Donal Skehan's top tips to get your grill on
On paper, barbecuing is a relaxed, informal way of enjoying delicious food with family and friends. In reality, however, it can turn the barbecue beginner into frazzled heap, trying not to weep while faced with burnt burgers, undercooked sausages and guests who are starved and knocking back the booze. But fear not. Follow these essential basics and you've got grilling season covered.
There are myriad barbecue options to choose from and you can spend as little as €15 on a disposable sort, or up to €4,000 high-tech version with all sorts of bells and whistles. The key questions to ask yourself are how often are you really going to use it (will it be every day of the summer or once a month?); what kind of cooking do you want to do on it (are you happy with just an open grill you can cook burgers on or do you want to cook entire chickens and pieces of meat, in which case you'll need one with a lid) and what your budget is. Experts say that you don't have to spend a fortune. "Absolutely not," says chef Oliver Byrne of Bison Bar and BBQ on Dublin's Wellington Quay. "I started barbecuing with a broken oven. You can use the cheapest old camp-out barbecue to smoke the best meats out there." Charcoal or gas? Charcoal lovers swear by the authentic smoky flavour it gives food but gas is easier to regulate temperature-wise. There are pluses and minuses to each so it's whatever you prefer.
This is absolutely vital. A successful barbecue does not magic itself out of thin area so you need to ensure that you have enough food to go around, that any work like marinating or preparing vegetables has been done the evening before or morning of your gathering and that you have all the logistics figured out, such as how you're going to keep cooked and raw food separate and what kind of additional equipment you might need. Designate someone else to do any last-minute jobs like dressing salads, slicing bread and organising cutlery, plates and napkins, as you will be too busy to concern yourself with these tasks once you embark upon the actual cooking.
Whether you're using gas or charcoal, both types of barbecues need to be preheated before cooking, approximately 10 minutes at least for gas and at least 20 for charcoal. Actual cooking time depends on a lot factors such as the thickness of the food and the desired finish, whether you are slow cooking a large joint of meat or a fast cook fillet and whether it's going to be foil-wrapped or indirectly cooked. There isn't an exact science to barbecuing and the internet will be your friend when it comes to time guidelines and temperatures.
Resist the urge to constantly flip food, ideally doing it only once during the cooking process. Tongs are better than a fork because they won't pierce the food, thus losing moisture. Similarly, don't press down on foods when they're cooking because again you'll cause juices to seep out. Always stay beside your barbecue even if something is going to take 30 minutes to cook because otherwise your feast could be ruined if the temperature drops, the fire goes out or the meat falls off the grill. If you want to baste your food with a barbecue sauce, do this at the end because they often contain high amounts of sugar, which burns very quickly. Wooden skewers look pretty on the barbecue grill but make sure you soak them for half an hour in water before you put the food on them to cook, otherwise they'll end up blackened.
The safety bit
Clearly you don't want to give anybody food poisoning so some basic tenets have to be observed. Safefood's guidelines to avoiding that particular disaster include making sure that burgers, sausages, kebabs and poultry are cooked all the way through (steaks and whole joints can be served rare); don't use a marinade that has been used on raw meats on cooked meats or to coat vegetables; ensure that frozen food is thawed fully before cooking; wash your hands after handling raw meat; keep the raw meat away from the cooked stuff and allow any leftovers to cool before refrigerating.
The part that you shouldn't forget
Once your food is done - and you can check this by placing a knife into the centre of the meat and seeing that the juices run clear - and no matter how ravenous your guests are, you must let the meat rest for a few minutes. This allows the meat to reabsorb moisture, leaving you with beautifully juicy barbecued fare.
BBQ confidential: Go beyond sausages and burgers
There is far more to barbecuing than sausages and the other usual suspects. For a different barbecue experience, Bison Bar & BBQ chef Oliver Byrne suggests seeking out cuts of meat such as brisket and pork shoulder (or pork butt as it's sometimes called).
Chef Florin Vasilache, of Dublin's specialist barbecue restaurant Asador, suggests not always picking up the prime cuts. "Some of the most flavoursome beef can be found in the tougher cuts such as rump, onglet, bavette, and picanha," he says. "These meats will be slightly tougher than your standard steaks, but they pack tremendous flavour and are significantly cheaper. There is a perception that the best steaks are the most expensive, speak to your butcher and you will see that this is actually not the case." When you've selected your cut, he points out that they should not all be treated equally when introduced to the barbecue. "A short rib needs a slow roast over a medium to low charcoal. Fillet and rib-eye need a nice crust and as such should be seared over a high heat."
To marinade or not marinade? Yes, according to Chef Vasilache. "A good marinade will help to tenderise your meat and add lots of flavour. Marinades have also been proven as reducing some of the carcinogens present in well-done meats. Rosemary, garlic, thyme, sherry vinegar, peppercorns and olive oil combine to make a classic marinade that works really well with barbecued meats," he says.
Corn-on-the cob makes regular appearances at barbecues but there are many other vegetables that benefit from some hot grilling. Try green beans in a grill basket, asparagus and slices of aubergine in garlic, balsamic vinegar and oil.