How to get the best from your barbecue
By Victoria Pearson
From getting your charcoal lit to cooking the perfect steak, we've got plenty to tips to help you get the best from your barbecue.
How to barbecue
Cooking food on a barbecue is the perfect way to enjoy alfresco cooking and dining. This guide reveals how to cook on charcoal and gas versions, and our top tips for cooking a tasty barbecue feast.
If you simply want to see which are the best barbecues for grilling great-tasting food, head straight to our barbecue reviews.
How to light a charcoal BBQ
Pile the charcoal into a mound under the centre of the grill, placing a few firelighters at easy-to-reach points. Light the charcoal and open the vents in the basin - this will allow air to circulate, which will help the fire to burn hotter.
Leave the charcoal to burn for around 20-30 minutes, or until the flame has died and the charcoal is glowing and covered in a layer of white ash.
Use a metal rake or pair of tongs to spread the coals evenly across the charcoal grate – this will help deliver an even heat across the grill above.
Cooking on a charcoal barbecue
Close the vents and place food at the centre of the grill. Start with items that will take the longest to cook, such as chicken pieces. Grill meat – turning it continuously – until it has browned evenly.
If the barbecue has a hood, move food to the edges of the grill and put the hood on. This traps heat inside and helps cook food all the way through. It will also help food cook more quickly.
Exact cooking times will vary depending on the food you’re cooking and how much heat your barbecue generates. As a rough guide, sausages and burgers will need around five minutes to cook through; chunkier meat, such as chicken thighs, will need about 10 minutes and larger cuts and joints of meat will take 20 minutes or longer.
Barbecues without hoods may have height-adjustable grills, which allow you to adjust the cooking temperature. You can move the grill towards the charcoal for more heat, or move it away to lower the temperature.
Top charcoal cooking tips
- Use the vents to control the heat levels while you’re cooking. Close the vents to reduce the heat and open them to make coals burn hotter.
- Wait for the flames to die down before you start cooking. Flames will singe food, causing it to burn at the edges before it’s cooked through.
- Set up your barbecue in a spot that’s shielded from wind – this will make it easier to light and moderate heat levels. Some hooded models let you hang the hood from the side of the basin while you’re grilling – where it doubles-up as a handy windshield.
- Add wood chips, such as oak or hickory, to smouldering charcoal – this will subtly flavour food. Fruit-wood chips, such as apple wood, can also add a delicious flavour.
We've tested a lot of charcoal barbecues in our time. To find out which are the best, visit our list of Best Buy barbecues.
How to barbecue over gas
Light the burners and turn them up to full power. If there’s a hood, close it – this will help the barbecue heat up more quickly.
The temperature needs to reach 200-250°C before you start cooking. Depending on how powerful the barbecue is and whether or not it has a hood, it will take around 5-10 minutes to heat up.
Turn the heat down a little and place food at the centre of the grill. Cook meat until it has browned evenly on all sides, then lower the heat and close the hood to help the food cook through.
Top gas barbecue tips
- Some gas models come with lava rocks – these vaporise meat and marinade juices dripping from the grill, which produces smoke that infuses food with a deliciously chargrilled flavour.
- Choose a powerful gas barbecue that can generate a high heat so food cooks through quickly. This will help meat retain its moisture and flavour.
- Warming racks on gas barbecues are ideal for resting quick-cooking food away from the heat while meat is finishing off on the grill.
If you want to buy a gas grill, visit our list of Best Buy barbecues to find the best one for your budget.
Choosing and preparing barbecue food
Sausages, burgers, steak, fish, vegetables… you can cook anything on a barbecue. You can even roast a whole chicken on a charcoal kettle.
Rump steak is a great choice for the barbecue – it’s juicy, tender and cheaper than fillet. Or look for tasty and inexpensive skirt steak at your butchers – but marinade it first to soften it.
If you want to barbecue larger cuts of meat, choose a powerful barbecue with a hood – you’ll need this for meat to cook all the way through to its centre. Butterfly chunkier pieces of meat to make them flatter and thinner – this will help them cook more quickly, which will help them stay tender. You can usually ask a butcher to do this for you.
Season unmarinated meat with salt and pepper to enhance the chargrilled flavour. It’s best to season just before you start cooking – if you do it too far beforehand it will dry the meat out.
Ready-made marinades often contain a lot of sugar - this caramelises to add a lovely flavour, but will quickly cause food to burn at the edges, so you’ll need to keep an eye on it on the grill.
Choose acidic marinades, as these will naturally tenderise meat. Look for recipes containing papaya - this fruit is one of the best tenderisers around.
Five tips for cooking the perfect barbecued steak
Chef Ryan Simpson, of Orwells restaurant in Shiplake near Henley on Thames, gives us his top five tips for cooking the perfect steak on a barbecue.
- Natural charcoal gives an authentic barbecue taste to the meat you're cooking. Using natural barbecue lighters will help to avoid leaving a chemical taste on the food you cook.
- Look for a dry-aged steak – the ageing enhances the flavour - and go for a thick steak, which will be harder to overcook. Also look for steak with a good amount of fat marbling through it - the fat will melt during cooking to carry the flavour through the steak.
- Don’t be scared of seasoning – salt and pepper can really bring out the flavour of the steak. Sprinkling flaked sea salt and white pepper - more subtle than black pepper - onto a steak marinated in olive oil is best.
- Look for an even colour on both sides of the steak, and touch your steak as it cooks to determine how well cooked it is. A steak that compresses easily when you touch it is rare, a steak with a bit of resistance is medium rare and a steak that resists being compressed at all is well done.
- Rest your cooked steaks on a perforated tray after cooking for six to eight minutes. Trays like this are ideal because no residual heat is locked underneath and the air can flow around the meat, allowing it to relax and the juices to flow back into the meat.
Whether you’re cooking over gas or charcoal, make sure that pork, kebabs, chicken and anything made from minced meat – such as sausages and burgers – is cooked all the way through before you eat it.
Check that there are no pink sections of meat in the centre or near the bone, and that meat juices are clear. Remember that charred meat may look cooked, but it can still be underdone in the middle.