It’s spring, the right time to perfect your barbecuing technique for summer grills in the garden. Richard McComb selects the meat and the kit you need to create a brilliant barbecue
It is both the new kid on the culinary block and the oldest tradition in town. The art of barbecue has undergone several upgrades during the evolution of Homo sapiens, but the technique remains essentially the same: light a fire, place a device (grill, spit, hotplate or similar) over the fire, introduce a protein and wait.
There are lots of variables – such as the heat generated by the fire and the composition of the protein – but the basic process is the same as it was a million years ago. It is odd, then, that barbecuing, which is so embedded in global cuisines, from the US to the Far East, remains a relatively new commercially popular dining style in the UK.
Just a decade ago, restaurant customers with an appetite for something ‘low and slow’ faced a fruitless search for smoky meat. Even today, in major cities such as Birmingham, customers struggle to find a bona fide (US-style) barbecue restaurant. As Nick Kelvin, managing director of the American BBQ Company, explains, the British ’cue movement was started by die-hard pioneers: “Initially, our clients were enthusiasts who were already cooking low and slow at home, who’d typically been on road trips through the Southern and Midwestern US states and saw a way of monetising their passion through dedicated smoked-meat restaurants. Pitt Cue, Red’s True Barbecue and Red Dog Saloon are prime examples.”
Smokers are now being used in gastropubs and independent restaurants to enhance menus. Choosing the correct kit is crucial and, as Kelvin points out, size isn’t everything.
“Many clients initially specify a unit that will be too big for their needs. Part of our job is to get them to consider the versatility and scalability of the equipment they should be using. More often than not, they subsequently invest in smaller units,” says Kelvin.
“Consistency matters. It is essential that the operator is able to cook meats to a user-defined internal temperature, thus preventing costly under-cooking or over-cooking.”
As most operators cook large cuts overnight, smokers must be able to automatically switch to ‘hold’ mode once the internal temperature is reached.
“Cookshack SmartSmoker (SM) and Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack (FEC) commercial smokers have digital controls that allow the operator to programme variables that can start at a touch of the button, taking risk and training costs out of the equation. The IQ5 controller found on all FECs and Cookshack SmartSmokers also enables multi-stage cooking,” adds Kelvin.
There are nine different models, from the 22kg-capacity SM070, a counter-top smoker designed for the UK market, to the 340kg-capacity FEC750 rotisserie smoker oven. Prices start at £2,999.
Fuel for thought
The heat source for barbecue is, inevitably, hotly contested. Kelvin advocates pellet smokers rather than gas, electricity, charcoal and wood, highlighting the consistent smoke output provided by American pellets made from hardwoods such as hickory, mesquite and pecan.
Smoke evangelist Mark Parr, founder of the London Log Company, supplies speciality woods and charcoals to some of the UK’s top ‘live fire’ restaurants, to be used in smokers, firepits, grills and ovens. The chefs’ current go-to is Spanish Quercus ilex, better known as holm oak. The tree is famed for the acorns on which pata negra pigs feast before the porkers transition into jamón Ibérico. The wood, which is dense and aromatic and valued for its long burn and short flame, is synonymous with the cooking of pork in Segovia in Spain.
“The aromatic range of the wood is complex. There is a light lavender note and a sweetness in the background,” says Parr, who speaks the language of a smoke sommelier.
The wood, sold in 12-kilo boxes and 25-kilo bags, is supplied to Michelin-starred Sabor in London and to chef Tomos Parry, who cooks fish over holm oak at his restaurant, Brat. Restaurants Hawksmoor, St Leonards and Kitty Fisher’s are also clients.
Brat also uses charcoal-fired Joy Stoves, which are newly introduced to the UK. Made of recycled aluminium, the ‘jumbo’ models are suitable for heavy-duty commercial grilling.
Simon Smith, director of client relations at catering butcher Aubrey Allen, links barbecue’s rising popularity to British diners’ hunger for comfort food: “Pulled pork and quality burgers have exploded over the past five to seven years.”
“When chefs are barbecuing, the most important thing is to have the right product. If you have the right intramuscular fat, or marbling, it helps to keep the piece of meat juicy. At the end of the day, we are all looking for juicy, flavoursome food and people are less forgiving when prices are higher.”
Smith points to the popularity of sharing steaks for barbecue, especially dry-aged on-the-bone cuts such as tomahawk, or rump cap or picanha. “Pulled meat is still fashionable, especially pork and lamb, but pulled beef and turkey thighs also work well,” adds Smith.
Andrew Bush, group head chef at barbecue chain Bodean’s, which has seven outlets across London, says barbecue has become increasingly competitive. “People have much more knowledge of barbecue now, which means the bar has been raised in terms of customer expectation.”
That presents particular challenges for operators from a restaurant or service perspective. “These are all products that require hours of love to perfect, so rapid cooling/packaging and smart regeneration processes are key,” says Bush.
The popularity of informal, outdoor eating means barbecue makes great commercial sense. Spring is a great time to grasp the nettle and experiment with outdoor cooking before the longer summer days and nights.
Ray Hall, managing director of RH Hall, says: “Barbecue menus can provide a great focus for special events, such as bank holidays, but can also provide a great source of extra income every weekend.”
Hall’s top tip is to not scrimp on kit. “You wouldn’t buy a domestic cooker for your commercial kitchen, so apply the same thought process for your outdoor barbecue,” he says.
“The Crown Verity range includes both simple charcoal barbecues and versatile, portable gas options. The range can easily be paired with the Simply Stainless Modular Fabrication to create a complete outdoor kitchen.
“With the Crown Verity Professional Barbecue range, operators can either create their own station by combining a barbecue with prep areas, refrigeration and even branding, or look at ready-made options, such as the MBI80, which includes a side burner and storage.”
The Synergy Grill has thermal shock-resistant bars, allowing chefs to cook high volumes of food with consistent temperatures. Richard Ebbs, Synergy’s commercial and marketing director, says: “The ceramic technology ensures that heat is focused directly towards the food, requiring less energy for a cleaner, safer and greener grilling experience.” Add-ons include a rotisserie for spit-roast chicken and kebabs.
Cinders Barbecues, which is marking 35 years of production, has the Classic BBQ, which features a flat griddle to keep vegetarian food separate, while a pan support allows side dishes to be brought from the kitchen and held at temperature. Running on liquefied petroleum gas, the barbecue can be used in beer gardens, patio areas or outdoor street food markets, and it can run for 12 hours from a 19-kilo propane cylinder. Cinders Festival, a version of the Classic, is ideal for large events and tented areas, thanks to flame failure devices which can cut the gas flow.
While it might be anathema to pitmasters, water baths also have a role to play, according to Alex Shannon, managing director of Sous Vide Tools. “Essentially, this is reverse-searing, whereby the food is cooked slowly at low temperature to begin with and then finished on the barbecue to achieve caramelisation,” he says. “We are seeing more and more establishments combining flame cooking with sous vide to achieve the authentic taste, texture and flavour of pitmaster cooking, but with the consistency and food safety of sous vide.”
Shannon highlights the popularity of table-top Japanese Konro barbecues with Sumi Binchō-tan charcoal, which burns at a lower temperature and is odourless.
Flavour trends continue to be influenced by emerging cuisines and barbecue is no different. Nigel Parkes, marketing director of Creative Foods Europe, says: “Korean barbecue is now mainstream, combining sweet, salty, smoky and fermented flavours. Japanese cuisine is becoming more prominent, and Filipino and Indonesian are on the up. Fusions of contrasting flavour types are becoming more and more common – sweet and smoky, fruity and spicy, hot and sour.
“Complex flavours involving fermented or smoked ingredients are also growing in popularity. A prime example of this would be the use of fermented chillies in buffalo wing sauces.”
Creative Foods’ latest sauces include Bourbon BBQ and Cherry Cola BBQ, which can be used to marinade, baste, coat and dip.
Barbecue chef Ben Bartlett, brand ambassador for AAK Foodservice’s Lion sauces, advises that restaurants consider less conventional proteins, such as octopus, which he says adds a “touch of sophistication”.
“Octopus is very easy and quick to cook,” says Bartlett. “Marinate it in Japanese teriyaki barbecue sauce and grill for two minutes, turning a couple of times.”
Grilled seafood pairs with AAK Foodservice’s South Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce, while chicken, lamb, vegetable kebabs and tofu work well with the Baharat spice of Middle Eastern Hot Sauce.
Low ’n’ Slow’s Andy Stubbs: ‘Find your own style’
Andy Stubbs is removing lamb shoulders caked in a deep, rich bark from a giant Ole Hickory smoker at an industrial unit in Sandwell in the West Midlands. The joints will be chilled, broken down and vac-packed for a weekend of street food events.
Stubbs bought the dual gas-fired, wood-burning smoker secondhand for £10,000. “I bet there are only 15 of them in the country,” he says, looking inside the cavernous space, capable of smoking 40 pork shoulders.
Now a veteran of the UK’s street-food scene under the moniker Low ’n’ Slow, Stubbs’ main workspace is a short hop across the car park to a spacious kitchen above an engineering unit.
The 37-year-old ex-factory worker plans to open a “live fire” restaurant in Birmingham this year. Not bad for a self-taught chef who launched his business barbecuing in his mum’s back garden.
Stubbs’ advice is concise: “Find your own style and source good meat.” He describes his own style as a combination of Texas-inspired barbecue and modern Mexican, using British produce.
Pork is Duroc-cross from Devon or Middle White from Gloucestershire. He is swapping Texel lamb for the Shropshire breed, which Stubbs likes just before it hits hogget stage. He ditched brisket because he couldn’t get the correct product specification. “I refuse to cook meat just because it’s the American style. If we can’t get the right cut here, I won’t do it,” he says.
Ox cheeks and lamb have only three added ingredients: salt, coarse pepper and oak smoke; and are smoked for 19-20 hours. The temperature is reduced to 90°C-100°C after an initial five hours at 160°C.
Stubbs’ tips include “spritzing” the meat with apple cider vinegar at regular intervals and sourcing quality fuel, in his case oak from the London Log Company. “Compared with fruit wood, the oak is quite savoury, and if you don’t burn it right, it can leave an acrid taste,” he says.
When he is cooking on-site at events, Stubbs uses holm oak for its long burn and earthy aromatics, or artisan charcoal made in small batches in Oxfordshire.
The American BBQ Company www.americanbbq.co.uk
0800 644 4141
Aubrey Allen aubreyallen.co.uk
024 7642 2222
Cinders Barbecues www.cindersbarbecues.co.uk
Creative Foods Europe www.creativefoodseurope.eu
Joy Stove joystove.co.uk
London Log Company www.londonlogco.com
020 7231 1711
RH Hall www.rhhall.com
Exclusive UK distributor of Crown Verity professional barbecue systems (www.crownverity.com)
Sous Vide Tools www.sousvidetools.com
0800 678 5001
Synergy Grill www.synergygrill.com