Besides the unreliability of the weather, the only guaranteed things to expect from a typical British barbecue are burnt burger offerings and sausage suicide – with the main culinary emphasis on getting as many lagers in the fridge as possible.
We love the idea of eating outside, but we just don’t cut the mustard when it comes to delivery, and all too often settle for barbecue banality. This is unfortunate, as one of the massive advantages of cooking on a barbecue is that you are directly cooking with flame and smoke, which you don’t get in a domestic oven (unless something has gone very wrong).
Forget trying to make do with a disposable version from the local garage because they are slow, inefficient and possibly toxic. What they’re best at is being disposable, so throw them away. You should invest in a kettle barbecue with a bottom vent, a place to burn fuel, a grill to cook things on, and a lid with a vent on top. They’re inexpensive, and ideal for smoking and straight barbecuing.
The best way to use them is simple: pile the charcoal so that it is 2 or 3 lumps deep and light it. If you are going to cook for longer than 30 minutes, put the coals on one side of the basin, then place a foil tray of water next to it. Open the bottom vents completely and place the cooking grill over the charcoal (and water). Place the lid on top and completely open the top vent so that a good draw of air can be achieved. If you want to add an element of smokiness then place a handful of wood chips to the burning charcoal about half way through the cooking and replace the lid.
You can control the amount of smokiness with the amount of wood used, or by closing the vent so that the smoke envelops the food for longer. I am obsessed with mixing woody cocktails from hard wood planks, chips, chunks, sawdust and papers to get the perfect smokey flavour; there are endless combinations which all have their own characteristic flavour spectrum. Most wood smoke flavour characteristics are derived from the ‘phenolic’ chemicals which are produced when the lignin in the wood is ignited. Lignin is a complex chemical compound found in all wood, but when you light hard wood you don’t get any toxic resin, which can flavour the smoke with harsh acrid notes. That is why you should only use hard wood and avoids soft wood, such as pine, for smoking.
If you treat your fuel with the same respect as you do your ingredients, it will change the way you barbecue forever. Before sparking up, though, remember to tell the neighbours to take their washing in, as good oak smoke is seriously potent.
BBQ oak-smoked spiced lamb recipe
If you own a kettle barbecue, you’ll be able to smoke and roast large joints of meat flavoured with a marinade or rub and the sweet smokiness from whichever wood combination you choose. For this recipe I rub a Merguez spice mix over a halved leg of lamb and let it infuse overnight before smoking the meat over charcoal.
- A boneless half leg of lamb, about 1.5kg, butterflied (boned and flattened out)
For the rub
- About 30g coarse sea salt (i.e. 2% of the weight of the lamb)
- 20g ground coriander
- 20g ground cumin
- 20g chilli powder
- 20g black peppercorns, freshly cracked
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Mix together the ingredients for the rub and apply to the dried surface of the lamb leg with a gentle massage. Leave in the fridge overnight. The following day, remove the lamb from the fridge so that it gets up to room temperature and light your barbecue with the coals to one side. Allow the coals to become grey and ashen as they get up to temperature and nestle a foil tray, three-quarters full of water, next to the coals. Lay the lamb on the grill above the coals and cook for 15 minutes. The rub will have seasoned and salted the meat so that it will take on the wonderful flavours of the spices as well as the smoke from the barbecue.
Next, move the lamb to the other side of the grill so that it is directly above the foil water tray. Put a handful of wood chips on the charcoal and place the lid, with the vent open, on top. Cook and smoke for 30 minutes. Check to see if the charcoal or wood need replenishing and then replace the lid. Cook and smoke the meat for a further 15 minutes, then remove. Rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving with a splosh of natural yoghurt and mint, like some kind of mouth-watering Jackson Pollack painting.
Images © Gavin Kingcome & Recipe taken from River Cottage Handbook No.13 Curing & Smoking, by Steven Lamb, published by Bloomsbury.