We tend to think of barbecue as the ideal celebration of summer, but with party plans stymied by COVID-19 restrictions, key holiday entertaining hit a few snags.
Maybe that's OK, because as more people graduate from gas and turn to charcoal and wood-fired cooking at home, they're realising it's actually more fun to gather a group around a fire in the cooler days of autumn to watch the embers settle to a perfect heat for barbecuing.
We've asked some of Australia's most proficient barbecue and fire wranglers to answer our barbecue FAQs. The main message? Play with fire, it's easier than you think, and never stop learning and experimenting.
Charcoal is a natural stepping stone to wood fuel, says Firedoor chef Lennox Hastie. Photo: Nikki To
I know gas is a bit boring but fire is scary!
Lennox Hastie is one of Australia's foremost grill-masters and everything at his Sydney restaurant Firedoor is cooked over wood. He encourages home barbecue cooks to graduate from gas to charcoal and then to join him in the fire zone.
"Gas is an extension of indoors," he says. "If that's what you're using, you need to recognise that and accept its limitations. When you have a gas flame hitting cast iron or a grill, it will cool down very quickly when you add your ingredients. Be careful not to overload a gas barbecue because it's not efficient. It's best to cook in smaller batches."
You may also want to add more flavour. "There's only one flavour profile on a gas barbecue, whereas wood is multi-faceted," he says. Marinating is one option, but Hastie is more inclined to flavour meats after they are cooked.
"If it's chicken or fish, you could do a mixture of garlic, chilli, lemon zest and really good olive oil and pour it over," he says. "Anything that comes off a grill will develop flavour as it rests and you can use that time to introduce flavours. It's also a good fix if things have dried out a bit because they will absorb flavour and moisture like a sponge."
Once you've exhausted the possibilities of gas, it's time for charcoal. "It's a natural stepping stone," he says. "Charcoal requires more patience and instinct and is a bit more of a journey." As always, quality matters. "Choose something made from Australian hardwood, like lump charcoal," he says. "It's great when you can actually see the shape and texture of the wood it came from. That means it's pure carbonised wood."
Up another step is Japanese binchotan charcoal. "It gives a pure, intense heat," says Hastie. "It is more expensive but you can cool it down and use it again, so you get more out of it."
Wood is the ultimate, both in terms of flavour and satisfaction. "At Firedoor, we view wood as an ingredient," he says. Timbers are selected for their long burn, clean smoke and fragrance. Ironbark ("the most dense Australian hardwood") and jarrah are mixed with lighter woods that burn with more subtle heat and add flavour notes.
"We use apple, cherry, plum and peach," says Hastie. "Prunings from fruit trees are good."
As with everything to do with food, quality matters. "A lot of people buy wood from a servo, but it's not great quality," says Hastie. "It tends to burn erratically and create lots of ash."
Once you've got the wood sorted, it's important to take the time to set a fire and let it burn down so you're cooking over embers. "That's when it's hottest and cleanest," says Hastie.
And then it's time to focus. "Cooking with a wood fire is such a great activity, like an interactive sport where you're making the choices. You have to commit to it, don't walk away, see it through to the end."
The pay-off is immense. "It's hard to explain to people," he says. "It's touch and feel and smell and even sound. I can hear food on the grill. It's a sheer natural joy and it drives me every single day."
Barbecuing fish can terrify many people, says Tasmanian chef Analiese Gregory. Photo: Adam Gibson
I really love seafood but there's no way I can cook it on the barbecue.
Tasmanian-based chef Analiese Gregory loves grilling seafood but she knows many people are scared to do it themselves. "Don't worry so much," she says. "Barbecue cooking is not super precise. Don't try to replicate the precision of indoors. Embrace the char and the flavour of fire."
Shellfish are an easy way to start. "You can put clams over a grill or on a flat plate and as soon as they open, they're done," she says. "Then you can toss them in a vinaigrette of fish sauce, lime juice and pepper."
Mussels are similar – they will open up in a few minutes over the heat of the grill. "Then you can pass them around with aioli to dip them in, eating them straight from the shell," says Gregory. She also likes to shuck oysters then put them shell-side down to warm through for a minute or two on the barbecue.
Fish on the barbecue is terrifying for many people. Gregory has some ideas. "I might catch a fish and wrap it in bull kelp," she says. Um, but in the real world? "You can wrap fish in baking paper and tin foil," she says. "Wrapping fish means you're steaming rather than aggressively grilling and you can throw in flavoured butter and herbs, then close it tightly to let it steam in its juices." Whole fish is especially forgiving because cuts on the bone are less likely to dry out.
Fillets can be grilled on an oiled sheet of baking paper that is put on a barbecue's hot plate to protect the skin. "Even so, the skin might tear but does it really matter?" she asks. "Chefs get precious about it but you don't need to at home." Sardines, butterflied by your fishmonger, are a great option. "You can stick them on a skewer, put them skin side down and leave them to crisp up a bit. You only need to cook them on one side for a couple of minutes because they're so small and because they are an oily fish, they are more forgiving."
Chef Ikuei Arakane of Wasshoi at Prahran Market. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Everything I do on the barbecue always seems to be dry. What can I do?
Ikuei Arakane, known as Kinsan, trained in Osaka, moved to Melbourne in 1987 and has taught countless local chefs how to grill Japanese-style in his work as a restaurateur, consultant chef and caterer. He owns Wasshoi Japanese grill at Prahran Market.
Marinating meats such as pork and chicken can help keep them juicy. "We marinate pork belly in miso paste for six hours, then slow-cook it before grilling," he says. The barbecue is used to char the exterior, adding flavour and texture, but the moisture is already locked in. Chicken is even easier. "We use a Maryland fillet, marinate it in soy, mirin, sake and xiaojing wine, then lightly cook it in the oven at 150 degrees, 8 minutes one side, then 7 minutes on the other," he says. After that, it's ready to be finished on the grill. "The flavour is already inside and you don't need to cook it for as long so it stays soft and juicy," he says.
Sharon Salloum from Almond Bar cooking a vegetarian barbecue at her family's home in Granville. Photo: Edwina Pickles
All my friends are suddenly vegetarian!
Sharon Salloum runs Almond Bar in Sydney's Darlinghurst, drawing on Syrian traditions she grew up with in Granville in the city's west. "I grew up smelling charcoal chicken my whole life," she says. "I thought the big Arab barbecue was just normal – someone was doing it every day of the week."
Women prepared the food but the backyard charcoal grill – built by her father, perhaps out of a shopping trolley and lawnmower wheels – was the men's zone. "But they were turning everything 800 times, the meat was drying out, and I didn't think they were honouring the work of the women." She elbowed her way in. "We still argue about it but I just want the cooking to be spot on."
In her family, every barbecue begins with potato. Sebago potatoes are peeled, sliced to about ½ centimetre thick, marinated for two hours in thyme, salt, red pepper paste and olive oil, then grilled on a flat plate each side until they're tender. "You eat them as a starter – they're simple but so good," she says.
Skewered mushrooms are a favourite, too. "Just like we skewer meat, my aunties skewer mushrooms, doused in crushed garlic, lemon and olive oil, grilled till they're soft." Wedges of onion are threaded onto skewers too. "They are sweet so they naturally caramelise," says Salloum.
Pre-COVID, Almond Bar became known for its laneway barbecues. Star veg dishes included eggplant, sliced long and thin and wrapped around a wedge of haloumi, brushed with zaatar oil then grilled. Corn was a favourite, too. "We'd peel the cobs, blacken them on the barbecue, then roll them in a tray of melted butter, pomegranate molasses, sumac and salt," she says.
Her barbecues often finish with bread. "We sit around for hours and toast Lebanese flatbread over the last coals of the barbecue, then spread them with toum [garlic dip], or with butter and cinnamon sugar."
Chef Jacob Usher's favourite cooking style is to 'reverse sear' steak in a Weber kettle barbecue. Photo: Supplied
I find the whole idea of barbecuing stressful and I'm sure I'm going to serve everything either raw or burnt. How can I be more confident?
Jacob Usher is a Kamilaroi man and culinary student from Tamworth, NSW. He was crowned Australia's Best Steak Cook by the Perfect Steak Company last year and he runs the Native BBQ YouTube channel and blog.
Usher believes beef is a good meat for beginners. "If you buy good-quality meat, that's about 80 per cent of it done already," he says. "A thicker steak like a Scotch fillet, up to around 2.5cm, means you have more time to play with while you're cooking." The young chef's favourite cooking style is to "reverse sear" steak in a Weber kettle barbecue.
"This means cooking it indirectly in a cooler part of the barbecue and allowing the internal temperature to slowly reach 49 to 51 degrees Celsius," he says. Usher suggests L-platers use a thermometer. "Once the centre reaches about 50 degrees, I remove my barbecue rack and put the meat directly on coals for a minute each side. Make sure the coals are red-hot and you'll get a clean sear. After that, rest it on a plate covered in foil to maintain the moisture. You'll end up with it medium-rare inside and crisp on the outside."
Once Usher mastered steak cooking, he turned to traditional Australian meats such as kangaroo, wallaby, emu and crocodile. "I might do kangaroo steak with a bush tomato chutney, saltbush or pepperberry."
As much as the food, cooking over fire is about connection. "I come from a large family and we sit around talking, whether it's culture, stories, mental health. It's about putting the phone away, and valuing the time that you've got."
Put your fire pit to work this autumn. Photo: iStock
Into the fire
Ready to graduate from gas to charcoal or wood? Here's how to get fired up.
Fire pits are perfect for cool autumn nights and they can be easily adapted to cook over. Buy a grill, grate or swinging hot plates to move back and forth over the heat. You can even use cast-iron skillets from indoors directly over embers.
Japanese konro grills (often incorrectly called hibachi) are charcoal-fired hot boxes with grill tops. Small and portable, they're great for balconies and courtyards and are made to be used with clean-burning binchotan charcoal. New-style grills that are similarly portable include the Everdure Cube, Weber's Go-Anywhere and Roccbox, which uses gas as a standard but has an optional wood-burning chamber for next-level grilling. Kettle barbecues use charcoal and have the added flexibility of a lid so they can also be used for smoking.
This South American style of charcoal grilling relies on hot coals or embers, adjusted as necessary to offer the desired heat and smoke. Sydney artisan manufacturer Pig & Pilgrim makes domestic parrillas with wind-up grill-plates and rotisseries. They send nationally. pigandpilgrim.com.au
Backyard brick barbecue
Cooking over fire doesn't demand fancy infrastructure. Bricks or concrete blocks, a grate or grill, some hardwood, a match and you're away. Hardware stores can advise on correct materials and approach.