With the August Bank Holiday approaching, the Food Services Agency in the UK is warning people to take care when using the BBQ to reduce the chance of food poisoning, including telling people to pre-cook food in the oven first.
Although this is probably safe advice, for people who really enjoy BBQ food precooking is also a really good way to spoil the great taste of freshly barbecued food. So, what to do?
Pick your ingredients!
There are certain food which are more prone to cause problems than others. For instance, British sausages and BBQs are a bad mix! Often very fatty (which is what makes them nice) they burn easily on the outside, make the old charcoal go up in flames, and can be difficult to cook all the way through properly. To be honest, they fry better, so either avoid them completely or put an old frying pan on the BBQ and cook them in that properly. Note – don’t use a pan with a plastic handle!
Pork can be an issue and must be cooked properly. If you are not confident in getting it right, don’t use cuts that are on the bone, like large chops, as it can be harder to get the meat cooked properly that is closest to the bone.
Likewise, chicken on the bone is also problematical – again, if you are not confident, go for boneless thighs and breasts and do something different with them.
By the way, while you are choosing ingredients, don’t forget to BBQ veggies – they can be really nice!
Remember the good old Kebab
Cooking meet on a metal skewer is wonderful for several reasons – it looks nice, the meat is not on the bone (er, normally) and the metal helps transmit heat into the middle of the meat.
Meat can be in cubes if you have a good sized BBQ that will stay at a good temperature, but if you using a disposable that will not keep its heat, try threading thinner strips of meat onto the skewer instead. Pork makes good kebabs too, by the way, which often gets forgotten. Mince squeezed onto a skewer as a kofta is also a good alternative – again, go for a thin one if using a disposable and make sure your hands are spotless before squeezing!
Get a cooking thermometer
This is a real essential item – don’t leave home without it, as they used to say. You should be using this in the kitchen at home anyway, to be honest. Get yourself a list of common internal cooking temperatures (here is one from Knorr) and STICK TO IT!
This is the best way to get things right. I strongly suggest you invest in a good one and use it for years. Not only will it help make sure you are safe, but when you want to get things intentionally rare (like that amazing T-Bone you just spent your week’s pocket money on) then you will get that right too.
The one shown here is a professional SuperFast Thermapen and can be expensive – anything from £35 to £60 depending on where you get it. But there are cheaper ones, though they work more slowly and you must give them time to react properly. If you can treat yourself, go for this one – I love mine.
Pick the right BBQ and Temperature
Okay, I don’t like gas BBQs. For me the entire point of a barbecue is to get that charcoal, smokey flavour, and you don’t get that with gas without adding rubbish. But gas BBQs do have advantages – the main one from our point of view is consistent temperature over a long period of time. This makes the cooking process more predictable and therefore potentially safer. But you can achieve this with charcoal too, if you do not try and burn all your charcoal all at once, and refuel in very small amounts as you go instead (refuel with charcoal, that is, do not throw petrol on the damned thing, idiot!)
Temperature is also worth thinking about – you really do not want it too hot! For many foods, a slightly lower heat and longer cooking time will be safer and will cook better. You need to think about this especially on hot sunny days when your BBQ will heat up quicker and hotter and that can be a problem.
Cooking outside also causes a temperature contrast on cooler days – the top of the food (facing away from the grill) can cool down quickly if you have a cool breeze, so you may want to lay a clean small metal tray on top of some of the food as it cooks to help trap the heat above the kebab or whatever. The better Turkish restaurants in London like Efes in Great Tichfield Street do this all the time – worth just watching them to pick up great techniques.
If you have a large BBQ area, try going for a hot and less hot areas - you may want to char the outside of the meat first, then move it to the less hot area to cook through properly. Or, if you have different height grills, move stuff up to a cooler grill to finish cooking, but be careful of it not being cooled down by that British north easterly wind!
Follow obvious hygiene rules
Some people think some of the hygiene rules get in the way, but getting them right it very easy. Though it does get more complicated if you are cooking away from home.
Don’t mix raw and cooked
Get yourself two large containers, with lids, and use one to keep the uncooked food in and the other to put the food when it is cooked. Make sure both are spotlessly clean and keep putting the lids back on to help protect the food from flies, dust and anything you cant see.
Where you have food that will be served uncooked like salads and cold meats, keep them all separate from each other and away from the cooked and raw foods. If you think about it, you have four areas:
- Raw to be cooked
- Just cooked
- Raw to be eaten raw (salad, for instance)
- Previously cooked (ham, pork pies…)
Keeping those away from each other is a good rule of thumb.
Don’t put your tongs in the raw meat and then immediately in the cooked meat pile!
Again, obvious stuff. Once you have stopped cooking it, your dish will start to cool down. If you use tongs that have been in contact with raw meat that may be covered in bacteria (er, WILL be covered), then the cooked food will no longer be hot enough to kill it. So, keep separate tools for serving and so on. Easy.
Wash your hands
Make sure you have hand washing stuff available at all times. You can also buy antibacterial hand spray at loads of places, though if your hands are greasy, you should wash them. It is not just if you go to the toilet, being outside means you will inevitably pick up bacteria all over the place, so take extra care (and keep the kids away from uncooked ingredients, so they don’t put their grubby paws all over it)
Don’t trust your own hands either. Always use clean utensils to handle food – it just takes away one problem area.
Keep Utensils and Dishes Clean
Make sure you have clean plates (keep them wrapped up till you actually need them on picnics), clean utensils and clean everything. You do in your kitchen, it is equally as possible outside. Also, make sure any cloths you are using are clean – make sure you have some spares and never touch food with cloths. Packs of disposable cloths are a good idea.
It is worth having spares sometimes of things like tongs and fish slices and so on. So don’t go and buy stupid expensive BBQ kits, just go and get good catering stuff that will last for years and is nowhere near as expensive. Your BBQ is probably not big enough to justify something with a ten foot handle! But if you have two, when you drop one, you can use the other while some kind person goes and cleans the one that has landed in the cow pat. I buy stuff from Nisbets through Amazon – good for proper sized aprons too!
Get your techniques and planning right
Don’t assume you know how to cook everything properly – go and look things up!
Different foods take different amounts of time and thicknesses play a big part. Plan your time. Think about your BBQ – if it is a disposable, it wont last long, so do not try and cook half a sheep on it – go for thinner cuts.
Marinate in advance, but don’t use huge amounts of oil – it will drip and flame up, charring the meat too quickly without cooking the middle properly.
Don’t cook too hot – be patient. You will look more professional and the food will taste better. Remember, you want to flavour your food gently with smoke and wood tastes, not make it taste like a lump of coal!
Make sure you are not rushed or make things over complicated. If you are going for a picnic, choose just one or two items to BBQ and make stunning salads and pies to go with it that are eaten cold. Leave the complicated stuff for home where you can use your cooker as a backup.
Small is better – great fat lumps do not cook well on BBQs. BBQs are very direct, close heat and your choice of cooking should reflect that.
Reduce flareups – if they do happen, don’t spray them with water, move the food out of the way till it subsides.
Let food cook. So many people continually poke at the food. I am not sure what they are trying to achieve; looking more pro, probably. If you get the temperature right, you can put the food on the grill, let it cook one side and then gently turn it over for the other and so on. Prodding it continually won’t do anything for it and may actually cause you problems.
Okay, that is enough. None of this is rocket science (you can tell because no rockets have been launched as a result), but a little bit of thought goes a long way. Getting it right will not only keep your family safe, but your food will taste much, much, much better and your reputation will soar. What is more, you wont have to pre-cook everything to death and then kill it again over the coals (unless your recipe says so, of course).
Now, that has to be worth it, doesn’t it?