A great barbecue is sensational. House of Cards devoted an entire plotline to Kevin Spacey’s love of the smoky stuff. Anthony Bourdain has never knowingly given a pork-filled roasting pit a miss. Fortunes have been won and lost on the secret of sauces, rubs and smoke. And several US states would be prepared to start another civil war to defend their title as ‘Barbecue Capital of the Entire Known Universe’.
Ever since the UK discovered the joys of al fresco eating, and patios with bi-fold doors (and these don’t have to be expensive) and vast umbrellas made us less weather-dependant, we’ve been barbecuing here too. But we’re not nearly as skilled in the art as our American counterparts.
This summer, there’s a high chance you’ll find yourself standing in someone’s garden while a man in a novelty apron attempts to incinerate the contents of a small butcher’s shop. He’ll be surrounded by several other men clutching beer bottles and offering encouragement and advice. You’ll wait at least three hours for the first sausages to roll off the grill. And, unless you are spectacularly blessed, they’ll be charred on the outside, raw in the middle and taste very faintly of accelerant.
It doesn’t need to be this way. Like most things, successful barbecues can be broken down into a few basics.
Choose delicious over drama
Unless you’re barbecue king at the Louisiana State Fair, don’t overcomplicate the cooking. The secret is to buy plenty of two or three options, choose really good quality meat, be inventive with marinades and rubs and don’t forget vegetarians. Prep all your meat the night before and leave it in the fridge until you’re almost ready to cook. And don’t experiment too much. If you haven’t barbecued venison burgers before, now is not the time. Check out this Pinterest board BBQ Favourites for inspiration.
Scrub your cooking grill with a wire brush and seal with a light coating of vegetable oil for a non-stick surface. Make sure you have more charcoal than you think you’ll need. Set up a small worktable next to the barbecue for utensils and food and seasoning. Don’t forget a large serving plate so you can let meat sit and rest for a few minutes after grilling – cover it with a loose, tinfoil tent. And, if you must use accelerant, opt for low-odour.
Add interest with side-dishes
Simple and succulent on the barbecue and clever with the sides is a foolproof plan. Make bright, summery salads with different lettuce varieties for colour and texture. Finely chop herbs for sprinkling. Create a few original dressings and be a bit bold with flavours and heat. Potatoes, rice and couscous are great basics – leave some plain for guests to do their own thing with mayonnaise, chives, parsley and the like. Over-buy fantastic, fresh bread. And remember it’s summer, so focus on fresh fruit for desserts and avoid anything that needs eaten instantly.
Set the scene
The biggest barbecue fail is getting caught up in cooking and forgetting it’s a party. Organise seats so people naturally gather together. If it’s day to night, don’t forget lights and candles. In the evening you might consider a few citronella oil torches to ward off midges. Make a generous playlist with something for everyone and keep it playing. And, because things always take longer than planned, have a few pre-barbecue snacks laid out so guests don’t drink on an empty stomach.
People don’t mind waiting a bit for your legendary pulled-pork sandwich if they’ve got something else to do. Bigger gardens are ideal for setting up a makeshift net and organising badminton or volleyball (use the lightweight water volleyballs) tournaments. Children are always up for races and treasure hunts. And, after a few drinks, everyone likes a silly quiz – put movie theme tunes on your playlist and get guests guessing, it’s cheesy but great fun.
Mix your drinks
Bottled beer in big coolers of ice is barbecue standard. But it’s surprising how many hosts forget to stock up on chilled water and fruit juice for non-drinkers and designated drivers, don’t be that person. And if you want to try a light, summery cocktail you could do worse than go for Sangria – there dozens of variations, so feel free to add your own twist to the Spanish classic.
Don’t overdo the grilling
Tender, beautifully marinated meat doesn’t need much work on the barbecue. The trick is to turn once to seal the juices and turn again to sear. Any more than that and you’re cooking leather. Burgers and sausages should be cooked through. If you find this hard to gauge, pre-cook in the kitchen and quickly grill on the barbecue for smoky flavour. Skewered vegetables and fish are done in minutes so watch them carefully. And don’t forget to leave steaks and chops to rest for a few minutes before serving.