Ten years ago I was working for a company in Australia. It was a sunny morning, and I walked to the office wearing t-shirt and shorts. When I got to the office, the receptionist was rubbing her arms to warm up, and she had a cardigan over her shoulders.
"Yeah, there's a real nip in the air."
"It's 23 degrees outside, what are you talking about; it's lovely!"
"Lovely for you poms, maybe, but I really feel the cold!"
Apparently that night she'd be dining inside whereas us from the north would be doing what we thought was normal every night of the week: Barbecue!
When the sun comes out in the UK, and the temperature rises above 15 degrees, it's excuse enough for all the neighbours to clean off the barbecue and start cooking outside. It's a natural progression from winter to spring and eating food that has been cooked way beyond what is normally edible becomes the norm.
Weekends are an excuse to get friends around to celebrate the coming summer and arguments will be begin as to which is the best way to cook. Is it gas, or is it charcoal. It's charcoal.
However, the regular spring and summer event of cooking meat over coals in the garden can be fraught with difficulty and pitfalls. Us at ByteMyTech have held many barbecues over the years and so we've collated the ultimate guide to making sure you end up with the best party ever. We'll also explain how to make sure none of your friends end up ill and wishing they'd never turned up. Your garden parties are about to become legendary!
Ahhh, the age-old argument. Charcoal is of course the traditional way of cooking outside. The first barbecues were simple affairs, mostly just upturned bowls with a few holes for air. However now, they're much more complex. Even so, some find the continual faff of lighting the coals, waiting for them to go white and then having to cook everything quickly just too much to take.
A gas BBQ does away with all the hassle. You light it when you need it, cook the food and then turn it off. If you need to cook something else, just light it up again, it's simple. They're also much easier to clean which adds to their appeal.
Charcoal has a certain 'je ne sais quoi' about it though. Food tends to be a little smoky, and this adds to the taste. Also, you can add flavoured smoking chips to the pit while it's burning and add other flavours to your meat.
The downside to charcoal is the inability to control the heat. Once it's fired up, you can often just move the grill up and down a bit. The upshot of this is that charcoal can sometimes require a bit of skill whereas gas is a lot easier for the novice. If it were your first summer of cooking outside, we'd recommend going for gas, then.
But there is another way.
We're particularly fond of a BBQ called "The Big Green Egg". This is a fantastic bit of kit that uses charcoal and yet is extremely easy to clean and the heat can be regulated easily. Not only that, its incredible heat convection method means you can cook using only a little bit of charcoal, and it stays lit for hours.
Whereas a typical grill will burn the charcoal in an hour, I've had one of these running for six hours while slow cooking a ham.
They're relatively expensive to buy, but, believe me, it's probably the best way to cook food outside and with the addition of some accessories, and you can cook stews, bread and pizza!
Some people are born organisers; others like to leave things to the last minute. The best parties are held by the former. You can go to university to learn all about catering for events, so it stands to reason there's a skill to it. Let's go through some of the important bits of preparation so your party goes well.
Naturally we're assuming you're planning this thing a few days ahead. If you decide to call everyone up an hour before you light the barbeque, then ignore all this, you've left it too late, and you'll have to head off to the shops straight away. If you've got a bit of time though, you can prepare some of the food well in advance and save some cash.
People are terrified to make this, yet it's easy. Just grab a cabbage, some carrots, mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar and a bit of salt. Chop up the cabbage and carrots into thin strips. You know what coleslaw looks like, just like that.
Pop them in a bowl. Then throw in a healthy dollop of mayonnaise and coat all the veg. Don't make it too thick or gloopy, just add little bits until everything's covered. Then throw a couple of teaspoons of sugar in followed by a couple of tablespoons of vinegar. Add a bit of salt and pepper and give everything a good mix. Cover the bowl with cling and pop in the fridge. Job done!
Don't buy bags of the stuff, instead head to your local greengrocer and buy lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables separately. I paid five pounds for a carrier bag full of ingredients. Don't prepare your salad before the day, though, just get all the ingredients ready. Don't forget onions, they're important.
Again, a good butcher will be cheaper than the supermarket. At this time of year, many will be selling trays of meat already prepared, but very often it's cheaper to buy the fresh stuff from the counter.
Sausages and burgers are obviously the most common meats to cook outside, but try to spice it up a bit. Get lamb burgers, chicken burgers and some will even have spices mixed in. Get a good selection and your guests will love you for it.
You'll need plenty of sauces and marinades, and luckily our supermarkets are stocked high with them. A good marinade will lift the flavours out of meat (even cheap stuff), so it's worth going for a good quality one. I'm a big fan of Jack Daniels' sauces, but you'll find your supermarket has a huge choice.
Ever gone to light the BBQ and discovered you'd got no charcoal or lighters? Run out of gas? Grill has rusted through? All very common problems so get the grill out the garage and give it a good look over to check there are no holes where they shouldn't be. Also, check you've got enough of whatever fuel you need.
Assuming you have got enough fuel, light it up and make sure it works OK. Some barbeques, especially if left out during the winter, may need a little bit of coaxing to bring back to life.
Naturally your friends will bring a drink, but you should have a fair old stock yourself. Wines and beers are obvious, but you should consider lighter drinks such as Pimm's and Gin. Don't go overboard though, at many of my parties I've ended up with more unopened alcohol than I started with.
Also consider the drivers. Some people won't be able to drink, so make sure you've got more than just the standard range of coke, lemonade and tea. Check out some great non-alcoholic cocktails for instance on the BBC Good Food site.
And prepare lots of ice. Many drinks need it, so make sure you've got plenty for the day. You can get ice bags which don't take up much space but which create lots and lots of ice ready for all the cocktails you'll no-doubt be mixing.
If you get lager - pop it in the fridge. Same with white wine. Real ales should go in the garage where they can stay cool, without being too cold.
You NEED music. There are some great outdoor speakers available, which, conveniently, use Bluetooth, so there are no ugly cables. But what about the play list?
We used to have to listen to entire albums by one artist all the way through, or if you're lucky, a copy of "Now That's What I Call Music 54" so at least there was some variety. However, no more.
If you've never ventured into the arena that is music streaming, now's the time to start. You can sign up for a free trial of Google Music and choose one of their playlists or create your own.
After the party's over, just cancel your subscription.
Check your utensils in case you need to get more. You'll need the obvious ones that are used to grab food from a hot surface, but also check for oven gloves that are also very useful when you're putting pans and dishes on the grill.
Also, get yourself a meat thermometer. This is essential, we'll come to why later...
Meat sometimes needs a help with flavouring so get your marinade out and coat your meat before putting in the fridge overnight. Steaks and chicken work well when marinated overnight.
Here's a neat trick I also learned to get the best out of your chicken. As you may know, it can tend to dry out, especially on a BBQ, so the night before the party, get your chicken fillets and put them in a bowl of salty water. This is actually used by many of the cheaper producers to increase the weight of chicken in the shops, but you know what? It's a brilliant way to make sure it remains moist and tasty.
Get up, have a shower and grab a coffee, it's time to start cutting and chopping and sprinkling!
Grab all those salad ingredients and start chopping them up. When cut, put them in a colander and give them a *good* rinse through with cold water before either patting dry with kitchen towel or (my favourite), a salad spinner.
Now, there are arguments here as to how much you should clean your salad. Some have argued that it's out of the land and "a bit of dirt is good for you", but remember that many people have handled those veg before getting to your plate. Yes, they're plucked out of the ground, but they're also manhandled by picking staff, deliverymen, shop assistants and finally you. If at any point one of those people hadn't washed having just gone to the bathroom…
Just clean the veg.
All the salad goes in a big bowl. Easy peasy. Cover with cling.
Boil some potatoes. I hate boiled potatoes but apparently lots of people like them. Ah well.
Now is also a good time to prepare bowls of crisps, maybe do some sandwiches (especially if the mother in law is coming) and other bits to pick at. Just remember to cover everything up and fridge everything that needs to be kept chilled.
If you have a charcoal barbecue, then light it now. It can take ages for them to light and get hot, so start before everyone turns up. This makes sense because you'll no-doubt be meeting and greeting people, and you won't have time to tend to the food while that's happening.
I have a rule with everything I cook. I look up the internal temperatures of all meat (except steak, which can be eaten almost raw) and then use my thermometer to make sure it's cooked to perfection. Why do this? Well, food poisoning is really common at outdoor parties. When you're preparing any processed meat or items like chicken and pork, you have to make sure they're cooked all the way through to ensure all bugs are killed.
Here’s a handy guide to the optimum cooking temperatures for meat.
Yes, that's the point. If you've followed the above plan then when the meat is cooked, you should be able to just sit back and enjoy yourself. Parties are meant to be a lot of fun and a little preparation beforehand can make sure yours is just that!