It’s officially summer, and following a glorious spring, that means even more alfresco cooking over smouldering coals, smokey wood or efficient gas.
Whatever your chosen fuel, there are some fundamentals to mastering the art of cooking with fire.
Expert Genevieve Taylor says the first is taking control of the fire, by creating “heat zones” and learning to cook “directly” and “indirectly”. This means putting the charcoal on one side of your barbecue only and cooking off the direct heat source up to 80 per cent of the time.
Of course, just as with ingredients, the best barbecues begin with adding the best fuel to the fire. That means good charcoal that’s not laden with chemicals and imported from rainforests halfway across the world, but essentially pure carbon made from sustainable British woodland.
This means you don’t have to wait for the coals to become white and ashy (once all the chemicals have burnt away) to get cooking. Opt for a natural firelighter for the same reasons, such as one made from wood chippings and wax.
You can buy a chimney starter to position the coals perfectly to get things underway quicker, or you can make your own with a method, chef Tom Hunt picked up in Argentina using some charcoal, a glass bottle and some newspaper.
Sustainable British charcoal
Five companies, selling environmentally-friendly charcoal from British woodland, recommended by Genevieve Taylor:
Whittle & Flam: whittleandflame.co.uk
Birchwood Forestr: birchwoodforestry.co.uk
Stagg British Charcoa: stagbritishcharcoal.co.uk
Caradoc Charcoa: caradoccharcoal.co.uk
Simply place your bottle in the middle of the barbecue, roll three or four tubes of newspaper around it. Pour your lumpwood charcoal around the sides, essentially burying the bottle. Now, carefully pull the bottle out leaving a hole, acting as a chimney. Fill the chimney until it’s a third full with charcoal, use another tube of newspaper as a wick and light the paper. As the fire takes hold use the bigger lumps of charcoal to cover the hole and in 15 minutes you will be ready to get cooking.
Note, good coal doesn’t produce much smoke, so if you’re looking for that smokey flavour try some kiln-dried firewood from the likes of The Smokewood Shack.
We asked some of our favourite chefs and recipe writers what they are cooking over fire this summer, and here’s what they told us:
Cooking with fire: Fruit and veg
“The barbecue is the last bastion of the carnivore, but people want to eat more vegetables and less meat and I wanted to show people that fire and veg is amazing,” says author of Charred, Genevieve Taylor.
“With steak, people talk about the ‘maillard reaction’, that caramelisation of the sugars and amino acids – well, that happens with all vegetables as well. Vegetables cooked on fire are amazing.”
A barbecue is just another heat source, so you can cook anything on it. Parsnips take on a caramelised edge, mushrooms suck up smoke and are a sponge for flavour, classic Mediterranean vegetables such as peppers, and courgettes have a natural affinity with fire and smoke.
Preparation: If you’re cooking vegetables with a dense texture, like carrots, blanche them before marinating – perhaps with cumin, chipotle chilli and garlic – so they soak up the flavour and cook faster.
How to cook: Over a medium heat, turning regularly so they don’t char too quickly.
Serve with: It’s often a good idea to hit the vegetables with some lemon juice and herbs to cut through the sweetness. Play with texture and colour by layering with spring onions, herbs and pecans. Balance with something creamy like tahini or ricotta.
Genevieve Taylor author of Charred: The Complete Guide to Vegetarian Grilling and Barbecue
How to cook: Blacken the courgettes on each side over hot coals, until the insides are smoky and tender. Cooked courgette leaves or spinach, brushed with olive oil, alongside for the last few minutes. Remove from the heat and roughly chop with a knife. Then gently crush everything together with your hands and season generously with salt and pepper.
Serve: On a platter with a generous splatters of tahini sauce or yoghurt and a drizzle of maple syrup (or similar), lemon juice and lemon zest.
Tom Hunt, chef and author of Eating for Pleasure, People and Planet
Marinade: Add the strawberries to a bowl with a little sugar and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Mix well and leave to macerate for 10 minutes.
How to cook: Thread the strawberries onto skewers and place directly on the barbecue bars. Griddle for about two mins, turning once, until lightly marked – just enough to warm them and caramelise some of the sugar.
Serve: With vanilla ice cream and the rest of the marinade spooned over the top for a delectable contrast of hot and cold, sharp and sweet.
Bob Andrew, chef, Riverford
Cooking with fire: Fish
With fish, all chefs agree that the Kiss principle – keep it simple stupid – is key.
“It’s all about being calm and patient, let the fish and the coals do the work,” advises head chef Peter Wheeden, from London’s first organic pub, the Duke of Cambridge.
My Spanish chef friends Paco and Patricia always bring carabineros which are like nothing else I have ever tried, extreme prawn viscerality.
The head is the tastiest bit.
Prep: Sprinkle with salt.
How to cook: Gently grill over oak coals.
Serve with: You need nothing but a good hand and face wash after – this is no finger bowl matter.
Peter Weeden, Duke of Cambridge
It's a bit more expensive but has a firm texture that holds up to the fire well and benefits from a marinade and light charring.
How to prepare: Ask your fishmonger for cleaned fillets to your specified weight, that you can then cut into smaller kebab size pieces to skewer. Or ask your fishmonger to provide the whole tail, bone-in, which you barbecue-roast whole.
Marinade: I often go with lemon zest, olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes and some fresh herbs, and leave it to marinade for 4-6 hours or overnight. Add a squeeze of lemon just prior to cooking.
How to cook: There are two main options for grilling monkfish. The first, and by far the most-straight forward, is to grill your portioned or skewered monkfish fillets high and fast directly over the coals. You want a high heat that sears the fish quickly, 2-3 minutes on each side. The fish should be served tender – or just blushing as we like to say – as opposed to over-cooked, which will cause it to be tough and leathery.
The second option, if you keep it whole, is to slow-roast over the coals from a distance, lacquering the fish with a glaze on marinade as it cooks. This is a more technical and complicated approach but one that yields amazing results.
Serve with: A good-quality crusty baguette, a flavoured mayonnaise or aioli of sorts, and nice fresh and zingy salad to cut through it all. A perfect meal for a summer night.
Josh Katz, Berber & Q
Prep: Thread scallops onto skewers.
How to cook: Rub the skewers in olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add to a hot barbecue. Cook for 5-6 mins, turning once or twice until tender and juicy in the middle and lightly charred on the outside.
Serve with: A salsa verde made with lots of chopped parsley, basil and mint, stirred into finely crushed anchovies, capers, garlic, mustard and loosened with lemon juice and olive oil.
Sam Richards, recipe writer, Abel & Cole
Prep: Rub the fish with plenty of sea salt on the inside and out an hour-or-so before cooking.
How to cook: Over a gentle heat with some decent smoke from good quality seasoned oak, beech or apple wood. Don’t try to rush things; let the flames die back then play with the smouldering wood and embers to cook and smoke evenly.
Serve with: Summer salads; chunky cucumber with mint, red onion and coriander, perhaps with a dollop of yoghurt. Or, a good white cabbage, carrot and onion slaw – no mayo – lots of ginger, garlic, chilli, salt, sugar and a splash of fish sauce. Asparagus with peas and broad beans, a splash of olive oil and marjoram, also will do the trick.
Peter Weeden, Duke of Cambridge
Fish: Arctic char
Prep: Bone four fillets of char (each around 180g) and place in a tray and salt both sides. Keep at room temperature for two hours. Dry the fish and place skin side up on a heat resistant tray.
Marinade: Seasoning for the above two teaspoon salt, one teaspoon sugar, one teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
How to cook: Cover with hay (around 5-6in high) and set on fire. Repeat one or two times until the skin can be removed by pulling it off with your fingers from one side.
Serve with: New potato cooked with dill stems, aioli and sugar snaps.
Niklas Ekstedt from Ekstedt
Cooking with fire: Meat
“Barbecue, open fire or grill style foods are an exceptionally healthy way of eating, as they use very little or no additional fat or oils,” says chef Adam Gray who cycles over a thousand miles a month.
“I think people have moved on from simply throwing a few sausages and burgers on a barbecue and cremating them to a crisp. They want to know where their meat has come from and if it is good quality, ethically sourced and sustainable to the UK.
“Being more adventurous with cuts can be very cost effective and yield good portions, which is especially important in the current times.”
Meat: A whole chicken – it feeds a crowd with minimal fuss
Prep: To butterfly a chicken, turn it over and place breast side down. Remove the spine by running your finger down the back of the chicken to identify the bone and the soft outer side of the ribcage.
What we’ll be drinking
Morando Silvio, Naturalmente Rosso, Piemonte, Italy
Light red fruits, with subtle notes of cherries and spice, perfect with barbecue red meat
Clos des Vins D’amour, Idylle, Cotes du Roussillon, France
Dry, light white with hints of citrus and topical fruits. Good acidity to compliment oily/barbecue fish
Morando Silvio, Bastardo Rosato, Piemonte, Italy
Fresh and fruity rose with a subtle sparkle. Refreshing and well matched with light vegetarian dishes
Lager if you're starting early
Session pale if you’re pairing with sunshine and grilled fish
Dark Lager as the sun goes down and your meat is on the charred side
Everleaf spritz (1 part Everleaf, 3 parts tonic, orange wedge) for a classy aperitif
Karma Cola for the ultimate food-drink bold flavour comb
Place the tip of a large sharp knife vertically to one side of the spine.
Press the blade of the knife down firmly, then in one movement, run the knife all the way down the side of the spine cutting through the soft rib tissue with your blade next to the bone, applying a good amount of pressure.
Turn the bird around and repeat so you have cut all the way down one side of each spine and it is now free.
Pull out the spine. You can now flip your bird over and flatten it out.
Marinade: Mix together 3 tbsp rose harissa paste, 3 tbsp olive oil, juice of 1 lemon and 1 orange, 1 tbsp honey, ½ tsp pure sea salt and coat the chicken, ideally overnight but a least a few hours before cooking.
How to cook: Barbecue over strong but indirect heat for around 30-40 mins, until the skin is crispy and lightly charred. Insert a knife into the thickest part of the leg to check it is cooked. If juices run clear, you are good to go
Serve with: Torn into wraps, with hummus and salad.
Connor Reed, chef, Pipers Farm
Cut: Flat brisket
Marinade: 2 garlic cloves, a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, the grated zest of 1 lemon, 2 tbsp olive oil and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Crush the garlic, herbs and lemon together and rub into meat and veg.
How to cook: Try using the lid of the barbecue and cook larger joints of meat for a longer time over a more gentle heat.
Serve with: A salad made with barbecued red onions, pickles, beetroot, parsley and lemon.
Sam Richards, recipe writer, Abel & Cole
Meat: Cull Yaw Lamb
From The Cornwall Project at Phillip Warrens Butchers
Best Cut: The chops for their tender meat and crisp juicy fat
Seasoning: A good seasoning of salt and once almost cooked, coat them in date syrup.
How to cook: Very gently over very low coals covered in ash or if your barbecue has indirect setting then use that. Turn regularly and to finish let the fire flare up a little to crisp the outside – these chops have a lot of fat on them so this will happen easily. Coat in date syrup and place back on the grill to char a little more on either side. Coat a second time in the syrup and then back on the grill. Leave to rest for five mins before eating.
Serve with: These chops are very rich from the fat and syrup, so pair them with a little red onion soaked in vinegar for a sharp kick and coriander for freshness.
Selin Kiazim, co-founder Oklava
Meat: Pork, from a heritage rare breed
Cut: The collar of a British lop pig (try Trevaskis Farm), which will offer you a depth of flavour that the finer cuts cannot.
Marinade: Create an Indian style pesto with fresh coriander, lots of garlic, mint, green chillies, ginger, olive oil, cloves, salt, cider vinegar and lime juice. Cut the pork into strips and rub it into the pork well and leave for six to eight hours to marinade. Then scrape off marinade to cook.
How to cook: If you have a barbecue with a cover then put the meat in the low heat section and lower the lid to let it cook gently. Then transfer it to the hot side to add colour and serve.
Serve with: Plain rice with some butter, peas and garlic run through. Pasta tossed with olive oil and garlic and some fresh coriander. Add crushed chilli flakes for best results.
Cyrus Todiwala, chef, author of Simple Spice Vegetarian
Meat: Lamb riblettes
Marinade: Jerk style – ½ bunch fresh finely chopped thyme leaves, 100ml clear honey, 40g ground cinnamon 2 Scotch bonnet chillies – finely chopped, 40g ground pimentos (allspice), 100ml dark rum (for 8 riblettes)
How to cook: Marinade the lamb in the fridge for 24 hours, if possible. Place the marinated lamb riblettes on a hot barbecue, rotating every 4-5 minutes until cooked all the way through. Leave to rest for 3-4 minutes.
Serve with: Apple and celeriac coleslaw – 1 celeriac, 3 braeburn apples, 150g mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons English mustard, ½ bunch chives, salt and pepper for seasoning.
Adam Gray, chef, recipe for The Ethical Butcher
Lizzie Rivera is the founder of sustainable lifestyle guide, livefrankly.co.uk