Photo: Stefan Wagner, trumpkin.de
We’ve all enjoyed crispy black sausages with that soft pink centre from the hands of enthusiastic but inept barbecuers, and most of us have probably been responsible for our own crimes against cooking over coals – but there are a few sure-fire methods that guarantee success on the barbie. One of the best is done by turning the whole barbecue concept on its head and using it to roast rather than grill…
A few years ago, a friend cooked some burgers on a battered old kettle barbecue we’d found in the back garden of our rented house. They were fat and round, hand-made and juicy, but the way he cooked them was unlike anything I’d seen before – he put the lid back on the bbq during cooking! He claimed he was trying to reduce the temperature and cook them evenly from all round. I thought he was mad – reduce the temperature?! What about the roaring furnace heat that we all know is an essential part of barbecuing?? How can it be a barbecue without singed eyebrows? But sure enough, when he took the lid off a few minutes later – they were cooked evenly, top and bottom, and with no burned bits. It was like magic. And they tasted incredible, the way you imagine bbq food should (but never does) taste. The way I barbecued would never be the same again…
When it comes to barbecue cooking, we have to look across the pond to the US for the real expertise. Now this is a nation that knows how to barbie – rows and rows of huge meat joints draped over grills the size of aircraft hangars which make our disposable foil tray barbies look rather pathetic (‘How you gonna fit a cow on that boy?’). Kettle barbecues (such as those made by Weber) are as commonplace as sandwich toasters, and few Americans would let the season or climate dictate whether they could fire up the grill. Dare I say it, if fine cooking is French, then barbecue most definitely belongs to the Americans.
Smokey Barbecue Flavour
Photo: Christian Matias
Roasting on the barbecue instead of cooking directly over the coals is a great way of reducing the heat, increasing the overall cooking time available, and making the whole process more friendly and familiar like oven cooking, while maintaining the fantastic flavour that you get from barbecue cooking. Many recipes advise starting in the oven and finishing on the barbie for 15 minutes, but by roasting on the barbecue you’re getting as much smokey barbecue flavour as you can into your food.
You’ll need a kettle barbecue (i.e. one with a lid) which are now widely available. Maintaining a consistent heat in a kettle barbecue can be fraught with difficulty; at any one time the temperature is either going up or down, but never remaining constant. It can be like navigating a barge – you only see the results of your actions when it’s too late to make any changes, or you over compensate and end up way beyond where you aimed for. One easy way of maintaining a constant temperature with no fuss is the ‘Minion Method’.
BBQ Roasting – The Minion Method
Like all great discoveries, the Minion Method was created as a result of not reading the instructions. In an astoundingly relaxed approach to competitive cooking, Jim Minion bought his first Weber Smokey Mountain (an elongated version of a kettle barbecue used for smoking) on the morning of a tournament, and essentially invented this method on the fly rather than waste his time looking at the manual. There are several variations, most with the aim of allowing ‘low and slow’ cooking periods of 10 hours plus at 100-120 C (225-250 F), but for the hungry and impatient the method I’ve outlined below is a great way of turning a kettle bbq into a consistently heated oven for a period of around 4-6 hours maximum.
1. Place 8 briquettes on one side of the kettle (on the bottom grate), then a firelighter and 8 more briquettes on top, as in the diagram below. Light the firelighter using a long match. Put a foil tray on the other side of the bbq with a small amount of water in it (and some herbs such as rosemary and sage if you like). Allow the briquettes to burn in the uncovered barbecue for 20-40 minutes until all of the charcoal is grey.
2. Arrange 32 more briquettes in 2 layers around the lit charcoal making sure that all charcoal is touching another piece (meaning each piece will light off the one next to it). Put the top grate on, place the lid over the kettle and bring the temperature to around 175 C (350 F – this should take around 5-10 minutes), then put your joint above the water bath and put the lid back on.
3. Leave the bottom vent on your kettle open, and reduce the top vent to around half open:
– Use the best quality briquettes you can, as some have nasty chemical additives that can taint the food – Australian Heat Beads are a safe bet and available at most supermarkets or online.
– Baste the joint every 30-45 minutes, preferably with a liquid containing a high amount of fat (if you can get to the liquid collecting in the water bath then this is ideal).
– The joint will brown as it is cooking – this method is ideal for cooking joints that will roast for a long time (4 hours+) such as pork shoulder or pork belly/ribs, or it can be used to barbecue a whole chicken. If you find that the skin is not crisp enough at the end, finish it in a very hot oven for around 15 minutes (alternatively you can do this at the start before cooking on the bbq). You may also be able to crisp it up by moving it over the coals near the end of cooking, making sure you turn it often.
– If you need the cooking temperature higher or lower, begin with more or less lit briquettes (the added coals don’t effect the cooking temperature, only the length of cooking). If you are looking for a smokier flavour, scatter pieces of woodchip throughout the unlit coals to produce a constant stream of smoke.
– If you own a Weber kettle barbecue they have a handy temperature indicator built into the lid, alternatively you can use an oven thermometer or even just close your eyes and hope for the best!
– If you want to cook other items at the same time, you can put fast cooking food such as steaks, burgers, sausages and small meat portions on top of the coals, but try to lift the lid as little as possible in order to maintain the heat.
So instead of treating your family and friends to the usual blackened burger/sausage combo this bank holiday weekend, why not try roasting whole chickens or pork shoulder joints on a kettle bbq. And don’t let the British weather stop you – as long as the air vent holes are not directly above the coals or meat, there’s nothing stopping you from cooking in the rain (you’re on your own keeping yourself dry though).