat is variable. Buy one with a moveable grill. The coals can be thrown away, so there’s no tiresome cleaning. The flavour is better, and it’s far more theatrical.
BESTCHARCOAL: smokey mountain cooker, 47cm
BESTGAS: grilltech centenary 3 Around £600,