We love summer. That scent of freshly-cut grass wafting in through the office window. The paper from the photocopier feeling even warmer than usual. Staring at the sunshine, wishing you’d taken that day off your boss offered you two weeks ago.
For most of us the appearance of the actual sun – a miraculous event in any British summer – means a race to slap on some cream (factor 50 in our case) and race to the garden, beach or anywhere outdoorsy.
But just as you’re getting comfortable, there’s a rumble from down below... after all, this relaxing is hard work.
The solution? It’s got to be that celebrated summer staple, the barbecue. A cherished ritual the length and breadth of the land, the only trouble is you tend to find yourself forking out a small fortune on stuff that never gets eaten.
It means all too often you spend the entire time in a state of stress, rather than sitting back and enjoying this summertime treat. (Undercooking chicken while simultaneously burning steak on the same grill can also put a bit of a dampener on things.)
Yes, a brilliant barbecue takes planning. And plenty of it.
Never ones to see a problem unsolved, we got our thinking caps on – just baseball caps with E=MC2 scribbled on the front – and pulled together a load of handy information to help you.
We’ve been marinating ourselves (what a lovely image) in all things barbecue, to come up with the route to sizzling success. Whether you’re spending quality time with family, or entertaining a group of friends.
The only thing we can’t do is predict the great British weather. Sorry.
Pep up your prep
Before you even begin, check you’ve got the tools of the trade. A meat thermometer means you can make sure everything’s properly cooked (food poisoning is such a downer), and it’ll also help you grill things like steaks to order (now who looks like a BBQ pro?). More of that later.
Two types of tongs are a must. You need one pair with grips for turning the food, and another set with insulated handles for moving and turning the coals underneath. It’s funny, but people tend to grumble about having ash all over their food. Who knew?
If you’re firing up a gas barbecue, it’s worth covering the drip tray with foil to make ‘operation clean-up’ a bit easier after the main event.
The food formula
Here’s the big one. Working out how much food you’re going to need is a tricky business. Too little and you risk leaving people disappointed. Too much and you’re going to be eating leftover sausages for a week.
So, we’ve crunched the numbers to put together this handy chart that should help. It’s a guide to how much nosh you’ll need, depending on who’ll be coming.
To avoid waste, it’s best to provide just two meat options out of the four listed below. For vegetarians, two veggie skewers per person should fit the bill nicely:
Before you fire up the barbecue, whether gas or charcoal, rub some olive oil on the grill. Not only will this stop food sticking, but it will help ramp up the flavour.
Speaking of flavour, marinating your meat for 24 hours before you whack it on the grill will guarantee it’s both tender and tasty. Don’t be scared of herbs either. A sprinkle of rosemary, sage or thyme can work wonders.
To get round the problem of food sitting out and going cold before people get round to seconds (which they will), get some deep foil trays ready. Tape two of them together to create a flip top effect that will ensure your eats stay warm. That way you can cook everything in one batch and don’t have to spend the entire time slaving over the grill.
Create a station – a small table or bench will do – for all your sauces, salads and the other goodies people will want to add to their plates. Also, work out a plan for getting the food from the barbecue to the table. A few foil trays stationed near the cooking area should come in handy for that.
You’ll want to light up your charcoal barbecue around half an hour before you start cooking. One layer of charcoal across the bottom of the pit is plenty to cook for 1 to 2 hours. Generally, if the coals are red hot with no smoke, you’re good to go.
If you’re cooking on gas, you don’t always need to use the highest setting. Heat the grill up and then reduce the fuel supply, closing the lid to retain all that lovely heat.
You can’t go wrong with a burger – it’s a fuss-free crowd-pleaser, with the added bonus that it cooks nice and quickly.
Work on the basis that you’ll need 6oz of minced beef for each guest. It’s enough to give everyone a hefty half-pound burger that will hit them in the taste buds. Add a dash of salt and pepper, shape the beef into a patty and whack it on the grill.
If you’re cooking chicken, make sure it grills evenly by spreading it out. Give it a whack with a meat hammer, or try one of our favourite BBQ hacks – wrap a house brick in tin foil, then stick it on top of the chicken to keep it flattened down as it cooks.
The rule of thumb
When you’re cooking steaks to order on a barbecue, it can be tricky sorting your well-done from your medium-rare. A meat thermometer helps, but prodding it into a steak can let all those lovely juices loose.
One of the simplest but most effective BBQ tips is to use the fleshy bit of the palm of your hand, just down from your thumb, and compare it to the way your steaks feel when you prod them.
Press the fleshy bit while your hand’s relaxed and fully open – that’s how raw meat will feel.
Touch your index finger with your thumb - that’s a rare steak. Medium-rare is your middle finger, medium is your ring finger and well-done is the feel of the fleshy bit when it’s touching your little finger.
Once your steaks have been cooked, allow them to stand for 10 minutes under foil to allow the meat to relax and the juices to distribute themselves for even more flavour. Yum.
Once the party’s over, there’s the dreaded cleaning to think about. But it needn’t be too painful, and at least it means you’ll be greeted with a sparkling grill next time you fire it up.
If you’re using a gas barbecue, try spreading a layer of tin foil over the grill and turning it on. Close the lid and let it ‘cook’ for around half-an-hour.
Switch it off and carefully remove the foil. Allow it to cool down, then use a scrunched up piece of foil to scrub the grates. All of the gunky stuff should have turned to ash so it flakes right off.
For a charcoal grill, wait until it’s completely cooled down then remove the grate. Use warm soapy water along with a stiff wire brush to scrub the grill clean.
For particularly stubborn stains, put the grates in a large plastic bag. Then, in a big bowl, stir together one cup of vinegar and half a cup of baking soda.
Pour this solution on the racks, close the bag and leave it overnight. By morning you should be able to rinse everything straight off.
So, there we have it – the recipe for the perfect stress-free summer barbecue. Now, has anyone seen the weather forecast?