Women on fire: top tips from two of the UK’s best BBQ chefs
In most households men are in charge of the barbecue but there’s a small but influential band of women moving onto their territory and transforming the way we think about grilling
I talked to two, food writer Helen Graves (above right) the editor of Pit Magazine and Genevieve Taylor (left) author of Charred and Foolproof BBQ who runs the Bristol Fire School to find out how they got into fire and get their top tips
What got you into BBQing and how did you become the chief firelighter in your household
There’s no romantic backstory here; it’s more a case that I want to eat everything, always, and barbecue was a natural extension of the kitchen for me - a case of, what’s that all about, then? When I tried it I became fascinated by the extra dimension of flavour that smoke and char can add to foods. I think of that flavour more as an ingredient than a technique, I suppose.
I was always quite experimental with what I cooked on the BBQ though, and as time went by I started to become frustrated by what was often a one dimensional narrative: all big pieces of meat, cheeseburgers and flame aprons. What were the real stories? We tend to focus on one style cooked by one group of people here in the UK, and while I’ve nothing against that, it’s not interesting to me. That’s where Pit magazine came from: a desire to start conversations around live fire cooking that looked through a wider cultural lens.
It started with wanting to be outside which is where I’m at my happiest. When the kids are little and you’re feeding them three times a day you want to mix it up a bit - it was my way of breaking the shackles of domesticity. When they were small they wanted to join in but now they’re too cool!
Why don’t women barbecue more? I think it’s a confidence thing. They don’t know where to start but women are brilliant at fire cooking because we’re so adept at multi-tasking.
Suppose you want to have your first crack at BBQ what are the first few essential steps
The key thing is to know where to place the food in relation to the heat. You should only put your fuel in half the barbecue so you have somewhere to move the food if the charcoal gets too hot. 75-80% of foods are better off cooking over indirect heat. If you take it slow you get a more juicy end result with food that is also cooked through.
It’s also worth getting a chimney starter because it creates an efficient airflow and gets the barbecue going faster. The only three things you need to light a fire are fuel, ignition (a match) and oxygen
Get yourself a basic kettle BBQ with a lid, because that will allow you to cook most things. You will also want a chimney starter, some decent firelighters like the natural ones made from ‘wood wool’ and the best quality charcoal you can afford. Grab a pair of tongs and you’re all set.
The other thing to remember is to set up your BBQ with the coals banked to one side, so that you’ve got a range of heat zones where you can crisp things up, cook them slowly or even just keep them warm.
And the mistakes that most beginners make?
The two things for me are the charcoal, and the way it’s allowed to burn before cooking. Buy the best charcoal you can afford, because the cheap stuff is pumped full of chemicals and you will need to wait a long time for those chemicals to burn off before you can start cooking. Good quality charcoal will be ready much faster and won’t taint your food.
It’s bollocks that you have to wait until you get a layer of white ash. That’s because most charcoal is full of chemicals and you have to burn them off. You can get good British charcoal going in 5 minutes.
And people tend to spread coals all over the base of the BBQ. As I said, you need set up zones in your fire.
How big or expensive a barbecue do you need to buy?
There are so many BBQs on the market now and yeah, it’s fun to play with big, shiny toys but most things can be cooked on a standard kettle BBQ. I use my large Weber kettle the most often.
I have lots of different barbecues at Fire School but you really only need one standard kettle style barbecue. You shouldn’t need to spend more than £200-300. Weber is a good compromise between space, budget and style.
Charcoal or gas?
Charcoal every time. You need to think about fuel as your principal ingredient. In the UK we tend to approach BBQ in an ad hoc way. When the sun is shiningI we rush off and buy a bag of charcoal and a pack of sausages from the supermarket but the charcoal most likely comes from tropical hardwood from South America or West Africa, probably illegally harvested. There’s no point in spending £30-40 on beautiful grass-fed salt aged beef and cook it on chemically laden charcoal. I generally buy sustainable British charcoal from Whittle & Flame
I’d also add wood into the equation for a smoky flavour. Smoking isn't tricky - you can smoke on any barbecue with a lid.
I’m a charcoal gal, because you won’t get the same results from a gas BBQ. For example, the fat dripping onto the coals creates smoke, which creates flavour. That’s not achievable with an outdoor hob. I hate snobbery when it comes to cooking, so do what you want, but don’t expect the same results.
Charcoal production is an ancient skill and we should support it - it’s a joy to burn and I never get tired of lighting it and hearing it ‘sing’ - good charcoal makes a sort of tinkling sound when you light it, which always makes me excited. That sound is full of promise.
What's the best way to get out of the burger, banger and chicken leg rut
Meat in a bun does tend to define most BBQs, and I think the best way to combat that is to think seasonally. E.g. If it's spring then asparagus might be in, and a lot of vegetables just need tossing in a little oil and grilling quickly - sprinkle them with sea salt and you have something wonderful as they have softened and sweetened yet charred around the edges. I also love grilling small new potatoes until they turn wrinkly and serving them on cold yoghurt with spiced chilli butter. Of course, roots can be wrapped in foil can be chucked into the coals, too.
People are always amazed that you can cook a roast Sunday lunch on the barbecue. You can even bake a cake over indirect heat - it works just like a fan oven.
Favourite ingredient to put on the grill?
My world is all about meat at the moment as I’ve been working on recipes for my new book Seared but in general veg really excite me. Meat is delicious but quite one dimensional. With veg you get so many colours and textures - squishy and crunchy, red, green, yellow … You can layer them with herbs and nuts. There are so many options
At the moment, I love lamb ribs. The fat goes all crackly and crisp, and the inside is butter soft. Lamb is one of my all time favourite ingredients, to be honest. Mainly because the flavour is strong and it can take a lot of spice. I don’t do subtle flavours, as a general rule. I also love grilling small new potatoes though, and soft stone fruits like peaches and nectarines, to eat with salty cheese.
What country’s barbecuing tradition do you most admire?
There are so many! I love Turkish barbecue and I love the ocakbasi. The way the coals are really burnt down to embers and the kebabs or vegetables really cook very slowly over them, absorbing all that smoke. I also love grilled shellfish, and particularly the 'snails' (my friend Liliane Nguyen told me all shellfish are known as snails) in Vietnam and Cambodia. I love very simply grilled seafood like that, which preserves the sweetness of the meat and doesn’t overpower it. That's what inspired the prawns with chilli salt recipe.
There’s not a country that doesn’t have a cuisine based on fire-cooking. Fire is where it all began. I’m really into using spices and herbs so I’m naturally drawn to food from south-east Asia. There’s a great tradition of Khmer barbecue in Cambodia. Thai BBQ is great then there’s Mexico, south America ….
What are your top tips for barbecuing for a crowd?
It just needs more advance prep in the kitchen - doing your chopping, making your marinades and sauces. But get people to help. Friends who would never come over and help if you were at the hob in the kitchen are happy to pitch in. They regard the cooking as part of the occasion.
Keep it simple with things that can be piled onto big platters, so wings are great, and so are big grilled vegetables plates with a killer dressing. Add a contrasting texture such as some toasted seeds or grilled bread croutons and you can’t go wrong. Over complicating things is where it will unravel. This isn’t the time to try cooking a brisket for the first time, for example.
Beer, wine or cocktails with a BBQ?
All of the above, in my opinion. Beer is an obvious choice but I love to serve a dark rose with lamb chops, for example, or something more gritty and oxidative with pork shoulder would be quite lovely actually. I’m generally not that into orange wines, but I could see the herbal edges working well with the sweet richness of that slow cooked meat.
I’m not a great lover of cocktails. Beer when I’m cooking and wine when I’m eating!
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