In my world there is no ‘barbecue food’, just tasty food I happen to be cooking over fire. Fire is the original heat source and every country has a history of fire cooking. Once you know how it works, you can use a barbecue to cook anything, from steak and fish to a rainbow of vegetables. You can even bake, and at the Bristol Fire School (where I run classes) we end the day with a fire-cooked cake.
Grasping the difference between direct and indirect cooking is crucial. With direct cooking, you put food above the fire, to be cooked by intense infrared radiation from the charcoal heat. With indirect cooking, food is placed to the side of the fire, heated by conduction from hot metal surfaces and convection currents from hot air you trap when the lid’s down. Most things are better cooked indirectly, taking it slower over a lower heat for juicier, more delicious results, and avoiding the dreaded burnt-outside/raw-inside scenario.
I love lighting a real fire, but you can absolutely achieve good results on gas barbecues. The indirect versus direct principle is the same: light one burner and cook the food on the other side; cook directly over the burners for higher heat.
You can also control heat by moderating the barbecue’s air vents. Air flow is critical to fire, and the more you give a fire, the hotter and faster it will burn. Lower the vents for a gentler fire. This is one of the reasons to keep your barbecue lid closed where possible – if it’s always up you cannot control the air. A lid makes the cooking more efficient. You wouldn’t dream of trying to cook in your fan oven with the door open, would you? It’s the same with a barbecue.
Invest in quality fuel – it can make or break your cooking. I won’t burn anything that’s not sustainably made in Britain from pure lumpwood sources. Ever heard that charcoal must be white and ‘ashed over’ before it can be cooked on? It is a myth invented for chemical-laden charcoal of unknown provenance, because you need to burn off the chemicals before it’s palatable, or even safe, to cook. Good charcoal is 95 per cent pure carbon, completely inert, with no taste, smell or smoke on burning. It is good to cook over within five minutes of lighting, and you can add it lump by lump as you are cooking, to maintain an even heat.
Because good charcoal creates no smoke, if you want to ‘smoke’ food, as in the salmon recipe below, you need to add wood. I vastly prefer fist-sized chunks to wood chips, which burn quickly unless you soak them in water; but wet chips make for a soggy, dirty smoke. Chunks smoulder slowly, providing a pure smoky flavour.
These recipes showcase what I love about barbecuing – you get colour and texture in spades and a little hit of smoky goodness, with a mix of different techniques.
Caraway-cured hot-smoked salmon with barbecued hasselback potatoes
Hot-smoked salmon is easy, but you need time to cure it beforehand. The cure adds flavour (here, it’s black pepper and caraway) and is an important step to develop the pellicle, a sticky surface that helps the smoke stick and penetrate the fish.
Hasselback potatoes also take a little time, but are so worth it for the crispy outer and squishy inside. You could cook them in your oven indoors but I enjoy the satisfaction of cooking my whole meal outside. By shutting the barbecue lid you can create an oven-like heat and cook anything in there.
This needs nothing more than a big green salad to serve.
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 12-24 hours of curing for the salmon
Cook time: about 90 minutes
- 4 x 125-150g salmon fillets
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tbsp caraway seeds
- 1 tbsp sea salt flakes (I use Maldon)
- 1 tbsp dark-brown sugar
- 1kg baby new potatoes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 100g butter, softened
- A loose handful of fresh dill, chopped (½ a 30g pack)
- Spread the salmon fillets on a rack hung over a tray so that the air can circulate around them. Tip the peppercorns and caraway into a pestle and mortar, and grind coarsely. Add the salt and brown sugar and grind a little more to mix. Sprinkle the curing mix all over the salmon, patting it on. Slide the tray, uncovered, into the fridge to cure for 12-24 hours.
- The next day, get the potatoes ready. Place one on a board and cut slices three-quarters of the way through, all along the potato, about 2mm apart, taking care not to cut all the way through. Repeat with the rest of the potatoes and transfer to a heat-proof frying pan or roasting tin. Drizzle over the oil and season with salt and pepper, toss to mix and spread so they fit in a snug single layer. Cover the pan with foil – this traps steam to help the potatoes cook through.
- Light the barbecue for direct and indirect grilling (see main intro). Set the pan of potatoes on to the grill bars away from the fire and shut the lid. Cook for about an hour, or until they are just tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
- While the potatoes are softening, prepare the butter by mashing it with the dill and a good seasoning of salt and pepper. Cover and then set aside.
- Once the potatoes are tender, remove the pan briefly and add 2-3 fist-sized lumps of smoking wood to the fire. Return the pan to the barbecue, discarding the foil, then slide the pan directly over the fire and allow the potatoes to crisp.
- At the same time, rest the cured salmon fillets on the grill bars as far from the fire as you can and shut the lid. Leave to smoke over a gentle indirect heat until just cooked through – 60C on a thermometer. This should take about 30-35 minutes but it is better to cook to the internal temperature of the food rather than time, as every fire is different.
- Turn the potatoes a few times so that they can crisp evenly, but remember to shut the lid between turning to trap in the smoke.
- When everything is cooked, lift the salmon fillets on top of the potatoes and dot the butter on top, allowing it to melt for a minute before serving.
Slow-cooked spare-rib rack with sage and orange gremolata
This recipe uses a fail-safe rib barbecuing technique dubbed the ‘3-2-1 method’. Smoke the meat for three hours, adding layers of deep smoke flavour. Then wrap it snugly in foil and cook for another two, to soften and tenderise. Finally, unwrap and baste for an hour to build a sweet, tasty coating.
Ideally, the ribs (any sort will work) get pre-salted or ‘dry brined’ for 24 hours before you cook, but even two hours will suffice – it helps to keep everything nice and juicy.
Prep time: 20 minutes, plus 2-24 hours of dry brining time
Cook time: 6 hours, plus 1 hour of resting time
- 2 tbsp sea salt flakes (I use Maldon)
- 2-2.2kg rack of meaty spare ribs
- Very finely grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
- A loose handful of fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
- 4 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp vinegar
- 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tbsp black peppercorns, crushed
- Ideally, do the first part the day before you want to cook. Sprinkle the salt all over the meat and rub in lightly. Set on a rack hung over a tray and slide into the fridge, uncovered, for up to 24 hours.
- When you are ready to cook, fire up your barbecue for indirect cooking (see main intro). Place a couple of fist-sized lumps of smoking wood on to the lit coals and reduce down your air vents to keep the barbecue temperature around 140C.
- Place the ribs on the grill, as far from the fire as you can, and shut the lid. Cook for three hours. Keep an eye on the fuel, you may need to add a little to keep the temperature fairly constant.
- While the ribs are smoking, make the gremolata by mixing together the orange zest, sage and garlic. Scoop into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until you are ready to eat. Squeeze the oranges into a jug and set aside.
- Once the ribs have had their smoking time, line two large sheets of foil, slightly overlapping, on to a tray, then add another two overlapping in the other direction to give you a cross shape.
- Place the ribs in the centre of the foil. Draw up the sides to create a little wall all around and pour over the orange juice. Wrap tightly to seal the parcel and slide the tray on to the barbecue, away from the fire. Shut the lid and cook for two hours – you may need to add a little more fuel to keep the temperature at around 140C.
- Make a simple baste by pouring 150ml of boiling water into a heatproof jug. Stir through the honey, vinegar, mustard and crushed peppercorns, and then take to the barbecue, along with a silicone brush for basting.
- After two hours, unwrap the ribs, pouring any juices from the foil package into the jug with the basting liquid. Rest the unwrapped ribs back on to the grill bars, without the tray this time, away from the fire. Brush the honey and pepper baste all over the ribs and shut the lid. Every 10 minutes or so, lift the lid and baste again, turning the ribs over each time so you can brush all over. Keep basting and turning for a further hour, shutting the lid in between.
- Once the cooking time is up, lift the ribs on to another large sheet of foil on a tray and wrap tightly. Cover with a few clean tea towels and then leave the meat to rest – an hour is ideal.
- To serve, carve down between the rib bones to separate into individual pieces and sprinkle over the gremolata. Serve alongside traditional barbecue accompaniments such as potato salad or a herby slaw.
Pepper, courgette and paneer skewers with date and tamarind chutney
Paneer takes the flavour of spices really well, and when it has been cooked, it has a similar texture to halloumi.
There are a couple of rules to remember with vegetable kebabs. It helps to cut everything to a similar size, so each piece gets even contact with the grill. Begin with the ingredient that has a fixed size – here the diameter of the courgette discs – and cut everything else to match. Either choose vegetables that have a similar grilling time or skewer each type of vegetable separately.
The recipe makes more chutney than you will need for this dish, but it is ridiculously tasty with all sorts of things and keeps for up to six weeks in the fridge. I really like it dolloped on to cheese on toast or simple grilled chicken.
You’ll need 4-6 skewers for this recipe.
Prep time: 30 minutes, plus 2-24 hours of marinating time
Cook time: 25 minutes
Four to six
For the skewers
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp ground turmeric
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1-2 tsp chilli flakes (or to taste)
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed to a paste
- 1 large courgette, sliced into 1cm discs
- 2 red peppers, cut into pieces a similar size to the courgette discs
- 600g paneer, cut into pieces a similar size to the courgette discs
For the chutney
- 2 tbsp cumin seeds
- 250g pitted dates, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp tamarind paste
- 1-2 tsp chilli flakes
- Leaves from a few sprigs of fresh mint
- For the marinade, squeeze the lemon juice into a mixing bowl. Stir in the oil, turmeric, cinnamon, chilli flakes and garlic. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Add the courgette, pepper and paneer, and toss to coat in the spicy marinade. Thread the pieces alternately on to skewers and set aside. Pour over any remaining marinade, then cover before sliding into the fridge to marinate for 2-24 hours.
- To make the chutney, tip the cumin seeds into a small saucepan and set over medium heat to toast for a couple of minutes.
- Pour into a pestle and mortar and roughly grind, then return to the pan along with the dates, tamarind and chilli flakes. Season with salt and black pepper.
- Pour over 500ml boiling water and set over a medium heat to simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the dates are super-soft.
- Purée to a smooth paste, either in a mini blender or with a stick blender in the pan. Transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.
- When you are ready to cook the skewers, fire up the barbecue ready for direct and indirect grilling (see intro). Rest the skewers over the fire and grill for a few minutes on each side until the paneer is crisp and the vegetables are tender.
- Paneer can stick a little, so if you find yours is stuck, leave for another minute or so before trying to turn again – sometimes food needs more time to develop a ‘crust’ before you try to turn it.
- If the skewers are burning, slide them further away from the fire to reduce the heat.
- Transfer the skewers to a plate and scatter over the mint leaves just before serving with the chutney.
Genevieve Taylor (@genevieveeats) is the author of 11 cookbooks
Read last week's column: Diana Henry's recipes that bring the best out of summer apricots