Last month, after lots of pondering and discussion, I finally bought my first decent barbecue: a 57 cm Weber Kettle.
Now, it’s not to say I haven’t barbecued before. I’ve had a couple of semi-disposable (i.e. they last year if you’re lucky) cheap ones from garden centres over the years. I’d fill them with briquettes, struggle to light them, cook some sausages and burgers until they were black on the outside and — when I was lucky — cooked in the inside, and wolf that down while patting myself on the back. There wasn’t very little forethought or effort. I had no idea when food was cooked or when I should be closing the lid.
In recent years, though, my attitude towards cooking has changed a lot; I’m far more thoughtful, far more well-read, and far more methodical in what I do. And hopefully I’m also far more skilled. Every year, I attempt new foods, new cuisines, new techniques, and new equipment; this year, I’ve tackled cast-iron frying pans and barbecuing.
I’ve done a fair bit with it in the last few weeks (whenever the British weather has co-operated with me, anyway); the obvious burgers and chops, beer can chicken (which doesn’t work, incidentally — wish I’d known that before I tried it), spiral cut hot dogs, corn on the cob, vegetable skewers, and so on. As such, I’ve also been working with a few techniques and pieces of equipment that are staples of American grilling but that I had never heard of before now.
- Using indirect cooking to “barbecue” meat, rather than “grill” it, to use the American terminology. Larger joints like whole chickens will burn on the outside before they are cooked through, because of how fiercely hot the area over the coals are. The solution? Only fill half of the barbecue with coals and leave the other half empty (or, preferably, with a drip pan to catch any mess). Put the meat on the cool half and shut the barbecue’s lid, turning it into a charcoal-fired oven.
- Using a chimney starter for fuss-free lighting. These things are fantastic. Pour charcoal in the top, put a sheet or two of crumpled newspaper in the bottom, light the paper. The hot air from the paper burning is drawn over the charcoal by the shape of the starter, practically guaranteeing the charcoal will catch without any expensive lighting chemicals. It hasn’t failed me yet.
- Smoking chips — lumps or chips of flavoursome wood, such as hickory or mesquite, that you soak in water then throw in amongst the charcoal. They give off a strongly scented smoke that (as long as you keep the barbecue lid shut) will penetrate and flavour the outer layer of the meat. The soaking in water helps stop them from burning up too quickly.
- Digital thermometer — absolutely vital in judging meat doneness, I’ve found. Danielle bought me a Thermapen for our anniversary, which has been a tremendously useful tool; it’s robust, easy to use, and most importantly arrives at a reading really, really quickly when you stab it into the meat, meaning you spend less time with your hand over the hot coals and less time!
- The Minion method — invented by Jim Minion for use when smoking foods, which demands low temperatures (100-115 deg C) for long times (6-12 hours). It consists of filling the smoker or barbecue with unlit charcoal, then adding a small amount of lit charcoal. As time goes on, the burning charcoal lights the charcoal next to it, which lights the next part, and so on — a bit like dominoes. Hence a steady, consistent heat is generated. The original Minion method is designed for smokers, but there’s a modified Minion method that apparently works well with kettle barbecues.
Barbecue rib of beef
So, after weeks of burgers and suchlike I decided it was time to get a bit more ambitious and cook a big lump of cow. I started with a 1.2 kg beef rib joint — Americans, that’s a “standing rib roast” to you guys.
I coated the meat all over with a generous amount of a barbecue rub:
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp semi-sweet paprika
- 1 tsp ancho chilli powder
- 1 tsp chipotle chilli powder
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp dark brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1 tsp garlic
- 2 tsp salt
(On the day, I used 1.5 tsps of each chilli powder and 2 tsp of black pepper and it was a little too hot. I’ve reduced the amounts in the above mix. It may need further reduction, depending on your taste.)
I left the meat in the rub for a few hours, then took it out and let it warm up for an hour or so at room temperature.
I lit a chimney starter that was about half-full of coals. Once they were hot, I set the barbecue up for indirect cooking: the charcoal is stacked to either side of the grill, using the helpful little divider clip thingies Weber provide. There’s an aluminium drip tray in the middle, between the two stacks of coals, to catch any run-off from the food. Then the beef goes over the tray, like so:
I closed the lid and used the top and bottom vents on the barbecue to attempt to maintain a steady 100 deg C (200 deg F) for approximately 1.5 hours. This part was a struggle! Controlling barbecue temperature is an improvisational process that depends on the charcoal, the weather, and whims of the Firepit Gods. Even with the vents almost closed, I was still burning too hot:
I had to lift the meat out, remove the grilling rack, and carefully extract about half of the charcoal with tongs. I left them to burn in an aluminium tray. Then, later, I found the barbecue was getting too cool, as the small amount of charcoal I left behind was burning out; so I re-added the surplus. It wasn’t perfect but I muddled through. Next time I attempt this sort of longer cooking time I need to light less charcoal to start with, I need to lay the charcoal out in a Minion method pattern, and I need to use briquettes rather than lumpwood for a more predictable heat.
I went back and forth to the meat every twenty minutes or so during the cooking process, checking the temperature and occasionally adding smoking chips. After an hour I started checking the internal temperature of the meat. I was aiming for rare in the very core, which is achieved at 52 deg C; when the thermometer read 49.5 deg C I took the beef off the grill. This allowed for the core temperature to increase while the meat was resting.
Now, this next bit is another area where my technique could use a little work. Ideally, the meat would now be briefly seared to further colour the surface and generate some extra flavour from the Maillard reaction. However, the remaining charcoal wasn’t anywhere near hot enough — even right over the top of it — to get a decent sear on the beef. I considered pan-frying the joint briefly but thought I’d lose too much of the rub. In the end, I flashed it in a hot (220 deg C) oven for ten minutes before removing it to rest. It looked pretty similar coming out of the oven to how it did going in, though, so I’m not sure I really achieved what I was aiming to do.
Finally, before serving I let the meat rest for fifteen minutes under aluminium foil with some teatowels piled on top of it. And then, the moment of truth: carving in, how well cooked would it be?
Success! Nicely rare inside, nicely seasoned and flavoured by the rub on the outside. Tasted fantastic, easily the best thing I’ve made on the barbecue so far.
I served it with some of my homemade BBQ sauce (recipe to follow) and mashed potatoes flavoured with plenty of cream, mature cheddar, and slow-fried caramelised onions. In hindsight, I wish I’d made potato skins or twice-baked potatoes as I think the texture would have been more interesting; I’ll do those next time.