Getting the best from your barbecue

Sizzle, spit and smoke – some of my favourite sounds and smells of the summer. It may have been a long time coming but barbecue season is now in full swing. With this in mind here are my handy tips on getting the best from your barbecuing.

Over the coming months I’ll be reviewing some kit; barbecues, cooking gear and even barbecuing cookery courses. So keep watching this space and I’d love to hear your views on the barbecue you are currently using. E-mail me on or on twitter @thealiray

Lighting a coal barbecue

Open the vents on the side of your barbecue. Add a single layer of coals/briquettes on the grate. Then pile them into a pyramid with about 3-4 firelighters (try and use the waxy ones, made specifically for barbecues. The ones for domestic fires or liquid lighter are more likely to taint the taste of the food). Light with a long match.

If your barbecue is big enough, pile some coals higher on one side, that way if you need a high heat to sear your meat first – you can put it over this area, as the heat will be more intense, before moving it to a cooler area.

Natural charcoal tends to start more quickly than briquettes, and burns with about twice the level of heat. It smells cleaner too.

Generally it will take about 30 minutes or so for your barbecue to get to cooking heat. It is ready when the coals are covered in a layer of white ash, and you can’t hold your hand 15cm above for more than three seconds.

Gas barbecues

You don’t get the lovely smoky flavours with gas, but you do get more control over your cooking temperatures. (And of course you are ready to cook immediately). I think marinating your meat is even more important if cooking on gas to add in those extra flavours.

If you haven’t been able to get all of the residue off your barbecue from its last use, turn the gas on, let the bars get hot to burn off the residue, then give them a brisk brush with a long handled wire brush.

It is also worth taking all the fat trays, grates and burners out now and again to give them a really good clean to get rid of the gunk. It helps to prevent the flare-ups and too much smoking – which can affect the flavour of your food.

Lightly brush the bars with some oil before cooking to prevent the meat sticking.

Get ready

Excuse me for stating the obvious, but things will be so much easier if you do all your prep before you start cooking. I don’t always listen to my own advice here, but a successful barbecue usually requires constant attendance for turning and basting – which won’t happen if you are still busy cutting other veg.

Marinating – it’s the perfect way to add flavour and also makes the meat tender. Marinate it as long as you can for best results. Don’t add salt to your marinade – it will draw all the moisture out of your meat and it will end up dry.
Also, if your marinade contains sugar – don’t put the meat over a high temperature otherwise the sugar will burn too quickly.

I find an easy way to marinade meat is in those zip lock freezer bags. You can pour your marinade in, pop in the meat, seal up the bag and give it all a good squish around to coat the meat. And, it’s not too bulky to store in your cool box.

Let the food get up to ambient temperature. If you put meat straight from the fridge on to the barbecue – the outside is likely to burn before the inside begins to cook. The closer you can get the middle temperature to the outside temperature you are less likely to suffer from barbecuers-curse; black on the outside and raw in the middle.


The best piece of advice is to stay with your barbecue, and watch what you are cooking. I have learnt to my peril that getting distracted chatting to friends and family has too often ended up in over-cooked food.

Don’t turn too often. Just once if you can get away with it. It will be easier to turn and gets those lovely grill marks across it if you leave it alone for longer. Use tongs not a fork, so that the meat doesn’t pierce and start to lose it juices.

One of the biggest mistakes barbecuing meat is charring it on the outside, while it remains under cooked on the inside. If grilling meat, sear it briefly over the hottest part of the coals, and then move it further away from the coals to cook it more evenly and slowly. Putting a lid on will help it cook through.

If you are cooking a large joint – wrap it in foil before you cook it as this will keep it juicy. You will need a lidded barbecue for this, which will cook the meat like an oven. When the meat is almost cooked, take it out of the foil, save the juice to pour over the meat at the end, and finish the meat off on the barbecue to colour up and soak up a lovely smoky flavour.

Talking of smoky flavours... if you don’t have a smoking box, but are still after an extra smoky flavour, you can throw some twigs of rosemary or thyme or untreated woodchips on to some of the cooler coals, the smoke will slowly infuse the flavours into the meat.

ALWAYS rest your meat once it has cooked. A piece of meat, hot off the barbecue will be tough, but letting it rest for 5-10 minutes (covered in foil so it doesn’t go cold) will allow the meat to relax, soften and re-absorb all the lovely juices.

Safety and hygiene

Goes without saying but always use separate utensils, plates and chopping boards for raw and cooked food.

Never pour any leftover marinade from the raw meat on to the cooked meat at the end.
The only sure fire way of making sure those sausages and chicken pieces are cooked through is to cut one in half and check. If there are any pink juices when pressed – it’s not cooked, and not safe to eat! Put it back on the barbecue.
Never use your barbecue in your tent - it can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. You can read more about the dangers of carbon monoxide on our Camping Safety pages. 
Check the coals are fully extinguished or the gas is turned off properly, before you leave your barbecue it unattended.