Keen on the taste of outdoor fare, but determined not to set fire to your trousers this time? Then read on ...
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Even People who would rather die than sleep in a tent like to eat alfresco, and who can resist the smoky flavour of barbecued meat, fish or vegetables? The only problem lies in the preparation. It's the spitting flames and billowing fumes associated with inept outdoor cooking, rather than the pleasures of barbecuing, which has led to the prejudice that tending the barbecue is the only form of cooking men will do; the job is simply foisted upon them.


We looked at both gas and charcoal barbecues. Interestingly, most manufacturers of gas barbecues insist that the desired smoky flavour is not actually a result of burning hardwoods, but of the food juices dripping down through the grill on to the heat source and being vaporised back through the food.

Unfortunately for all those who prefer the instant heat of gas cooking, this simply isn't true. In blind tastings of meat, fish and vegetables, whether burnt or undercooked, our panel could tell - without exception - whether the food had been cooked over charcoal or not. This means you don't have to splash out on an outdoor grill if you just like the taste of sausages burnt under the grill; you can cook them in your kitchen and then eat them outside.


Our panel consisted of experienced barbecuers - some better cooks than others. They were: Andrew Simpson, Donald Hudd, Andrew Purvis, Letitia Wright, Robert Farrant, Claire Blezard, Philippa Yeoman and Naomi Depeza.


pounds 6.95 for three

These instant barbecues from Asda were universally hailed by the panel as a light and "very convenient" way to barbecue food at a picnic without too much in the way of wasted packaging. Consisting of a foil tray with mesh grill they come ready filled with charcoal over which to cook the food. They worked out better than most similar examples, "because they contain more charcoal," said Letitia Wright. "Usually, they have so little in them that they go out before you've finished cooking. And these come with 15p off Heinz barbecue sauces. Marvellous - if you like that sort of thing."


pounds 99

This rather plain charcoal barbecue on wheels with a metal hood did not seem to provide "a great deal for your money" (Philippa Yeoman) at first, but then turned out to be surprisingly popular for one important reason: the food cooked on it tasted better than that cooked on any of the gas barbecues. "Of course, you get dirty with charcoal," said Andrew Purvis, looking at his blackened hands, "but that's half the fun of it." Furthermore, the Meco Swinger II has features which make it superior to others in its class: a unique tilting grid with wooden knobs outside the bottom pan means you can rescue food from too vicious flames; a raised metal fire-grate over an ash dump not only prevents the base of the barbecue getting burnt (a common barbecue problem), but helps prevent a filthy mess, since most charcoal barbecues allow the ash to drop straight through holes in the bottom on to the patio (greatly appreciated by the tester who ended up cleaning it); two adjustable vents that mean you can speed up the cooking or slow it down by controlling the flow of air; and closing the same vents once you've finished cooking puts the fire out and saves the charcoal for next time.


pounds 99

Physics graduate Andrew Simpson assembled the American, gas-powered Charbroil CB200, a Meccano-like exercise which took him just over an hour, while the tester in charge of the instant barbecues drank wine and made unhelpful comments. "Frankly," said Letitia Wright, "if I had bought this and taken it home and then found all these packets of screws and metal brackets to assemble, I would have to take it straight back to the shop." In its favour, this product is a robust and well-made outdoor gas grill - once you have managed to put it together. Lava rocks (small pieces of volcanic material) help spread the heat beneath the grill. It has a wheeled trolley and a glass panel in the lid which allows you to see the food cooking without getting smoke in your hair. The Charbroil also has two levels of grill: the lower grill is made easily accessible when the neat, oblong hood is lifted and automatically raises the upper grill. Claire Blezard praised it for being "perfectly efficient and compact." The general opinion of the panel was that if you prefer the sanitised form of gas barbecuing, then the Charbroil represents excellent value for money; it even comes with its own regulator to attach the gas bottle to, which is missing from most products and costs another pounds 10 or so when you go to buy the gas.


pounds 69, plus pounds 15 for tripod

This South African, portable barbecue ("braai" in Afrikaans) is not a grill, but a large, concave, vitreous enamel dish, similar to a wok. It looks like a space ship on a tripod and comes with its own natty black nylon carrying case. The tripod is not essential, but it lends stability and enables the Skottel Braai to be connected to a gas bottle with a flexible hose, rather than standing on the gas bottle with a single stem. Painted electric blue, it was thought "very cool" by designer Naomi Depeza and, more to the point, was assembled in five minutes - essential with a product which testers thought they would like to keep in the boot of the car for impromptu picnics. It cooks strips of fish and stir-fry vegetables very well, but if you wanted to grill things, you'd need to buy another version called the "Handi Braai".


pounds 375

The Australian-made, gas-powered, Sunshine Legend 4 was the biggest and visually most impressive barbecue that we tested, with its wheeled, polished wooden trolley and large griddle (on which you could cook drop scones and fry eggs for brunch parties) adjacent to the grill. Beneath the grill is a layer of lava rocks to distribute the heat evenly - close inspection revealed that the quality of these was slightly better than in, say, the Charbroil model. Yet despite a warning in the instructions that Australian barbecues are designed to cook more slowly than American versions, one tester found the lowest gas setting still too hot for his delicately marinated vegetables. Perhaps practice and unwavering attention is the key. Robert Farrant described it as "an old man's barbecue", but added that "at least you could invite all the grandchildren around without worrying about grilling space." It reminded Claire Blezard of the barbecue used in the embarrassing family party of Mike Leigh's film Secrets and Lies - in other words, deeply suburban.


pounds 38.50

This very unusual, rustic flower-pot of a barbecue is made entirely of terracotta by craftspeople in Burma - specific villages are identifiable by the engravings on the lid. A little like a tandoori clay oven, it was the overall winner in our survey. The one we tested was small (approximately 12in in diameter) and only grilled enough food for two people at a time, but a larger size is also available for pounds 68.50. "I absolutely love this," said Philippa Yeoman, speaking for us all. "I think I'll buy one and stand it on my balcony." Charcoals are placed at the bottom of the pot below a clay rack with holes; it was here, in the centre of the pot with the lid on, that we cooked roast lamb with garlic and rosemary yielding a delicious smoky flavour in less time than it would take in a conventional oven.

The Burmese barbecue looks so good, it could be left out in the garden as an aesthetic attraction. It comes with a selection of recipes developed by fans who bought the barbecue last year and sent their culinary ideas to Judy Green's Garden Store in north London. As Andrew Purvis remarked, "It could only happen in Hampstead."


Asda Instant Barbecues from branches of Asda nationwide; the Meco Swinger, Charbroil and Sunshine Legend from stores in the John Lewis Partnership; the Cadac Skottel Braai is available from some regional caravan and Calor Gas centres, or by mail, tel: 01704 878614; Burmese barbecue from Judy Green's Garden Store, tel: 0171 435 3832. !