Winter BBQ is fun
Cooking outdoors over fire is a pleasure we appreciate from a young age, sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows perhaps, or splitting the crisp skin on a just-baked potato. Cooking this way is satisfying because it feels primal and exciting as the flames crackle into life and the enticing smell of smoke fills the air. It’s instinctive, accessible, and a whole lot of fun - so why do we save it all for summer?
While rain can be off putting, there’s no reason to stay inside on a clear, crisp winter’s day - just grab a coat and woolly hat and fire up that grill. Barbecue cooking is particularly fun around the festive season, when we can round up a gang of friends and family, dig out those Christmas jumpers and gather around the warm grill with a steaming Thermos of mulled wine.
Winter BBQ has something in common with taking a dip in a freezing lake on Boxing Day morning - it’s a bit of a challenge, it’s invigorating and it leaves you with a great sense of satisfaction. The reason BBQ is better than cold water swimming, of course, is that there’s some incredible food to eat at the end of it all.
More BBQ means more flavour
Barbecued food tastes so good because smoke and char adds something special to the overall flavour. Meat, fish and vegetables caramelise when they come into contact with the hot grill, benefitting from a quick sear that’s hard to achieve with anything but live fire: try comparing the crust on steak cooked in a frying pan with that cooked over charcoal and you’ll immediately see the world of difference.
Adding wood smoke in the form of logs or chips can further enhance the flavour. As the various structural components of wood burn they produce different flavours in the food, such as vanilla, peach and green apple. There’s lots of fun to be had slow smoking foods such as large pieces of meat using different types of wood, but a handful of wood chips and some chicken wings can work just as well.
It’s important to buy wood and charcoal from a reputable supplier to ensure that it’s sustainably sourced (and in the case of wood properly seasoned - or dried out). Companies such as The London Log Co. sell DEFRA (Department for Environment and Rural Affairs) approved charcoal made from coppiced woodlands in Kent and various types of English wood.
Oak is a popular all rounder because it burns evenly and produces a smoke flavour which is strong but doesn’t overwhelm, while fruit woods such as apple and cherry produce lighter but notably more floral smoke flavours.
Neglecting our BBQ during the winter months means we miss the opportunity to play around with the fantastic ingredients which do so well on the grill at this time of year.
Many autumn and winter vegetables such as beetroot, onions and carrots are excellent cooked directly on the coals (a technique barbecue geeks call cooking ‘dirty’) and can then be chopped into salads, blended into dips to scoop with fluffy, toasted bread or covered with a flavoured butter and served as a side dish to a piece of meat.
Large vegetables which need more delicate cooking - hello, pumpkin and squash - do well on the grill in slices but can also be hollowed out, stuffed and cooked whole, to dramatic effect. Try hollowing out a pumpkin and filling it with cheese, pieces of stale sourdough and beer for an incredible centrepiece which is perfect to share in a group at Halloween.
Chestnuts are incredible roasted over an open fire (maybe someone even wrote a song about it?) and are buttery-sweet once cooked. Make sure to cut a small cross in the side of each one before you place over a 200C grill for around 15 minutes, turning and watching carefully to avoid burning. They’re ready once they’re a little charred on the outside and the cross cut into the side has opened up to reveal the meat of the chestnut.
Many people are now choosing to cook the centrepiece of their Christmas dinner on the barbecue too, and there’s no question that the flavour of turkey is infinitely improved by smoking. To cook a bird on a large kettle barbecue such as a Weber, it’s best to spatchcock it (remove the spine) so that the bird lays flat and cooks evenly. A 4.5kg bird will take around 1 hour 50 minutes at approximately 150C offset (the easiest way to monitor cooking is with an instant read temperature probe). The bonus of cooking a turkey this way is that the leftovers will make the most mind blowing sandwiches - how about a turkey reuben with sauerkraut, cheese and Russian dressing?
Finally, there is always a sure fire way to cook a memorable meal on a barbecue: steak. Cooking a steak on a charcoal grill will always be vastly superior to cooking one indoors. Make sure your meat is up to room temperature and the grill is ready for direct cooking. Season the steak very heavily with salt right before placing it on the grill, then cook, flipping every 30 seconds or so. This frequent flipping ensures the steak cooks evenly while still building up an excellent crust. You’ll need to cook a 250g rib eye for around 3 minutes each side in total for medium rare meat. Rest for around 5 minutes before slicing and serving.
Tips and tricks for a great winter BBQ
Direct grilling: to set up a grill for direct cooking in a kettle barbecue, remove the top grill from your barbecue and place a couple of natural firelighters on the bottom grate. Fill a chimney starter with coals, then light the fire lighters and place the chimney starter on top. It’s ready once the coals on top have started to turn grey with ash. Tip the coals out into your barbecue and set the grill back on top.
Direct cooking (grilling): To set up the coals for direct cooking arrange them evenly across the bottom of your barbecue.
Indirect cooking (slow cooking): Set your coals to one side of the barbecue and place your food on the opposite side.
Forestry England Picnic and Forest BBQ Finder: https://www.forestryengland.uk/activities/picnics-and-barbecues
London parks that currently allow BBQ: Caledonian Park, Gillespie Park, Paradise Park Burgess Park, Cantelowes Garden, Waterlow Park, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Highbury Fields.
UK Fire Service BBQ Safety Advice: https://www.fireservice.co.uk/safety/barbecue/
The London Log Co: https://www.londonlogco.com/
The Oxford Charcoal Company: https://www.oxfordcharcoal.co.uk/shop
Flamers Natural Firelighters: https://flamersfirelighters.co.uk/
The Science of Smoke: https://www.pitmagazine.uk/the-science-of-smoke/
Weber kettle BBQs are good all rounders: https://www.weber.com/GB/en/home/
Met Office weather map: https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/forecast/map