Here's every­thing you need to know be­fore you or­gan­ise your next bar­be­cue feast

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Every­thing you need to know be­fore your next bar­be­cue feast

Brown food tastes bet­ter, par­tic­u­larly with a bit of de­li­ciously charred ends. That sim­ple fact was surely first dis­cov­ered by our pre­his­toric an­ces­tors when they chanced upon a burnt mam­moth af­ter a wild for­est fire in the murky past, and haz­arded a feast. Fire be­came a friend, and raw meat for din­ner be­came a thing of the past.

That first mouth­ful must have been a gas­tro­nomic eureka mo­ment for our pre­his­toric fore­fa­thers as they sunk their teeth into fall-off-the-bone flesh rich with that deep, savoury flavour that Mail­lard put a name to mil­lions of years later. That in­deed re­mains the heart and soul of one of the old­est form of cook­ing we still en­joy— the bar­be­cue.

The In­ter­net is awash with var­i­ous ‘true’ def­i­ni­tions of a bar­be­cue—from zealots in­sist­ing that it has to be big hunks of meat cooked slow and in­di­rectly us­ing wood fire, to oth­ers who em­brace a range of out­door cook­ing meth­ods in­clud­ing bury­ing food in an un­der­ground oven, like the Hawai­ian imu. But tak­ing the mod­er­ate’s view, let’s just see the bar­be­cue as a form of cook­ing where food is placed over a grate and cooked over an open fire, with smoke present. (So pop­ping a hunk of meat into your grill oven and turn­ing it up to its high­est tem­per­a­ture doesn’t count.)

But more than just meat cook­ing over an open fire, ‘bar­be­cue’ is a so­cial gath­er­ing, one prac­tised uni­ver­sally all over the world—from a south African braai to a Mid­dle East­ern man­gal. No bar­be­cue is re­ally a bar­be­cue un­less it’s a leisurely, laid back af­fair with the ca­ma­raderie of friends and fam­ily, ex­tended con­ver­sa­tion, and lots of ice cold beer.


As swanky as a gas bar­be­cue looks, it can­not give the same charred, smoky flavour as that its char­coal coun­ter­part can. We know this in Asia. Con­sider the de­lights of sa­tay, sam­bal stingray, otak otak, and even our Chi­nese New Year love let­ters. Bar­be­cue th­ese over any­thing but a char­coal fire, and the flavours lacks oomph.

For home bar­be­cues, lump char­coal—so eas­ily avail­able in any heart­land pro­vi­sion shop or bar­be­cue sup­ply shop—does the job very well. A five-kilo­gram bag should get you through two home­sized bar­be­cues. But if high end gourmet is the only way you’ll do it, then bri­quettes are the Rolls Royce of bar­be­cue fires.

Use fire-starters to get the flames go­ing, but it will take about 30 min­utes or so be­fore it is ready for cook­ing. That’s when the flames die down, and the coals are glow­ing red and take on a grey­ish-ashen ap­pear­ance. Do re­mem­ber that you’ll be cook­ing with the heat from the char­coal, not by the flames of the fire.

To start a fire, first, line the bar­be­cue pit with alu­minium foil for easy clean­ing later. Then pile on the char­coal. Stack the char­coal around and on top of a cou­ple of fire-starters, so that they are sit­ting close to each other but with enough space in be­tween for good air cir­cu­la­tion. (Re­mem­ber that fire needs oxy­gen to burn, so smoth­er­ing your fire-starters un­der a tightly packed formation of char­coal will not do the job.) Light up the fire-starters and let the char­coal catch; add more char­coal as the flames spread, and fan it to help it burn. Then us­ing tongs, spread the char­coal out.

Con­trol­ling the heat is para­mount for bar­be­cue suc­cess. The most ba­sic way is to spread the glow­ing char­coal evenly across the bar­be­cue pit. This ensures the heat is evenly spread, and your food will be cooked evenly over di­rect heat. An un­even spread of char­coal will mean getting ran­dom hot and cool spots across your grill, which will af­fect the cook­ing. If you want it hot­ter, open the vents at the bot­tom of your bar­be­cue, or fan the char­coal and you’ll see it glow brighter. (If you keep fan­ning, it will re-ig­nite, and you’ll have to wait for the flames to die down again.) Re­mem­ber, the more oxy­gen you feed it, the hot­ter it will be.

Once you’ve mas­tered the ba­sics, start getting cre­ative with your char­coal. De­pend­ing on how you ar­range the char­coal, you can play around with dif­fer­ent lev­els of heat.

Two-Zone Di­rect Heat Ar­range­ment Ar­range one layer of char­coal on one side of the bar­be­cue, and place two or three lay­ers of char­coal on the other side to get two zones of heat. The area with more char­coal will be hot­ter than the area with less char­coal. The hot­ter area will be per­fect for sear­ing meats while the cooler area with less char­coal will be suit­able for cook­ing low and slow, and for ten­der in­gre­di­ents like veg­eta­bles. This is called the two-zone di­rect heat ar­range­ment.

Ring of Fire This is where char­coal is ar­ranged in a ring along the outer edge of the bar­be­cue, leav­ing the mid­dle empty of char­coal. This cre­ates two zones on the grill—a hot­ter one around the edge which cooks with di­rect heat, and the mid­dle sec­tion which is cooler and cooks food with in­di­rect heat. A vari­a­tion is to move all the char­coal to one side of the bar­be­cue pit, so you get two cook­ing zones as well, but would work only if yours is a small bar­be­cue grill.

Hav­ing two zones gives you more room to play around with your cook­ing, and pre­vent meats from burn­ing. For in­stance, if slapped over di­rect heat, larger cuts of meat like ribs, big­ger joints of chicken, steaks and pork loin will burn on the out­side be­fore it is prop­erly cooked in the mid­dle. So cook them low and slow over the cooler zone first, then move them over di­rect heat to­wards the end to sear or crisp up be­fore serv­ing. With foods high in sugar con­tent, like pineap­ples or meats mar­i­nated in a sug­ary rub, cook­ing over gen­tler heat first also pre­vents the sugar from burn­ing too quickly. Mov­ing it over di­rect heat later al­lows the sug­ars to caramelise into sticky de­li­cious­ness just be­fore serv­ing. Seafood, corn on the cob and pota­toes works well over in­di­rect heat, while veg­eta­bles like as­para­gus and thin­ner cuts of meat like sa­tay and bul­gogi can be cooked quickly over the hot zones.

Then there are wood­chips which you can add to the fire to in­ject ex­tra flavour into your cook­ing. Soak­ing them first al­lows them to burn longer and give off smoke which will add flavour to the meat. Place them in an area with less char­coal so they burn longer. Pop­u­lar wood used in bar­be­cues in­clude ap­ple, pecan, maple and hick­ory wood chips, as well as gourmet wood in­fused with bour­bon. Dif­fer­ent woods give off dif­fer­ent flavours, so ex­per­i­ment to see which you like and which wood pairs best with dif­fer­ent types of meat.

For in­stance, hick­ory, mesquite and oak have stronger flavours and work bet­ter with beef and pork. Ap­ple, maple and pecan wood are milder and pair bet­ter with white meat and seafood. It is a bonus if your bar­be­cue comes with a lid: cover the bar­be­cue and al­low the smoke to swirl around and se­ri­ously in­fuse the meat with flavour.

Top Food cooked over a char­coal bar­be­cue im­parts a charred, smoky flavour

Bot­tom Add wood­chips to the fire to in­ject ex­tra flavour into your cook­ing

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