Who needs the sun to have a barbecue summer? Not us Brits, that's for sure given the soaring number of restaurants specialising in ribs, racks and rumps. But how can we ensure a healthy plate of food, cooked safely, without harming the environment, or costing a fortune? Read on...
Barbecue lovers fall into two opposing camps. Firmly opposing camps. The "How-can-you-use-anything-other-than charcoal?" purists are in the majority, with two-thirds of Brits opting for charcoal as fuel, according to research for manufacturers Weber. Coals definitely provide that smoky tang, provided you've opted for pure charcoal, rather than briquettes, which are doused with firelighter solutions that can taint your food.
It's on eco grounds that the picture gets a bit murkier. Gas-powered grills win out when it comes to carbon emissions: stats produced by the US Department of Energy (our own Defra is above such matters, apparently) show that propane-powered barbecues produce 5.6lbs (2.5kg) of carbon dioxide per hour. You can double that for charcoal, which also emits nitrous oxides, soot, and various volatile organic compounds. Not to mention that most charcoal is imported, some from countries guilty of unsustainable logging. Briquettes are produced using an energy-intensive process of pulverising and repeated baking. But gas is a fossil fuel, so provided you shop for your coals sensibly you could make a case for charcoal. Tom Adams, the man behind barbecue supremos Pitt Cue Co, sources his from the London Log Company. The Big Green Egg also sells sustainable pure charcoal.
To cook on, the serious money has to be on a smoker: there's no better way to get that intense smoky flavour. And we are talking serious money. A large Big Green Egg (a covered barbecue-like smoker that can be used indoors, beloved by chefs such as Michelin-starred Simon Rogan and John Salt's Neil Rankin) is quite the investment at £799. For that, you'll be able to cook a 20lb turkey. Or there's Weber's Smokey Mountain Cooker, which seems almost cheap in comparison at £339.
Sure, it's easy to chuck a burger, or even a steak if you're splashing out, on the grill, but there are other things to barbecue. Not only does fish make a tasty alternative, but, whisper it, even hard-core barbecue enthusiasts such as Adams rate grilling the odd vegetable or two. Five of the six side-dishes at his restaurant in London's Soho are vegetarian, ranging from little gem lettuce and courgettes to broccoli and even cabbage. Veggie-wise, the new Pitt Cue Co Cookbook includes recipes for "Burnt leeks with anchovy hollandaise" and "Burnt tomatoes and shallots on toast". "Burnt", in this context, means delightfully charred, rather than incinerated.
There's also the issue of greenhouse gas emissions caused by raising the cattle to get that beefburger in the first place. Swap burgers for something like Portobello mushrooms (leave whole and stuff with lemon, basil and feta, or garlic and mozzarella) and you can light those coals with a much clearer conscience. If you're going down the pescetarian route, then opt for something more sustainable than a tuna steak. Think mackerel, sardines, squid, gurnard, or even cuttlefish.
The health factor
You'd think it couldn't come much healthier than a piece of grilled meat. And yet, barbecues come with a whole range of health warnings, from causing cancer to being riddled with germs: one recent study claimed your average barbecue grill contains twice as many microbes as a lavatory seat. Not to mention the risk of salmonella from that clichéd undercooked chicken thigh.
Everything hinges on how you use your coals. Patience is key to avoid burning your offerings, which is where the danger lies. Wait for the flames to die down and the coals to cool slightly, because it's when food like meat is cooked over high temperatures or touches the flames that carcinogenic compounds (heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, to be precise) can form. Another tip is to marinate your meat or poultry in some sort of olive oil and lemon juice combination. These two ingredients reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds by up to 99 per cent.
Dads, look away now; or rather, don't. Barbecuing is not, repeat not, about blasting the hell out of a cheap packet of bangers and singeing a burger or two. Rather, it's about taking your time. Serious amounts of time, according to the pros. Like 10 hours minimum, which is somewhat tricky to pull off in an afternoon, but can be achieved using a smoker – and planning ahead. Richard Turner, executive chef at the meatfest that is the Hawksmoor restaurant chain, says the best results come from cooking food slowly over indirect heat at between 75C and 110C. "You tend it, and love it, and care for it. And 10 hours later you've got something to die for."
If you just can't wait that long, then Weber advocates managing your heat, by putting the right amount of charcoal on in the first place and keeping the lid on while cooking, which turns the barbecue into a mini fan oven. You should also avoid fiddling with your chops: sear each side over the hot middle bit, before sliding it over to the cooler edge to finish cooking.
To put it simply: barbecues are hot. So hot that this summer, that London will play host to the UK's first Meatopia barbecue festival, thanks to Richard Turner's decision to give Brits a taste of the Stateside extravaganza. The focus will be on Texan-style grilling, with Aaron Franklin, from Austin's famed Franklin Barbecue, arriving to start smoking his brisket a good 15 hours before the event kicks off on 7 September. Meatopia follows Grillstock, which started in Bristol three years ago. All that, plus pop-ups like Sam Daffin's BBQ Whisky Beer at London's Wargrave Arms or specialists like John Hargate's Brighton-based BBQ Shack, mean it's clearly going to be a barbecue summer regardless of the weather.
Asian-inspired barbecue pork neck
Here's a recipe from cafe ODE in Shaldon, Devon, 2013's "Sustainable Restaurant of the Year". At the prestigious Grillstock BBQ festival in Bristol this year, its team came third in the dessert class and fourth in the pulled pork category. This simple, Asian-inspired recipe can be adapted to suit almost any type of meat or fish.
500g pork neck cut into strips; 125ml tamari soy; 50ml cider vinegar; 75ml rice wine or sherry; 30ml honey; 20ml hoi sin sauce; 10ml sesame oil; 10g garlic; 10g ginger; 5g coriander; orange peel; 10g five-spice powder (anise, clove, cinnamon, fennel seed and peppercorns)
Method Crush the garlic, ginger, coriander and orange peel with a pestle and mortar or pulse in a food processor. Add all the remaining ingredients, mix and transfer to a bowl.
Add pork strips and mix thoroughly. Marinate overnight. Drain and place on to the barbecue, cook for 3–4 minutes each side, basting continuously with the marinade and using tongs to turn.
Rain Plan (a barbecue recipe requirement in the UK)
Alternatively, you can roast in an oven on a rack 220C for 15 minutes each side. You can also try this recipe with fish, mackerel being a great example. Fillet the fish leaving the skin on and place in marinade for 30 minutes. Cook skin side down for 3-4 minutes, again basting often.