British men have a testy relationship without outdoor cooking. Perhaps it’s the weather. Perhaps it’s the lack of practice. But offer up a half-cooked sausage to a proper grill king, and he’d laugh at you through glaze-smeared teeth.
Fortunately, we tapped up barbecue royalty Jon Finch, founder of the annual Grillstock Festival and all-round meat maven, to light a fire under your al fresco cooking technique.
Forget pink chicken. It’s time to wear the crown.
Rule 1: Flame-Grilling Doesn’t Make You A Burger King
Forget your in-law’s grumbles about getting home; great barbecue takes time. “Most mistakes are made because of impatience,” says Finch. “The meat is done when it’s done – don’t try and rush things.”
That advice counts from the outset. Instant light coals will flavour your meat with creosote – not the smoky taste you’re shooting for. Instead, use natural lumpwood charcoal (£8.99, homebase.co.uk). “The bigger the lumps, the better. It’s easier to light, gives a better flavour and leaves less ash than briquettes.”
Smaller cuts, like burgers and steaks, take less time and need a high heat to sear the outside. Size up and you (usually) need a lower, slower cook. If you’re not running two grills, you need to zone your barbecue.
“Pile the coals on one side of the grill, leaving the other side clear,” says Finch. “Use the coal side for searing and the other for indirect cooking.” For some of that serious, flavour-making smoke, serve your meat with chips. Well, whisky oak chips (£4.50 for 500g, hotsmoked.co.uk). Soak in water then toss on top of hot coals to give your meat a boozy kick.
Rule 2: First The Idea, Then The Gear
Fancy kit doesn’t guarantee killer meat. “We’ve seen guys smoking meat in converted filing cabinets,” says Finch. Before you nip to Staples, know that a Weber Kettle (£179, johnlewis.co.uk) means less time welding. “They’re incredibly versatile. You can grill, roast, or smoke anything on a kettle.”
It also comes with an all-important temperature gauge. For low and slow cooking, you need to keep your meat around 100°C, but burgers sear best nearer 350°C. Tweak your grill’s air vents until you hit the sweet spot.
Since lighter fuel is as bad for your food as your eyebrows, a chimney starter (£21.95, johnlewis.co.uk) is the pro’s choice. “It lets you easily replenish and relight your coals,” says Finch. Your guests spend less time waiting, more time eating.
Fill with fuel, place over two lit firelighters in the base of your barbecue, then wait 15 minutes for the top coals to turn grey. Pour out and rearrange into your cooking zones. No naked flames means even heat – and no poisoned guests.
Rule 3: You Need To Feed Your Meat
So-called ‘barbecue’ sauce is anything but. “Sauces and glazes tend to have a high sugar content,” says Finch. The low and slow cook makes your meat tender, but burns the gloop on top. If you must pour on sauce, wait until your meat’s cooked then take it off the heat to go sticky. But ideally, the barbecue don rubs his flavour in first.
“The key to great barbecue is building layers of flavour from the outset,” says Finch. “A whip-cracking rub is the most important part.”
The best rubs blend heat and sweetness with the pick of your spice rack, to lift your meat from fine to fingerlicking. “One part salt, one part sugar and one part what you fancy,” says Finch. If you like a kick, add more paprika or cayenne. For something more fragrant, think cumin. “You can play around with the ratio once you’ve got the basic rub nailed.”
Grillstock’s House Rub Recipe
2 tbsp sea salt
4 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp white sugar
2 tbsp light soft brown sugar
2 tbsp chilli powder
2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp English mustard powder
Mix all the ingredients together, then massage into your meat the night before it’s going on the grill, so the flavour can penetrate.
Rule 4: Think Beyond Bangers
Where Brits default to discount sausages, stateside, they think bigger. So you need to plan more than a trip to your local Tesco. “It stands to reason that the better the quality of the meat you start off with, the better the end result,” says Finch. But those without an organic butcher can still go ham on premium hog.
Meat specialists Turner & George will deliver a box of crowdpleasers (£48.99, turnerandgeorge.co.uk) – think premium steak, ribs and burgers – plus some more advanced options direct to your door. Cover this packer cut brisket (from £24.30, turnerandgeorge.co.uk) with the accompanying rub, then wake up at dawn the next day to give it 11 hours at 115°C.
Effort? Yes. But worth it when your ‘grill king’ neighbour has to give up his apron.
Rule 5: Wash It All Away
The most important ingredient for great barbecue? Time. “Accept that this is a slow process and kick back with a beer with your family and friends,” says Finch. But not just any beer. Sticky glazes and oozing ribs need a punchy pairing.
“Natural carbonation cleanses your palate ready for the next mouthful,” says Finch. “Beers that give a nice hop bite are best.” And the Grillstock favourite, Budvar, is crisp enough to cut through anything your grill offers up.
Just don’t indulge too heavily. A hot barbecue’s an easy clean. A cold one? You’ll need to dig out your jackhammer. When you’re done cooking, brush off any crust. Then place a tray of water over the coals and shut the lid. The steam softens any gunk so, once your guests are gone, you can wipe it off.
Stick the rack in the dishwasher and sling some cat litter in the drip pan, to soak up grease. Then sleep sound in the knowledge you could grill again tomorrow.