smokey ribs

Tired of dried-out chicken and blackened bangers? The pros can help you to raise your game, with everything from marinades and rubs to cooking with sieves.

From London’s Berenjak to Gateshead’s Träkol, Britain’s hottest restaurants are fascinated by live-fire cookery. “Precision is out, flames are in,” declared Restaurant magazine recently, as our best chefs swap water-baths for charcoal grills and wood-fired ovens. Ahead of National BBQ week (27 May to 2 June), we asked a selection of these bright sparks for tips on how we might transform our own barbecue cooking this summer, from vegan “ribs” and whole-fish cookery to smoking desserts.

Super-charge sausages
“British barbecues revolve around sausages, burgers, chicken drumsticks,” says Samantha Evans, chef and co-founder of Hang Fire Southern Kitchen, in Barry, south Wales. “But they’re tricky: small and liable to burn, split or cook unevenly. Larger steaks, whole fish and spatchcock chicken are more forgiving. If you really want sausages, brown them on the grill, then transfer them into a foil pan with a half-bottle of beer, sliced onions, paprika and seasoning. Raking the coals to one side, cook them off the heat with the barbecue lid on. You’ll end up with ‘beer brats’, super-tasty, smoky sausages – a game-changer for weekend barbecues.”

Don’t mix veg
“Rather than grilling mixed vegetables on one skewer, cook individual skewers of peppers, mushrooms or courgettes,” Evans advises. “They all have unique structures and natural sugar levels, and all cook at different times. We like to cut squashes into rings and grill them. Scrub the skin, but don’t peel them. Barbecue until they’re brown and tender. Serve with crumbled blue cheese, olive oil and kalamata olives.”

Rub or marinade?
“Essentially, both do the same job: add flavour. As a rule of thumb, we marinade overnight things that can take an alternative hit of flavour, such as chicken, pork or lamb. We then use a dry rub on vegetables and steaks, brushing them with oil and sprinkling the rub on no more than 20 minutes before cooking. That way, the seasoning’s flavours and those created by the Maillard reaction remain fairly equal. When cooking items in a smoker [so-called low’n’slow barbecue, where indirect heat and smoke simultaneously cook and flavour the meat], we use dry rubs instead of wet marinades, as they have a tendency to block the smoke penetration that we’re looking for.”

Jackfruit? Jackpot!
“Vegan jackfruit ‘ribs’ covered in lashings of barbecue sauce really take on the charcoal, caramelised flavours I remember from childhood barbecues,” says Meriel Armitage, founder of the London street food outfit Club Mexicana. “If you love crispy, burnt edges, barbecue these (lid down, to retain those smoky flavours) until they are as charred as you can handle. I love mine with zingy slaw, barbecued corn and potato salad; I go large on dill, capers and gherkins.”

“We cook everything over charcoal using traditional Thai tao barbecues and western-style grills,” says Meedu Saad, head chef at Kiln in London. “Broadly, we cook slowly over white embers, a different mentality from flame-grilling. Our chicken and soy dish was originally a staff meal. Marinade chicken thighs for three hours in a paste of garlic, coriander root, yellow turmeric, soy, palm sugar and water. Lay them two feet above the charcoal for an hour. Baste occasionally with the marinade. They cook to an almost confit texture. Serve with a wedge of lime.”

Hack the citrus
“Slice citrus fruits in half and grill the flesh until black,” recommends Neil Rankin, chef and co-owner of Temper restaurants, London. “This caramelises them, intensifying their flavour. The juice can be used for basting meat and fish, where it will reduce and get stickier, or with oil as salad dressing. I like lemons, limes and oranges with pork, and use oranges and soy with chicken. You can slice them into a G&T or negroni, too.”

Chuck on some fruit
“Stone fruits such as nectarines and apricots work really well on barbecues,” says Theo Hill, chef at Gold, London. “Peaches are the best. Cut in half, remove the stone, give them a good char cut side down, then remove them to a dish, sprinkle with plenty of brown sugar and douse with brandy. Cover so they continue to cook in their own heat. Eat 30 minutes later with a dollop of yogurt.”

Polish that gem
“Barbecuing gem lettuce gives it another dimension, but keeps the lettuce crisp and refreshing,” says Hill. “Cut it into quarters lengthways and don’t be afraid to get plenty of char on it. Then scatter over thinly sliced red onions. Make a creme fraiche dressing loosened by a little water, lemon and olive oil, and spoon over generously.”

Multipurpose marinade
“I use a Spanish ajillo garlic sauce in two ways in my barbecue,” says Rachel Stockley, chef at Baratxuri, Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester, “as dressing and marinade. Fry four grated garlic cloves in 150ml of olive oil, then add a tablespoon of smoked paprika and cook for two minutes. Off the heat, add a tablespoon of sherry vinegar. Sieve the dressing into a jug to finish meat, fish or potatoes – it goes with everything. Use the leftover garlic as the base of a barbecue marinade for, say, lamb chops with thyme or cauliflower steaks with turmeric and coriander.”

Let the smoke in
“We use sieves as you might a pan or wok,” says Jackson Bristow, head chef at Nancarrow Farm, Cornwall. “The holes allow smoke and flames through to create great flavours. In spring, we cook a lot of peas in sieves over fire, adding lemon, oil and seasoning, and tossing them gently for a few moments, smoking the peas as they cook so they still pop in your mouth. This is also a great way to cook garden greens, mushrooms or squid, using the sieve as you would a saute pan. Cut fresh squid into wafer thin, spaghetti-like strands, then cook it over a high heat in a sieve before adding wild garlic leaves, lemon zest and nduja. Serve on woodfired bread with seaweed mayo.”

Grilled greens
“Vegetables with high water content cook nicely directly on the embers,” Bristow adds, although you need to use natural hardwood lump charcoal rather than briquettes. “A heavy char on the outside seals moisture in, steaming the vegetable in its own liquor. Leeks are particularly good, as are beetroots, squashes and celeriac. We also take individual leaves of brassicas, chards and spring greens and roll them into sausages, tied together with heat-resistant string, and grill them. They steam inside while outside the greens get a good char and crispness.”

“Cooking homemade flatbreads over fire is fantastic, says Gill Meller, the author of Outdoor Cooking and a tutor at River Cottage, Axminster. “A simple, strong white bread flour dough made with yeast, salt and olive oil is all you need and it can sit in the fridge for a few days beforehand, fermenting and developing flavour. Twist off a golf-ball-sized piece and shape it thinly between floured-hands then, literally throw it on to the grill over white embers. Thirty seconds each side and it will puff up a little like a pitta. Sprinkled with oil and salt, they are a vessel for anything: grilled fish, charred vegetables, hummus …”

Butcher’s cut
“The oyster or spider steak is a great, money-saving barbecue steak that is rarely seen as the butcher usually gets first dibs on it,” Bristow says. “It’s a small cut with a large grain structure similar to skirt. Quickly seared on both sides and cut against its grain, it’s one of my favourites.”

Parcel force
“I like to let smoke and fire do their job,” says Sarit Packer, chef and co-founder of Honey & Smoke, London. “For instance, by grilling whole, husk-on corn cobs on the fire and really letting that husk burn so the corn inside becomes sweet and lush. Peel the ashen skin and pour smoked urfa chilli butter on top.”

Five-star fish
“The key to maximising flavour when cooking whole fish,” says Alisdair Brooke-Taylor, chef-owner at the Moorcock Inn, near Halifax, “is to cook the bones through, which is difficult as they are in dense muscle. Suspending the fish vertically over the grill (what we call ‘sous-vide in the sky’), creates an even temperature throughout the fish and avoids problems such as undercooked, gelatinous sections around the bones. Season the fish with salt inside then, using a hook or heat-resistant string, hang it head-down 50cm above the coals at one side of the grill. Using wood, not charcoal, start with a small fire and build to a large glowing coal bed. Periodically baste the fish with oil and turn it to ensure both sides cook. When the flesh feels firm between your finger and thumb, it’s ready. It usually takes 45 to 90 minutes for large fish such as turbot and cod. Finally, lay an oiled grill 6cm to 8cm above red-hot coals, salt the fish’s skin and crisp it up – two minutes each side, max.”

Turn, don’t burn
“Burning lots of charcoal to create a high heat doesn’t let smoky flavours penetrate the food,” warns Selin Kiazim, chef-director at Oklava and Kyseri, London. “Slow cooking is best, especially for fattier items such as koftes, burgers or lamb chops. Turn them often; don’t wait for them to brown. Marinades are great but can burn easily, particularly if they contain honey or molasses. Use them in the last five to 10 minutes of cooking, coating and turning regularly.”

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