Here's everything you need to know before you organise your next barbecue feast
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.
FIRING IT UP
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