Top tips to make the most of barbecue season

BBQ mistakes and how to fix them, how to light a BBQ and how to stay safe

Well it’s that time again when the sun ‘tries’ to shine and we wheel out the BBQ. To help you make the most of BBQ season I’ve dug up a few interesting articles about barbecuing, from top tips on avoiding BBQ pitfalls, to how to prepare you BBQ and a few safety tips so you can enjoy your al fresco dining.

 BBQ mistakes and how to fix them

Various images for In the Same Boat June 2021

1  You don’t light the barbecue early enough

It takes about 30min to light a barbecue and wait for it to be at a cookable temperature. Don’t wait for your guests to show up to get started. Light it early, start cooking whenever the coals are ready and keep the barbecued food warm in a low oven, covered loosely with foil, if necessary.

2  You put the food on when you’ve lit the barbecue

Putting on meat when you’ve first lit the barbecue will lead to scorched outsides and raw insides. Aside from steaks or quick cooking chops, everything else (like sausages and chicken drumsticks) are best put on when the flames have died down and the embers are white.

3  You don’t cook things for long enough

The meat might look done, but it could still be raw on the inside, so make sure it stays on the BBQ for long enough, otherwise you risk food poisoning. Use a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature (65°C for pork and beef and 70°C for chicken).

4  You aren’t precooking when you should

Some things, like sausages, benefit from cooking beforehand to keep them juicy. The other option is to start things on the barbecue, then transfer them to baking tray and put them in the oven to finish of cooking.

5  You’re cooking things for too long

Don’t char things to oblivion – no one likes a dry burger.

6  You’re not using the BBQ to its full potential

Barbecues aren’t just for meat. Wrap potatoes in foil and put directly on the embers whilst everything else cooks. You can also bake fruit in a similar way or grill it directly on the bars.

7  You’re not prepping beforehand

You can’t manage a barbecue whilst you’re chopping things or looking for the tongs. Get all your sides and salads sorted and in their serving dishes, then cover and chill, if needed. Assemble all your equipment beforehand. Make sure not to touch cooked food with utensils and crockery that were used for raw meat. Have separate and discernible equipment, trays and plates to hand for handling/putting cooked food on.

8  You’re cutting your halloumi the wrong way

It’s a veggie barbecue classic, but halloumi is a pesky thing to cook on the grill. Those little slices fall apart then slip through the bars and are gone forever. There’s a better way: instead of cutting across the block, cut horizontally through it into four equal slices. They don’t go to pieces and you can serve them as a burger alternative, or you can cut it into smaller pieces after grilling.

9  You’re not barbecuing the buns

A spell toasting the cut side of a bread roll over the coals gives extra flavour.

10 You’re not seasoning properly

Whether it’s veg or meat, it needs to be seasoned, either with salt and pepper or a spiced rub (ground cumin and coriander work well).

11 And finally…you’re not spending any time with your guests

The point of a barbecue is as much about the social occasion it is about the food. Don’t overstretch yourself by trying to make too much. One to two meat dishes, a veggie option, a couple of sides, some bread and some drinks are all you really need.

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How to light a BBQ

Simple steps to get the best out of your charcoal barbecue. Learn how to light the BBQ safely, ways to arrange your coals and when to start cooking.

1 Set up in an open space

You are making a contained fire, so set up your barbecue in an open space away from fences or trees. Have a fire extinguisher or a bucket of water nearby and keep kids and pets well away. Use long-handled tongs and proper barbecue equipment with insulated handles, or you may burn yourself.

2 Buy good-quality charcoal

Try and buy good-quality sustainably produced charcoal – look for charcoal made from coppiced wood or Forestry Commission-approved wood. This lights easily, burns better and won’t taint the flavour of the food, unlike charcoals containing accelerants.

3 Use a chimney starter (I can personally vouch for these; they are brill and have made our BBQ’ing sooooo much easier)

Various images for In the Same Boat June 2021

Using one of these tubular starters means you can light charcoal easily with a few sheets of newspaper – the coals will catch and start glowing quickly and easily. A chimney also protects the coals (and you) on a windy day. Once the coals are ready, you can safely and easily tip them into the barbecue.

4 If you don’t have a chimney, arrange your charcoal in a stack

Push balls of newspaper or natural firelighters (such as wood shavings or wool) between the charcoals. Light the paper and firelighters and allow the flames to catch and get going in their own time. Then let them die down again – all you’re going to achieve with flames is burnt food. You need ashen coals to cook on.

When a few coals have been lit, the rest will catch on their own, so don’t hurry them along by adding more firelighters. If the heat is starting to die down as you barbecue, add coals to the outside of the barbecue and leave them to flame up and die down before cooking over them. 

5 Know whether you need direct or indirect heat before you start to cook

How you arrange your coals will give you different heat zones and more control over your barbecue.

  • Direct heat - If you think of a barbecue as a stovetop, lighting an even layer of coal is the equivalent of cooking everything on the highest heat in the hottest pan. Although this direct method might be fine for thin cuts of meat that cook quickly (like burgers and thin-cut steaks), it will cremate anything that needs more time to cook through.
  • Indirect heat - Push the coals to one side of the barbecue and keep the other side free to get a range of temperatures – use the coal-free side to cook by indirect heat. Hot coals on just one side also enable you to cook on one half and keep food warm on the other. If you have a kettle BBQ, this is one set-up for indirect low-and-slow cooking of large pieces of meat.
  • A little of each - By sloping the coals you get a gradient of heat from searing hot to sizzling gently. This is useful when barbecuing for a crowd – you can keep things ticking over at one end while cooking at full pelt at the other.

6 Learn to recognise when your coals are ready

Various images for In the Same Boat June 2021

If you try to cook something when the coals aren’t ready, it may overcook or burn – it’s not a risk worth taking. Use our colour code guide to help decide when to start cooking your food:

  • Black or grey with flames: Not ready yet. Step away, have a beer and relax.
  • Glowing white hot with red centres (blow very gently to check): Ready for direct heat.
  • Ashy white but still very hot: Ready for indirect heat or cooking in the coals.

7 Use a thermometer

Testing the temperature of your food helps to prevent disasters.

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And finally… some barbecue safety advice

Various images for In the Same Boat June 2021

General Safety

  • Make sure your barbecue is in good working order
  • Ensure the barbecue is on a flat site, well away from a shed, trees or shrubs
  • Keep children, garden games and pets well away from the cooking area
  • Never leave the barbecue unattended
  • Keep a bucket of water or sand nearby for emergencies
  • Ensure the barbecue is cool before attempting to move it.

Charcoal Barbecues

  • Use only enough charcoal to cover the base to a depth of about 50mm (2 inches)
  • Only use recognised fire lighters or starter fuel and only on cold coals – use the minimum necessary and never use petrol
  • Never put hot ashes straight into a dustbin or wheelie bin – they could melt the plastic and cause a fire.

Gas Barbecues

  • Make sure the tap is turned off before changing the gas cylinder
  • Change cylinders outdoors if possible or in a well-ventilated area
  • If you suspect a leak to the cylinder or pipe work, brush soapy water around the joints and watch for bubbles – tighten to fix but do not overtighten
  • After cooking, turn off the gas cylinder before turning off at the controls to ensure any residual gas in the pipe work is used up.

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All we need now is some sunshine, or a least a brave soul with a brolly, and get out there and get barbecuing.