(Theguardian) – As we fire up the barbecue, Neil Rankin reveals how to get the most from those hot coals and avoid a burned offering
Grill power: barbecued ribs with salad.
Grill power: barbecued ribs with salad. Photograph: Paul Winch-Furness
The difference between barbecue cooking and regular home cooking is that the focus is less on convenience and more on fun. This is the main reason I steer clear of gas. There is nothing inherently wrong with gas, it’s just a bit boring. When you’re cooking with coal and wood, things are less predictable. You have to man the fire and watch your meat to make sure it doesn’t burn. There is a primal pleasure in live fire cooking.
How much to spend on a barbecue depends on what you want to cook. If you want to smoke meat for hours on end a Big Green Egg is hard to beat. But if you are more likely to stick to steaks and burgers and things that smoke in a few hours, a standard kettle barbecue is fine. I’d recommend a cast-iron grate for the steaks and a cast-iron pan to sear burgers.
If you don’t want to spend much money, go DIY. This could mean building a brick pit and using scrap from a builder’s yard. All you need is an area in which to build a small coal fire, and a place to sit the meat close to the flame to get colour – and also further away to slow-cook the meat. Buy a good probe thermometer. For smoking it’s almost an essential.
Al-fresco cooking: chef Neil Rankin cooking with a Big Green Egg.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Al-fresco cooking: chef Neil Rankin cooking with a Big Green Egg. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
Ox cheek is now available in some supermarkets. It’s a slow-cooking dream because it has all the fatty qualities of larger slow-cooked meat such as shin or fatty brisket, but it is small enough that you can cook it quickly (5-6 hours at 120C).
Asado de tira is a thin cross-sectional cut from the short rib and is a great quick-cook steak for grilling. British short ribs aren’t as large as the American varieties so this cut suits our beef better (2-3 minutes on a grill).
Lamb ribs are among the best cuts available for slow cooking. Like ox cheek they are smaller than normal ribs but have a high fat ratio, so they cook quicker (5-7 hours at 120C).
Thin-cut lamb chops, like the ones you find in Indian grill restaurants, are great to feed guests who are getting hungry and impatient at a barbecue. Try cooking them hot and fast on the grill, and have a bowl of your favourite spices and seasonings at the ready to coat them in as they come off the grill. Think also about making a thick and heavy ginger and garlic curry sauce to go on after cooking (2-3 minutes on a grill).
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Pig wings or pork hocks are affordable and cook on the barbecue brilliantly. There are few cuts left on animals that are still good value and taste so good. Get your butcher to remove the skin and season with salt and pepper or your favourite rub. Cook for 6-7 hours or until soft and tender. Eat like Obelix (6-8 hours at 120C).
Pork shoulder steaks are far more interesting and marbled than loin chops. Cook them fast to a nice medium, and slice. They go great with chimichurri sauce or a dollop of good mustard (6-8 minutes on a grill).
Chicken and duck
Chicken is perfect for a barbecue: go whole. Open up the cavity and spread the legs as much as possible to enable heat to cook the bird evenly. Cook for about an hour and 20 minutes at 120C. Make sure it is cooked through, then eat it straightaway or let it cool then grill it hard to get some good char, or roast it in a hot oven for crispy skin. Duck is much the same, but I’d remove the legs and cook the crown separately. The legs need longer to cook unless you don’t mind well-done breast meat. In my opinion, if you’re going to overcook the breast, take it further so it’s like Chinese crispy duck. In between this stage and medium it lacks character.
Vegetables are a dream on the grill. Don’t be scared to get some heavy black colour on the outside. This is bitter for meat but it tastes great on vegetables. Buy what’s fresh, in season and looks good, and throw everything on the grill until it is soft inside. If it gets too black, take it off to one side. Halve some lemons, caramelise the insides on the grill and dress the veg with this juice, some good olive oil and lots of fresh herbs.
‘There is a primal pleasure in live fire cooking’: whole barbecued chicken.
‘There is a primal pleasure in live fire cooking’: whole barbecued chicken. Photograph: Paul Winch-Furness
Whole barbecued chicken
smoker cooking temperature 120-130C
cooking time 1-1½ hours
Give your chicken your favourite rub and get your smoker to 120C. As the temperature will not be as accurate as the oven, you need to be flexible with the cooking time. Use a probe thermometer to check that the breasts hit 68C; with touch, this is the point where the breasts just begin to firm up. Don’t cook the chicken longer than this to be safe because it will self-cook a little further once it’s out of the smoker, and you can always give it more time after it’s jointed. That way you avoid cooking the whole thing dry. Eat it straightaway, or leave it to cool for an hour, then roast in the oven at 240C for 15 minutes to get a crispier skin.
Last-minute grilled salad
fennel bulbs 1 whole, and 1 thinly sliced
courgettes 3, thickly sliced lengthways
Tropea onions or red onions 3, cut in half lengthways (unpeeled)
spring onions 3
broccoli 4 stalks
English asparagus spears 3
globe artichoke 1, trimmed, quartered lengthways
dandelion leaves a small bunch
Romaine lettuce 1, cut in half lengthways
olive oil to taste
lemon juice to taste
flat-leaf parsley 4 tbsp, chopped
chives a handful cut into 2.5cm lengths
puffed wild rice 2 tbsp (deep-fry raw wild rice for a few seconds in 180C oil, drain)
crispy garlic slices 1 tbsp
Cook the whole fennel bulb in the hot coals for 10 minutes until blackened, then peel off the outer charred layer. Lay the fennel and courgette slices, the onion halves, spring onions, leek, broccoli, asparagus and artichoke quarters on the barbecue grill. Cook, turning as needed, until tender and heavily charred. As they are cooked, remove them. Leave the leek until it is blackened all over, remove and peel off the outer layer. Roughly chop all the veg, including the fennel bulb. Grill the dandelion leaves for a few seconds, and the lettuce halves on one side until almost black.
Combine all the grilled vegetables on a large platter. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice and salt, then sprinkle with the herbs, puffed wild rice, crispy garlic and parmesan.
Low and Slow: How to Cook Meat by Neil Rankin is out now (£25, Ebury Press). To buy a copy for £20 go to bookshop.theguardian.com
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