July is finally here and that means that Summer has well and truly arrived and for a lot of people this means getting the barbecue out and burning some burgers. The barbecue is an icon of summer, and for good reason, but it is capable of so much more than burning burgers and the occasional saugage!
The first step to becoming a barbecue master is to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals, so that is where we are going to start. Today we are going to talk about lighting a barbecue and correctly maintaining and controlling the heat. Understanding the types of heat you can get from a barbecue and how to achieve them is what can really separate the pros from the amateurs. So this Summer why not impress your guests and instead of burning some burgers why not roast a whole chicken on the barbecue, and have your Sunday lunch out on the patio!
Gas or Charcoal?
Most gas barbecues can replicate the smell and taste of a charcoal barbecue brilliantly; the use of lava rocks and drip trays impart a brilliant smoky flavour into food. The main pros to gas barbecues are that they light instantly, the heat is easily manageable and predictable, and you don’t need to worry about replenishing charcoal every 30 mins. Gas is a perfect choice for catering for larger parties.
Charcoal barbecues have a certain authenticity about them, there is something primal about making, and then cooking, over a fire and the smokey flavour is instantly recognisable. Of course the downsides are they are much less predictable than gas, and it can be awkward to add charcoal to an already lit barbecue to extend cooking time.
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Difference between lumpwood and charcoal
Lump-wood charcoal is essentially pure burned wood. The easiest identifier is that quite simply it looks like burnt wood. It comes in an assortment of sizes within each bag and is not uniform in shape. This reaches a cooking temperature quicker than briquettes will and will not create much smoke. The downside however is that they will not provide heat for as long as briquettes.
Briquettes are compressed black bundles of sawdust and coal along with some binders and fillers. They are generally square in shape and are usually very uniform. These will not burn as hot as lump-wood but they do provide a predictable and even heat. 80 – 100 briquettes will generally last about 1 hour.
How to light a charcoal barbecue
The easiest and most foolproof way to light a charcoal barbecue is to use a chimney starter. These are simple to use, are guaranteed to light, and remove the need for using any liquids or gels to start your fire. A chimney starter is a metal cylinder with holes cut along the bottom, it has a wire rack inside dividing the area in two parts, and a handle on the outside to hold it safely.
- Place your charcoal into the top of the chimney, right to the top but not overflowing.
- Scrunch up 3 – 4 sheets of newspaper (not glossy paper) and place into the bottom of the chimney
- Place the chimney into your barbecue on the lower grill
- Light the newspaper using a match or gas lighter
- Leave to burn for 20-30 mins
- Once the coals are white, and there is no more flame, you can tip them into your barbecue
- Place the lid on the barbecue for 10 – 15 mins to allow the barbecue to preheat
The chimney starter is designed to suck hot air up from the bottom and circulate it through all the coals. This will light the coals much easier and quicker than using gels and liquids, and will not impart the chemical taste that some gels can leave on the coals.
How much Charcoal do I need to use?
A standard chimney starter will hold between 80 – 100 charcoal briquettes. If you have a standard 56 cm (22.5 in) kettle barbecue, this is enough charcoal to spread in a single, tightly packed layer across 2/3 of a charcoal grate. This will provide good cooking heat for about 45 mins and low heat for another 15 mins. This is generally enough to cook for 4 – 6 people. If you will need more cooking time then you will need to add more coals there are two ways this could be done.
1. If you want to do two rounds of cooking then lighting a second batch of charcoal in the chimney starter is the easiest option. You would use this option if you wanted to cook for everyone, take a break to eat together, and then resume cooking for a second batch of food. Lighting the chimney starter as you start to eat will have the coals ready for when you have finished eating.
2. If you need to cook steadily over a longer period of time, say for a large party where someone will always be manning the grill, then you will want to add some new charcoal briquettes to the burning ones roughly every 15 mins. Charcoal takes about 20 mins to reach its peak heat so this will provide you with steady high heat for a long time.
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How to light a gas barbecue
- Open the lid so the gas fumes don’t collect
- Open the valve on the gas tank and wait a moment for the gas to travel
- Turn on all the burners, setting them all to high
- Close the lid
- Preheat for 10 – 15 mins before cooking.
What to do if you smell gas
- Turn off all burners
- Close valve on tank
- Disconnect hose
- Wait a few minutes for the gas to disperse
- Check all the connections are secure
- Try again
- If you still smell gas, shut the barbecue down completely and contact the manufacturer
Direct and Indirect heat
There are two main cooking methods when it comes to barbecuing. Direct and indirect heat.
Direct heat: This is when food is placed on a grill directly above coals or a burner. This is great for smaller, tender pieces of food that cook quickly. It is best used for searing steaks, flattened chicken breasts, fish fillets, and most food which does not require long cooking times. It essentially sears the surface of the food (think of food you would cook in a very hot frying pan).
Indirect heat: This is when heat is only coming from one side of the barbecue and the food is placed over the unlit area. This provides the food with a lower level of heat and allows food to cook the whole way through without burning on the outside (think of food that would need to be cooked on a low frying pan or in an oven).
For charcoal: when you are placing your coals in your barbecue try to place them on only one portion of the grate. This will provide you with a direct heat area to sear and add a crust to all you food, and an indirect area to move food on to, where it can finish cooking without burning. Or pile the coals high on one end tricking down to coals in a single layer, and then an area with no coals. This will provide you with high, medium, and low heat areas.
For gas: Quite simply where the burners are on is your direct heat, where they are off is your indirect heat. For a 3 burner barbecue a good set up is the leftmost burner near max, the middle burner on low-med, and the rightmost ring on the lowest setting or off completely. This gives you high direct heat, medium direct heat, and a steady indirect heat.
Generally food will require a mix of both direct and indirect heat. Indirect heat is a great way to allow you to cook whole joints or chicken the whole way through without worrying about the outside burning. The food can either be seared first over direct heat and finished on indirect heat, or vice versa.
Always try to leave the lid closed on a barbecue as much as possible when using indirect heat as this will create an oven environment. Creating different cooking areas, and learning to keep the lid closed as much as possible, would be the two biggest tips that I could give to anyone trying to improve their barbecue skills.
How to judge the heat level
Most barbecues will have a thermometer built into the lid. This is the temperature of your barbecue if you were to use it as an oven (with the lid closed). So say if you wanted to roast a chicken, you would place the whole chicken above indirect heat, place the lid on the barbecue and just monitor the heat reading on the thermometer, and this will give the exact same cooking method as using an oven. If the temperature gets too hot reduce the burners on a gas bbq, on a charcoal bbq close the air vents slightly, or open the lid momentarily to allow some heat to escape. If the temperature starts getting too low simply do the reverse.
If you want to judge the heat level above one specific area of your grill then the lid thermometer will not give an accurate reading, but there is simple method to approximately gauge the temperature. Place your hand 12 cm (5 in ) from the coals and how long you can comfortably hold your hand there is a rough guide to the temperature.
2 – 4s means high heat approx. 230° – 290° C
5 – 7s means med heat approx. 180° – 230° C
8 – 10s means low heat approx. 130° – 180° C
Always practice safety when using this method. Never hold your hand above flaming coals, only white coals. Never hold your hand too close to the coals or for too long, and always have water nearby.
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How to use the air vents
Most barbecues will have an air vent at the bottom of the grill and the top of the lid. Generally the way vents work is the more air flowing in, the hotter the fire will be, the more the coals will need to be replenished.
The bottom vent should always be left open, this vent provides air to the coals to keep the fire lit. About once every hour you may need to move this vent back and forth to move any gathered ash and keep the air flowing.
To slow the rate of burn the top vent should be kept half closed and the lid kept on as much as is possible.
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If you want to be a real barbecue master then you need to remove all of the guesswork out of barbecuing. This will make you more inclined to barbecue more often, which can only be a good thing! The two most important things to know how to do are
- Start the fire and control the heat
- Know when food is safely cooked
Luckily for us there are two tools that can take all of the guesswork out of these for us!
Chimney starter – this will make lighting your barbecue easier and more straightforward. Being able to easily and consistently start a barbecue, and then create different heat areas is a big step to being a barbecue pro.
Instant read thermometer – this is a must have tool for any one looking to improve their bbq skills. It will help you to stop meat from overcooking (keep your medium steaks medium) and stop you from undercooking other meat (chicken).
Barbecues are a great way to cook all types of meat and vegetables, from small steaks to whole chickens, asparagus to whole butternut squash, but safety should always comes first. If the people you are cooking for are confident that the food you are cooking is cooked properly then everyone will be happier, more relaxed, and enjoy the barbecue more.