Are you likely to find the editor of Pit Magazine – a UK-based food-over-flames bible – cooking out in the rain? ‘Obviously not!’ says Helen Graves. But on most days, even beyond the traditional summer peak of barbecue season, she’s still dedicated to flinging food onto flames in the great outdoors. And she’s not the only one. A desire to cook outside inspired over 2 million Google searches this year, and has continued beyond the expected summer spike.
Cooking over fire has also had a boom on social media, with chefs like Hasan Semay – known as Big Has – and Christian Stevenson aka DJ BBQ sharing their grilling expertise to captivated audiences. Semay, who recently released his cookbook Big Has HOME: Recipes from North London to North Cyprus, posts videos of himself cooking outdoors on the grill all year round.
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The heightened interest in barbecuing through the seasons tracks with a rise in ‘food and flames’ concept restaurants in the UK. Following the opening of places like Neil Rankin’s Temper in 2016, a whole host of barbecue restaurants – from those boasting indoor ‘live fire cookery’ to the more down-to-earth street food operations cooking over outdoor grills – have opened in London, Acme Fire Cult (from St Leonard alumni Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins) being the most notable addition to the scene in 2022.
Char and smoke are flavours unique to barbecuing and offer a new dimension for the home chef looking to add another level to their cooking
Lockdown in the UK had its impact too, with many restaurants pivoting to outdoor cooking and dining to help keep their businesses open during times of strict social distancing. One of the most pivotal was Shoreditch’s Brat, which opened a spin-off in an outdoor courtyard venue in Hackney and whose wood-fired small plates became the hottest dishes in town. A more elegant approach to barbecue cookery has followed.
‘At first, the restaurant scene around live fire cooking involved a lot of macho stuff […] butchering whole animals and humongous rigs of barbecue equipment,’ says Graves. ‘Now, chefs are thinking more about the flavour profiles of barbecue food and what works well with it, as well as making more elegant, refined dishes like those at Acme Fire Cult.’
Graves, whose bestselling barbecue cookbook Live Fire was also released earlier this year, is fascinated by the way ingredients transform when they’re cooked over flame: ‘they behave so differently compared to when they’re cooked indoors.’ Char and smoke are flavours unique to barbecuing and offer a new dimension for the home chef looking to add another level to their cooking and treat their barbecue as an extension of the kitchen.
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Lots of home cooks might be put off by the time-consuming nature of barbecuing – particularly in the colder months – but Graves says it’s all in the charcoal. ‘When people use low-quality charcoal like briquettes, they’re pumped full of chemicals that need to burn off, and that’s why you have to wait half an hour before you can grill anything.’ By using a better-quality charcoal like those produced by Woodsmith, Whittle and Flame, and Alderline, your barbecue will be ready to cook on in a much shorter time.
With all of this in mind, we asked Graves for her favourite things to sling on the barbecue once summer’s been and gone.
Five of the best autumn barbecue dishes according to food writer Helen Graves
- Pumpkin: ‘You can barbecue a pumpkin whole, and stuff it with cheese and beer fondue with bits of sourdough, or by itself for warm salads and vegetable dishes.’
- Beetroot: ‘Wrap whole beetroots in foil and place them directly in the coals of your barbecue for around an hour and you’ll get a soft, smoky version of the vegetable to use in dishes like hummus or in warm salads.’
- Stone fruits: ‘Charred nectarines, peaches or plums make a brilliant dessert with ice cream and crushed biscuit, and you can also pair them with salty cheese like halloumi or feta.’
- Onion: ‘Grilled whole smoked onions make a great soup and would be the perfect option for Bonfire Night – perhaps even on the bonfire itself.’
- Tenderstem Broccoli: ‘The two different parts of the broccoli behave quite differently and transform into something else. The long stalk is quite sweet and shrivels almost like a green bean, but the frilly ends get really charred, so you get lots of flavour from just one vegetable.’