Along with the sound of “leather on willow” and the relentless cooing of wood pigeons there’s another sound that indicates the arrival of a British Summer… the sound of sizzling barbecues. For pubs, even with the smallest of outdoor areas bringing out the barbie can be a sure fire way to boost trade and cash in on the soaring number of restaurants specialising in ribs, racks and rumps. But how can we ensure a healthy plate of food, cooked safely, without harming the environment that also turn a profit?
Barbecue aficionados fall into two opposing camps. The “How-can-you-use-anything-other-than charcoal?” purists are in the majority, with 66% of Brits opting for charcoal as fuel, according to research for manufacturers Weber. The other 34% opt for gas.
Coals definitely provide that smoky tang, provided you’ve opted for pure charcoal, rather than briquettes, which are doused with firelighter solutions that can taint your food. If you have an “eco-conscience” you may be surprised to learn gas-powered grills win out when it comes to carbon emissions. The US Department of Energy reports propane-powered barbecues produce 5.6lbs (2.5kg) of carbon dioxide per hour. This is half the amount released when you burn charcoal, which also emits nitrous oxides, soot, and various volatile organic compounds; most charcoal is imported, some from countries guilty of unsustainable logging; charcoal briquettes are produced using an energy-intensive process of pulverising and repeated baking. You’ll have to shop around for charcoal sourced from sustainable sources.
For some the only way to cook al fresco is with a smoker as they argue there’s no better way to get that intense smoky flavour, however, this often means a greater capital cost than with some traditional open barbecue kits.
Gone are the days of just chucking a burger, steak or banger on the BBQ as there are plenty of other things to barbecue… fish and chicken make a tasty alternative. With the increasing popularity of vegetarian food you’d be surprised what will cook well on a barbecue, for instance little gem lettuce and courgettes to broccoli and even cabbage. Veggie-wise, the new Pitt Cue Co Cookbook includes recipes for “Burnt leeks with anchovy hollandaise” and “Burnt tomatoes and shallots on toast”. “Burnt”, in this context, means “delightfully charred,” rather than incinerated.
There’s also the issue of greenhouse gas emissions caused by raising the cattle to get that beefburger in the first place. Swap burgers for something like Portobello mushrooms (leave whole and stuff with lemon, basil and feta, or garlic and mozzarella) and you can light those coals with a much clearer conscience. If you’re going down the fishy road, then opt for something more sustainable than a tuna steak. Think mackerel, sardines, squid, gurnard, or even cuttlefish.
The health factor
One would think it couldn’t come much healthier than a piece of grilled meat, yet barbecues come with a whole range of health warnings, from causing cancer to being riddled with germs: one recent study claimed the average barbecue grill contains twice as many microbes as a lavatory seat, not to mention the risk of salmonella from that clichéd undercooked chicken thigh. So as in your pub kitchen, food hygiene and food safety principles must be as rigorously applied outdoors as it is indooors.
Everything hinges on how you use your coals, with patience being key to avoiding burnt offerings as this is where the ‘danger; lies. Whilst you’ll want to wait for the flames to die down and the coals to cool slightly (because it’s when food like meat is cooked over high temperatures or touches the flames that carcinogenic compounds can form) but you must balance this with the need to cook any food thoroughly. Have your digital probe thermometer to hand along with your tongs! Another tip is to marinate your meat or poultry in some sort of olive oil and lemon juice combination. These two ingredients reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds by up to 99 per cent and aid thorough cooking as well as enhancing flavours.
Contrary to popular belief, barbecuing is not, repeat not, about the fastest cooking time on record, it’s about taking your time. Unlike domestic BBQ cooks, you are selling your food and whilst your family will forgive you for burned burgers of singed sausages, your customers won’t. I advocate managing the heat, by putting the right amount of charcoal on in the first place and keeping the lid on while cooking, which turns the barbecue into a mini fan oven and treat the food the same as you would on an indoor griddle plate. For instance, avoid constant turning of steaks or chops, rather sear each side over the hot middle bit, before sliding it over to the cooler edge to finish cooking.
Health & Safety
Finally, as with every other activity involving the public, you’ll need to do a quick risk assessment bearing in mind the following points:
- BBQs are hot cooking areas – minimise the risk to customers by limiting access to the cooking area by positioning your kit properly. Barbecues often attract families with children so make sure “the little darlings” are kept away from your cooking area.
- Ensure you cook in an area free of any other combustible materials – nothing will ruin your barbecue event quicker than an accidental hedge/tree/building fire.
- Keep uncooked food separate from cooked/cooking food to avoid cross-contamination – invest in a cool-box to keep your meats chilled until cooking and buy some food warmers such as gel-fuelled chaffing dish with lid to keep cooked food at an acceptable temperature.
- Some people don’t like the smell of barbecues – take into consideration the proximity of your cooking area to any boundary walls/fences so as to minimise any environmental nuisance you might cause your neighbours.
Asian-inspired barbecue pork neck
Here’s a recipe from cafe ODE in Shaldon, Devon, 2013’s “Sustainable Restaurant of the Year”. At the prestigious Grillstock BBQ festival in Bristol this year, its team came third in the dessert class and fourth in the pulled pork category. This simple, Asian-inspired recipe can be adapted to suit almost any type of meat or fish.
500g pork neck cut into strips; 125ml tamari (gluten-free) or soy sauce; 50ml cider vinegar; 75ml rice wine or sherry; 30ml honey; 20ml hoi sin sauce; 10ml sesame oil; 10g garlic; 10g ginger; 5g coriander; orange peel; 10g five-spice powder (anise, clove, cinnamon, fennel seed and peppercorns)
Crush the garlic, ginger, coriander and orange peel with a pestle and mortar or pulse in a food processor. Add all the remaining ingredients, mix and transfer to a bowl.
Add pork strips and mix thoroughly. Marinate overnight. Drain and place on to the barbecue, cook for 3–4 minutes each side, basting continuously with the marinade and using tongs to turn.
As the British climate is notoriously fickle you need to plan for rain (and sometimes even snow) as you will probably be promoting your barbecue events in advance. So for the above recipe you can roast the pork in an oven on a rack 220C for 15 minutes each side and still achieve a full flavour from kitchen cooking. (This recipe is also good with fish… mackerel being a great seasonal example. Fillet the fish leaving the skin on and place in marinade for 30 minutes. Cook skin side down for 3-4 minutes, again basting often.)