From gas to charcoal: Barbecue methods put to the test

Which barbecue is best for a juicy T-bone steak?
Which barbecue is best for a juicy T-bone steak? Photo: William Meppem

The smokey art of barbecuing is a hot topic in Australia right now, not just because summer is approaching but because we are experimenting with ever more diverse and challenging methods of cooking in the great outdoors. American-style barbecue is igniting a lot of interest among chefs, including Neil Perry who plans to "get into Southern barbecue with marinades, injections and slow smoking". Wes Griffiths, our cover star and pit master, stays up all night tending to his two-tonne Yoder Smoker (nicknamed Kong) at Sydney's Vic's Meat Market. When Griffiths talks about barbecue he is not talking about a type of grilling apparatus, he means a whole genre of cooking (and boderline religion) that is Southern-style barbecue.

But for most Austalians, what will be sizzling in backyards this summer are versions of wood, charcoal and gas-fired grills.

T-riffic: Piquant T-bone steaks.
T-riffic: Piquant T-bone steaks. Photo: Getty Images

Good Food decided to put the seven most popular to the test.

We looked at the way the different fuels and heat sources affected texture, aroma and flavour. We assessed their practicalitytaking into account the amount of time the different barbecues took to heat up, the amount of smoke they produced, the cost to buy and run and how much space they took up when in use and when stored. Barbecues have their own personality and the joy of use also formed part of the judging criteria. On each barbecue we cooked a T-bone, corn cob, whole green prawn and thick pork sausage.

We've ranked the barbecues in reverse order.

Hot stuff: a bigger, beefier barbecue.
Hot stuff: a bigger, beefier barbecue. Photo: Jennifer Soo

7 - Electric barbecue

There are few governments around the world that invest in infrastructure so its population can  barbecue meat in public places. In Australia, the right to a free electric barbie in the park is almost enshrined in the constitution. The model we tried was a freestanding barbecue with dual heavy-duty stainless steel hotplates with moulded stainless steel surrounds, made by Victorian-based company Christie Parksafe. Food is cooked by  conduction, with heat passing through the steel into the food. By definition it is actually a flat grill, perfect for cooking items such as hamburgers, flat sausages such as cevapcici, minute steaks, sliced vegetables and pineapple rings. A drainage hole in the middle removes  fat and cooking juices. It is operated by pushing a button for several seconds to activate a 15-minute cooking cycle. After 10 minutes we tested the temperature of the grill top and found cool spots of 96C and hot spots of 160C. We put our food on. Shortly after the grilltop turned itself off. We pushed the button again and the hotplate heated to temperatures that ranged between 120C and 200C. There were no visual clues from the hotplate as to where the hot and cold spots were. The round sausage burned where it was in contact with the barbecue but remained uncooked in the middle. The steak was browned where it touched the hotplate surface and was dry and well down by the time it had browned all over. The prawn cooked through adequately and the corn cooked well inside its husk. Judging by the flavour of the food, the hotplate may have been cleaned with a strong cleaner as the steak tasted of caustic soda.

Expense: None

Running cost: None

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Time to heat: 15 minutes

Convenience: Poor unless you live near a park

Smoke: Negligible

Ease of cleaning: If you carry cleaning gear, easy

Character: Orwellian in its bland utilitarianism  

Similar:

Swedia's you-get-what-you-pay-for $50 electric grill sees food cooked atop glowing electric elements.

Davis and Waddell 8 Person Electric Party Grill brings ersatz outdoor barbecue to your Total Fire Ban party for around $90

Black and Stone's stainless steel twin element cooker features a hood and stand. $500

6 - The briquette kettle

Sometime in the 1980s the Weber became the barbecue equivalent of the Rubik's Cube: a cute, fun item that everyone had to have. The Weber was developed in the US in the 1950s from a marine buoy cut in half. They are mostly stoked with briquettes made from compressed wood charcoal, carbonised brown coal, stone chips to retain the heat and an oxidising agent to help the briquette catch alight. Briquettes go by different brand names but barbecue aficionados maintain that the oxidising agent makes food cooked over them taste like lighter fluid. Briquettes do not burn as hot as pure charcoal and are shielded by a layer of ash, which stops the infrared heat from browning the meat like charcoal does. Instead, with the lid on, kettles cook more like ovens, with heated air moving around and cooking the food. The Weber Smoky Joe cooked everything all the way through, gave a great flavour and texture but was poor at colouring the flesh. While the steak and sausage both cooked well on the inside, the exteriors remained pale. The benefit was that the food  was very juicy. Although the kettle lacks the drama of the hiss and spit of cooking over flames, it roasts food perfectly and is ideal for cooking entire meals outside on hot days.

Expense: $100

Running cost: $3-$5

Time to heat: 30-60 minutes

Convenience: Moderate

Smoke: Little

Ease of cleaning: Easy

Character: Great for crowd-pleasing roasted food with a barbecue aroma  

5 - Middle Eastern charcoal barbecue 

It's a cheap steel box sold in every Greek, Lebanese and Afghani grocery that lasts several decades and grills food perfectly when the grillmaster understands the medium – charcoal. This is wood that has been partially burned in oxygen-poor conditions leaving mostly carbon. It can be difficult to light but a chef's trick is to fill an old flat-bottomed colander with charcoal and place this on a gas burner to ignite the fuel. The now-burning charcoal is placed in the barbecue  and covered with more charcoal, where shortly flames appear then die down. Within an hour the charcoal is alight and covered with a fine layer of ash. This is important as charcoal cooks through infrared heat. This fine layer of ash blankets the charcoal and stops the food from cooking too quickly on the outside while remaining raw in the middle. As the food cooks it releases moisture and fat, which drop on to the coals, producing an  aromatic gas that envelops and flavours the food. The food science books say that charcoal doesn't add flavour but we used a cheap bag of charcoal, which imparted a bitter flavour to the meat. Some imported charcoal can come from questionable sources, such as mangrove forests.   Once the coals are alight there is little smoke, except for that coming from the food. Fatty cuts of meat, if placed on hot  coals, can cause flare-ups, flames and burned meat. Apart from the faint bitter note, the trusty old grill turned out a steak with a delicious golden outer and medium centre, a juicy prawn, beautifully caramelised snorker and rather aromatic corn. Charcoal can be purchased from hardware stores, Middle Eastern grocer and fuel merchants. 

Expense: $60-$100

Running cost: $5-$10 in charcoal

Time to heat: 60 minutes

Convenience: Moderate

Smoke: Moderate once the charcoal is burning

Ease of cleaning: Can be sooty

Character: A primal combination of glowing coals, the hiss of sizzling juices and the aroma of hot meat

4 - Australian hardwood barbecue 

Cooking over Australian hardwood is a dying art. Before the rise of kettle and gas barbecues and trendy charcoal burners, Australians cooked over fires made from wood. It was the standard suburban joke of the 1970s: the husband so inept he couldn't make a fire – a real jab at his manhood. The trick to barbecuing over wood is to chop lots of dry kindling with an axe, start the fire with kindling and finer wood then add  thicker pieces as it gets going. Let the fire die down and cook over the glowing coals. The beauty of cooking over these hardwood coals is that they still contain loads of aromatic wood compounds that flavour the food. Australian hardwood gives a lovely tang of woodsmoke, but wood from old fruit trees and olive trees add fruity flavours. To test this method, I was forbidden to dig a firepit in our tiny backyard so I made a fire from some really dry box gum in a brazier and when there were enough coals, I laid them out in the grill. Once the coals were in place, cooking the food was fast and clean. The steak seared beautifully on the outside, the flesh of the prawn was firm, juicy and smoky, the snag golden and the outside of the cob slightly singed but inside wonderfully fragrant. 

Expense: Axe $60, spade $50

Running cost: $10

Time to heat: 60 to 90 minutes 

Convenience: Not

Smoke: Smoky

Ease of cleaning: Easy – bury or compost the ashes

Character: Primal, elemental, slightly risky, fun

3 - Japanese charcoal barbecue 

These little porous ceramic hot boxes, powered by artisan Japanese charcoal, are the hipster must-have barbecue. Binchotan charcoal is made from carbonised Japanese oak and burns with a fine white coating of ash giving lower cooking temperatures but longer cooking time. The insulated ceramic walls of the box keep the outer temperature down to about 60C while it is hot as hell inside. This cooking method is famed for not bringing unpleasant aromas or flavours to the food and is often used in Japan for grilling eel. The T-bone steak almost covered the cooking surface and was pleasantly cooked. What really shone was the prawn, the binchotan really drawing out its lovely rich flavour and subtle iodine character. When the experiment was over, the coals were still hot so my 10-year-old daughter cooked some yellow eyed mullet to perfection. This little barbecue would be ideal for a hipster couple cooking yakatori washed down with Asahi, but would leave a family starving and impoverished as it is so small and the charcoal so expensive.

Expense: $215

Running cost: $50 for two kilograms of charcoal

Time to heat: 90 minutes

Convenience: Not

Smoke: Little

Ease of cleaning: Brush out the ashes and throw the grill in the dishwasher

Character: The Tamogotchi of the barbecue world.

2 - Gas barbecue

This is a rite-of-passage barbie, a blokey, serious man-gift that sons who have come of age give their dad for Father's Day or a heavy-duty happy 40th gift you might give the love of your life, male or female. It's a solid barbecue, with cast-iron hot plates and burners; usually cupboards underneath, which are handy for keeping a gas bottle; and a lid – "roasting hood" if you want to be down with the lingo – with a thermostat. Gas barbies can be souped up with extras, such as a side burner (great for wok-frying pre-barbecue snacks) and a smoker box (a one-kilogram bag of woodchips is about $9 at store.aussiebbqsmoke.com), which is a boon for ribs. The T-bone cooked up well, like cooking on a domestic stove in a cast-iron pan, with nice criss-cross char marks and a meaty aroma. Green prawns thrown shell-on were ready for a finger-burning peel after a couple of minutes. The corn had a nicely blackened husk and was juicy inside and the sausage charred well. Its key is versatility: grill, roast or smoke.

Expense: $500-$1000

Running cost: Gas bottle $50

Time to heat: 10 minutes (with the cover down) to reach about 250C

Convience: Very

Smoke: Very little

Ease of cleaning: Easy to scrape down but the heavy metal plates need washing on the ground (too big for sinks)

Character: Versatile outdoor kitchen for family roast or a meaty arvo session of grill work

1 - Gas kettle

This is a great grill-roast hybrid that combines the preheated sizzle of the LPG gas flame-heated barbecue hotplate and the sure-fire cooking method of roasting with heated air. The WebberQ is a perfect example of this mix of cooking methods.  The results speak for themselves: nicely seared meat with a lovely aroma of juices  hitting the hotplate and, to a lesser extent, the hot gas burner underneath. While the steaks were cut very thin, therefore very easy to overcook quite quickly, the oven-like environment inside the kettle seemed to stop the meat from drying out actually adding to the eating quality of quite ordinary meat.  It's also compact, easy to light, moderately easy to clean and easy to use.

Expense: $270+, gas bottle $50

Running cost: $2

Time to heat: 5 minutes

Convenience: Very

Smoke: Nil

Ease of cleaning: Very

Character: Cute, suburban and perfunctory