Collecting sticks for a backyard barbecue is a common childhood memory, when outdoor cooking meant watching your dad build up a roaring fire and then waiting for it to die down to hot coals before throwing on some fat, pink sausages. Impatience and overzealous cooking meant most of us got used to eating well-blackened food, rehydrated with copious amounts of tomato sauce. But we loved it all the same, as food cooked outdoors is special, not just because of what it tastes like but thanks to the whole experience.
Working out what you need
While 21st century barbecues have become increasingly high-tech, it’s important to keep the essence of that experience, even if the food of choice is now chilli and ginger prawns, tepanyaki or roasted Mediterranean vegetables. There’s not much point in just replicating what can happen indoors in a kitchen just a few metres away, so don’t do away with smoke and sizzle — food should taste like it’s been on a barbecue.
Choosing a barbecue is a complicated business. Ranging in price from less than $100 to a real investment at $8000, there are lots of decision points, including fuel, size, materials, design, cooking style, cleaning and add-ons. There are as many opinions about what makes the best barbecue as there are barbecue cooks and many swear by their small, inexpensive models (there are lots of online forums to read).
Start with the right environment, including a level, non-slip floor, good ventilation, protection from wind, adequate lighting and a way to exclude young children, as more than a quarter of toddler burns at home are from barbecues. Next, look at sealing pavers, stone, timber and concrete to protect them from staining by dripping oil, grease and wine-based marinades. To make preparing and serving food easier, make sure there’s at least 500mm x 500mm of nearby bench space.
Solid fuels such as wood, charcoal and briquettes give a very traditional barbecue experience, but can’t be used on fire ban days or when you’re living in close quarters, such as in an apartment or townhouse. Charcoal hibachis are small, portable barbecues that are perfect for satay, kebabs and hamburgers, although they take a bit of practise to get the heat right. Look for a good-quality cast-iron version (rather than aluminium) with adjustable grill height and vents.
Kettle barbecues start at about $300 and are designed for charcoal or briquettes, which are easy to light (especially with starter beads) and achieve a high temperature. Although they can be used for open grilling, the kettle barbecue really comes into its own for slow roasting. Look for models with a lid hanger (as there’s never anywhere to put it), a closed-in ash-catcher and a flip-up grill so it’s easier to add more fuel.
The convenience of gas
If you’ve decided solid fuel is impractical, gas is the obvious answer. The first decision point is portable or built-in. A moveable gas barbecue lets you take advantage of better conditions in different parts of your outdoor area or even around the garden. Small, tabletop models are light enough to go on picnics, too, and are practical for balconies and courtyards or you can have a bigger trolley type. Have at least two LPG bottles so you don’t run out mid-sausage and you will probably need an extra table or bench, as most trolleys only have small attached side shelves. Using a natural gas bayonet attachment means you’ll never run out and it’s the ideal fuel for the new-style island barbecues, which make it much easier for the tong-master to chat with the guests. Many barbecues need a convertor kit to use natural gas rather than LPG.
Choosing the right material
As barbecues are made in several materials, including different combinations for the body, burners, grill, plate and flame tamers. Baked enamel bodies discolour over time and will rust if damaged and, although cast-iron cooking parts work well, they need to be protected and can be difficult to clean. Vitreous enamelled steel is more expensive, but easier to wipe clean. Top line barbecues have stainless steel for the burners, flame tamers, grills and hotplates. Stainless steel is easy to clean and an excellent heat conductor, so it gives an even heat across the cooking surface.
Unless you entertain a lot or have a large family, four burners is an adequate cooking area. Rather than buying bigger, spend your money on better materials, having natural gas plumbed in, or on the barbecue surrounds such as quality bench space, a few cupboards or drawers and even a small sink. Most gas barbecue cooks prefer a combination of grill and hotplate for the cooking surface. Grills let fat drip through and are good for larger pieces of meat and getting a real barbecue flavour. Hotplates are useful for searing meat, cooking smaller pieces such as sliced onion that would fall through a grill and wet food like marinaded meats or eggs.
Flame tamers and ignition
Flame tamers help spread burner heat more evenly, so you’re not always pushing meat around trying to find the hot spot, and are an essential part of developing that rich, smoky barbecue flavour. Juices drip down out of the meat as it cooks onto the hot flame tamer and then vaporise, sending up flavoursome smoke to envelop the food. However, it’s important that fat and juices don’t ignite, causing flare-ups that blacken the meat.
Traditionally, barbecues used volcanic rock but current models have flame tamers made from ceramic perforated tile or briquettes, ceramic-coated cast-iron or stainless steel.
Most barbecues have a piezo ignition system. Some have this on just one burner, so you have to light it to then ignite the others, while top-line models have one for each burner. Ignition systems can fail if they become covered with grease and dirt, so make sure the barbecue can be manually lit. Range of optional extras
Gas barbecues come with many add-ons, such as side burners, wok burners, roasting hoods, rotisseries, smokers and warming shelves. Roasting hoods let you cook with surrounding rather than directly applied heat. Better versions include a thermometer so you can keep the roasting temperature stable, and a heat-proof glass window, so you don’t need to lift the lid to check your meat.
If you want a rotisserie, look for a 240V rather than battery-operated model and check it can take the weight of larger joint, as some will start to bow with more than a 3kg load. Opinion is divided on having a side burner. If you’re a real gourmet who wants to do sauces it’s a useful extra, but others feel it reduces valuable bench area. Wok burners need a higher output, such as 18Mj (rather than 12–14Mj) to produce enough heat.
Before you buy an expensive barbecue, visit the showroom on a demonstration day so you can see it in action, including the clean-up.