Photos by MJ Klein
Recently I’ve been hearing people say they are going to “barbecue” something over the weekend. Naturally this is the time of year when people spend time by the grill, enjoying the outdoors. But, is that really barbecuing?
Here is Taiwan “BBQ” is a common phrase for grilling food. Often I’ll walk into a grill restaurant and the staff will start parroting “bar B Q, bar B Q” trying to communicate what they do (as if having grills on each table isn’t clear enough). Normally I reply by saying “no, this isn’t barbecue” but because of the blank stares, I give up.
So, what’s the difference anyway?
Let’s start off with the Rules of Grilling:
- The grill must be hot!
- The grill must be clean.
- The grill must be lubricated.
- Cooking times are short.
- Cooking happens fast!
These rules define the process.
Back when I lived in New Hampshire, I would invite friends over for a steak lunch. I used pieces of real wood (white oak) and burned them down into coals. Then I would oil the grate on my cast-iron grill and throw a huge slab of thick T-bone or Porterhouse cut prime beef on the grill. In just a few minutes it would be grilled to perfection, with a nice wood flavor. The entire process took about 45 minutes but it was well worth it!
This is not barbecuing by any means!
Remember, if it’s hot and fast, it’s grilling!
If what you’re doing resembles this, then you are absolutely without a doubt, grilling and not barbecuing
OK, so what is barbecuing then? If we’ve all been using the wrong term for all these years, what is it?
- Barbecuing temperatures are low (relatively speaking), on the order of 100C.
- Cooking times are long, requiring several hours or more.
- Fuel most often consists of real wood or wood products.
- Fuel likely requires replenishing during the cooking process.
If you have one of these and you’re using it correctly, then you are BBQing!
However, even if you are using a grill, it’s still possible to barbecue with it. But how? As I pointed out, the grill is hot and cooking is fast with short cooking times. How can you slow cook with a grill?
It’s all about direct and indirect cooking. In the photograph of the grill above the fuel is directly under the food and the heat directly cooks the food. In the photograph of the smoker just above, we see that the fuel is off to the side (this is called a “offset” fire box) and the heat enters the cooking chamber below the food. You can use your grill for indirect cooking too!
I made a ring out of sheet metal for the center of the grill. You can fill the outside with charcoal or wood and put the food on the cooking grate over the hole. The heat will be indirect and the cooking time will be longer. Put the top on the grill and BBQ away! The ring is also useful if you want to grill a small amount of food with a large grill. You can put the fuel in the center and use a lot less.
If you use a multi-burner gas grill you can light one burner off to the side, and put the food at the opposite side, and close the lid. Easy! Experimenting with indirect cooking is a great hobby with excellent rewards!
This is a very important topic but it’s not very well understood. Fuels make the difference between your food tasting great and you getting very ill from improper cooking techniques.
There are two types that concern us. Lump charcoal, and so-called “briquettes.” They are very different and require understanding of how to properly cook with them!
Lump charcoal is made from real wood and basically it’s nothing more than wood that’s been burned in a low oxygen environment. Please see this article I wrote that includes a photograph of a charcoal burning mound. Since lump charcoal is already burned, it is a suitable fuel to add to the cooking fire at any time.
Briquettes are very different. They are made from wood sawdust and formed in a press using high pressure and chemicals to bind them. These chemicals give the charcoal a distinctive smell in its unburned state and that smell is present when the charcoal is burning down too. When using briquettes, it is very important that you allow the charcoal to burn down and “ash over” before you use it! This also means that if you need to supplement your fuel as you are cooking, you cannot directly add briquettes to the cooking fire! I often keep a second fire going to prepare fuels that require burning down before adding. It’s always a good idea to keep a bag of lump charcoal around because it’s a safe fuel to add directly to the cooking fire.
My favorite cooking fuel and used since the beginning of time, real wood is a steady and reliable source of heat (and light!) energy. I often joke that I can look at a pile of wood and tell you how long you can cook with it. This is because wood fuel is very consistent. Cut pieces must be dried before using for cooking. These days, cut firewood is kiln dried, but if you have a woodpile you must age the wood for at least a year before using it for cooking. Like charcoal briquettes, you must burn the wood down before you can cook over it! Burning wood releases chemicals much like the briquettes do. Although entirely natural, these chemicals released by burning wood can make you sick if you eat food cooked over burning wood. You want to cook food over burning embers. So, burn the wood until the entire surface is scorched before you use it. Most barbecue aficionados will remove the bark from the logs because it can impart a bitter flavor to the food. It depends upon what kind of wood you are using, but you can experiment and see for yourself. My favorite type of wood is White Oak. Red oak is often used for smoking fish and I’ve personally used it for salmon and pork. Fabulous!
You should never use wood or any type of charcoal indoors! These products release deadly carbon monoxide!
Gas is great if you are pressed for time or can’t light a charcoal fire. Gas is instant-on, and always clean, so you can use it indoors too. As long as your grill is designed correctly (and most are) you will still get that “grilled” flavor. Personally I like the grill designs that use lava rocks and the flavor improves over time.
So, now that you know about grilling versus barbecuing, go ahead and use the commonly understood (but incorrect) term for charcoal grilling, but be prepared in case you meet someone who would beg to differ with you! barbecue