Don't go for the burn: the fine art of the barbecue

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As supermarkets sell bangers by the million, Christopher Hirst discovers how to avoid the perils and become king of the grill

With the first warm Bank Holiday of the year, an urge comes over the male of the human species, particularly if he happens to be English. Forgetting the debacles of previous years, he again embarks on a perilous exercise intended to elicit the envy of males and the cooing praise of females. In spring, a young man's fancy turns to barbecue.

Everyone's does. Supermarkets are reporting soaring sales of barbecues and related products. Over the next two days, Tesco expects to sell: a million bags of charcoal; 250,000 chicken wings, drums and thighs; 3.5 million sausages; 12 million bottles and cans of beer; and 600,000 tubs of ice cream.

Homebase has reported a 20 per cent rise in demand for barbecues since the same time last year, while John Lewis has seen sales rise by 90 per cent in the past week. Waitrose is expecting sales of its barbecues to be up by 25 per cent on last Easter. And Homebase expects to sell enough gas this week "to fuel 300,000 barbecues".

But it's the men who are particularly susceptible. (In a recent survey by B&Q, more than 80 per cent of couples said that the man of the house was in charge of the barbecue.) Even if they never produce anything more demanding than a boiled egg in the kitchen, most men fancy themselves as naturals at outdoor cooking. It might be the last remnant of the hunter-gatherer instinct. With the arrival of the warm weather, this caveman-in-a-pinny is overcome by a primeval instinct to raid his butcher for sausages and hamburgers. Consequently, billowing clouds of hydrocarbon-scented smoke rise from backyards throughout the land.

Soon after the flames die down, the sorry consequences of this culinary cockiness are presented to guests who have been well primed with Bloody Marys or lager. Swathed in a stodgy bun, the burnt offerings are consumed with relish, literally and metaphorically. The barbecue is a licence for indulgence. With our appetites whetted by fresh air and alcohol, we tend to consume far more than we would indoors. According to a nutritional study produced last year, the average barbecue diner eats more than 3,000 calories. For women, this is the recommended intake for a day and a half.

Our barbecues tend to be greasy, meaty and greedy, but there is no reason why this has to be.

The main rule with a charcoal barbecue is: don't rush. Contrary to popular belief, it is not fast food. You don't just wait for the flames to disappear before cooking. Only when the charcoal has entirely turned to grey ash do you apply meat to grill. Moreover, the meat does not have to be hamburger, sausage and (ugh!) chicken legs.

The spectacle of a barbecue limited to these well-tried favourites makes this guest plan an early retreat from the festivities so he can tuck into something tastier at home.

We should take a tip from the Bedouin, who eat nothing but barbecue, and grab some lamb. Lamb ribs or chops marinaded in olive oil and lemon are among the best of all barbecue foods. If you are lucky enough to live near a Turkish supermarket, where traditional butchery skills are still practiced, the butcher will even bisect the standard chop to produce perfect finger food. You might as well pick up a variety of lamb kebabs (far better than dubious hamburgers or rusk-packed sausages) and kidneys while you're there.

In his barbecue book Food from Fire, Charles Campion even has an excellent recipe for chicken livers, which you can buy frozen at the supermarket. Marinade a dozen plump livers in a splash of port with two chopped garlic cloves for 12-18 hours. Strip leaves from 12 rosemary twigs, leaving a tuft at the end and skewer livers on twigs. Place on a sheet of foil and cook over a barbecue for six minutes, turning often. Brush with molten butter, season and serve. They should be pink in the middle when you bite into them.

But there is no law that a barbecue should be entirely meat. Barbecued sardines is the default snack of the Portuguese. When the oiliness of the fish is cut by a squeeze of lemon, there are few finer outdoor meals. You can also go for scallops, prawns and, given deep enough pockets, halibut steak. If you happen to have a perforated cooking vessel, you can even do shellfish over the barbecue. Imbued with a tang of smoke, they never taste better. The clambake is the great festive feast of seaboard America. Here, mussels are cheaper, more readily available and work equally well.

Brushed with oil and lemon and cooked until their skin festers and blackens, vegetables are sensationally transformed on the barbecue. Courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, onions and par-boiled potatoes are the equal in flavour of pricy protein.

But what kind of grill do you use? When any two reasonably proficient barbequers meet, it is only a matter of moments before they are either heartily agreeing or at each other's throat. There is one great divide in this mode of cooking: charcoal or gas. When I started barbecuing, I used a Japanese grill called a hibachi. It is simply a tray for hot charcoal that allows a wooden-handled grill that can be set at varying levels above the heat. Jolly good it is too for simple grilling, though it tends to corrode rapidly (especially if you forget to bring it indoors for winter), prompting the acquisition of a new hibachi on an annual basis.

In time, I traded up to an enamel kettle made by the Illinois-based company Weber, which dominates the barbecue market like a smoky colossus. This also worked excellently. Better still, it can be used for roasts as well as direct grilling.

So why did I trade up again to gas, a mode of cooking that I heartily urge on anyone serious about barbecuing? The answer is simple: time. With a gas barbecue, outdoor cooking becomes the fast food that once-a-year show-offs believe it to be. Last night, when a chilly sea fret or fog afflicted our part of the Yorkshire coast while the rest of the country was basking in sunshine, I barbecued crabcakes and tomatoes for a near-instant supper. It was as delicious as it was spontaneous.

But this canned heat is regarded as anathema by hardcore barbecue fans. "Good God, no," says the food writer Tom Parker Bowles. "How can you? Barbecuing is all about getting the marvellous smokiness from the charcoal. Without charcoal, you don't get the smokiness."

Others disagree. Charles Campion says the only thing you miss by using gas is the long wait while the charcoal first catches fire then heats to the grey ash phase. By this stage, there is no smoke rising from the charcoal, hence no smoky flavour. The smoky flavour comes from fat falling from the meat on the coals or the oily marinade dripping from fish or vegetables.

Gas is not only fast, it is adjustable. If you're cooking a large meal on a charcoal grill, you will probably have to replenish the fuel at some stage and wait for it to turn white. With gas, you just turn a knob. This is particularly useful in a country of unpredictable weather. Changes in ambient temperature, whether caused by changing meteorology or nightfall, can have a dramatic effect on cooking times. Food that cooks in a trice at mid-day can test ones patience to the breaking point on a cool night.

It is patience, along with a bit of experience and some adventurous shopping, that is the key to a successful barbecue.

But there's one other thing to bear in mind. Men are not naturally gifted at barbecue. Like any other branch of cooking, you need to learn how to do it. In our family, it is my wife who usually wields the spatula and tongs when it comes to the outdoor feast. Except for crabcakes, of course. I can manage those.

Ten sizzling barbecue tips

1. If using charcoal, wait for it to change to grey ash before you start cooking.

2. With chops, fish and vegetables, marinate your food in olive oil and lemon juice before cooking.

3. Do not over-season. We tend to use far too much salt in barbecues.

4. Do not overcook, especially meat. If the juice flows clear when you push a skewer into cooked meat, it is done.

5. Squirt lemon juice as a tasty lubricant on food while cooking. Plastic bottles of lemon juice are the cheapest.

6. Follow the recipes of culinary specialists in barbecue: Turkish, Iberian, North African.

7. Invest in a decent barbecue rather than buy an endless series of disposable trays.

8. Remember, it is not obligatory to cook meat at your barbecue.

9. With a gas barbecue, you don't have to restrict outdoor cooking to high-temperature days and holidays.

10. Don't drink too much. The cook does not have to be marinated along with the food.

The ultimate gourmet grill? Mark Hix's barbecued lobster

When you barbecue lobster you're guaranteed that "wow" factor. Russian salad is a bit of a thing of the past and always used to look like it had been made with frozen mixed vegetables, but it needn't. You can use whatever seasonal vegetables you have at hand for this recipe.

2 lobsters weighing about 500-600g each

Vegetable or corn oil, for brushing

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 lemon, quartered, to serve

For the Russian salad

2-3 thick spears of asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1cm dice

12-14 green beans, trimmed and cut into 1cm pieces

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

5-6cm cucumber, diced, with seeds scooped out

2 spring onions, chopped

6 large radishes, washed and diced

4-5 medium-sized new potatoes, cooked in their skins, peeled and diced

4-6tbsp good-quality mayonnaise

1tbsp chopped chives

1tbsp chopped parsley

If you're using live lobsters, kill them before boiling by rapidly cutting through the midline lengthways with a large sharp knife – it's kindest. Boil the lobster for 2-3 minutes, then drain and cool.

Cook the asparagus, beans and carrots in boiling salted water for a minute, then drain and cool. Mix with the rest of the ingredients and season to taste.

With a heavy knife, cut the lobster in half down the centre and crack the claws a few times with the back of the knife. Brush with oil, season and grill for 5 minutes on each side. Serve with the lemon and the salad on the plate or separately.

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