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A Chef's Guide To Buying A Barbecue

Apr 12, 2008
Walk into any store specializing in barbecues for sale and one is immediately faced with an astonishing and bewildering display of different models at widely differing prices. How do you choose the one that is right for you?

It helps to know the principal difference between them. The truth is, for all the different shapes and sizes there are basically only two barbecue models; flat bed or kettle. Which one you choose will depend very much on what you want it to do and the size of it will be determined by the number of people you intend to cook for. If you entertain a great deal, you may find yourself ending up with both types. So let's take a look at them.

Flat Bed Barbecues

These are most often rectangular in shape, may use either gas, electricity or charcoal as a heat source and may or may not have a hood that turns them into a conventional-style oven. They range in size from a single burner to a massive range that may include a wok stand, separate hotplate and even a plate warmer.

The important thing to understand about them is that, without exception, they cook by the direct method, even when being used as an oven. What that means is that the heating elements are always directly under the food being cooked. This can create problems when foods with a high fat content, such as sausages, are being cooked because of flare-ups. These can occur even when the lid is closed, imparting an oily taint to the food.

You can get round this to some extent by always cooking your meat on a hotplate placed on the grill over the heat source. The problem that remains is that the fat has to be disposed of and the plate cleaned after each use.

A second disadvantage is that, except for the very expensive models fitted with a fan, when the lid is closed as it would be for roasting a joint, all the heating is still directly below the meat, which can lead to an uneven result. It also makes it difficult, in the case of a charcoal barbecue, to add extra fuel during cooking if that should turn out to be necessary.

Barbecue Kettles

When these put in an appearance in the 1950s they caused something of a sensation. Originally manufactured by Weber, what really caused a stir was the fact that they were, and still are, round to the point of being almost spherical. Nothing like them had ever been seen before in Western cooking and in some eyes the shape was seen as little more than a gimmick. But in fact the design was brilliant both in concept and execution, for it was this 'roundness' that gave the kettle its unique edge over the competition. Not only did it behave just like a convection oven, it let the user take full advantage of indirect heating, thereby allowing the meat to cook quickly and evenly in its own juices.

The results were sensational and remain so today. The indirect heating was achieved by placing two small barriers opposite each other at the side of the lower grill. These could be filled with charcoal and lit, leaving a broad gap between them into which a drip tray could be placed. The food is cooked on an upper level and any fat falls into the tray below for easy disposal and without creating flare-ups. Much later the 'barriers' were replaced by baskets that can be heated together and then moved apart, making both direct and indirect cooking possible from one heat source.

Kettles differ from flatbeds in one other important aspect - food is always cooked in them with the lid closed and direct heat is only ever used to cook lean pieces of meat such as steak and chops. Even these should be cooked on a preheated cast-iron grill that can be bought as an optional extra and fits on top of the upper grill.

Heating is most often charcoal but can be gas and despite popular belief either will produce the same result; the true barbecue flavor comes from the way in which meat is cooked and any added flavoring material, such as hickory chips, not from the heat source itself.

Electric kettles are available but are not very popular and are expensive to run.

Which Will You Choose?

For family use and entertaining smallish groups of friends, there is no doubt in my mind that the kettle wins hands down. The standard size of 57cm (22.5ins) will handle two large chickens, a large beef or pork joint, two legs of lamb or a turkey with ease. Steaks will depend on the size, of course, but four to six at a time is probably about right.

If you want to cook large quantities of steak, chicken wings, sausages and similar food, then you might find a flatbed will suit you better and that is certainly the case if you want to turn your outside area into a replica of your kitchen, with all the add-ons that many of the more expensive flatbeds have as standard.

In terms of flavor and succulence, the flatbed cannot compete however. I find the kettle is also easier to keep clean, especially if you use disposable drip trays that are readily obtainable from the supermarket and which can also be used for cooking vegetables and even cakes and desserts.

As for quality, buy the best you can afford. In the case of a kettle, make certain it is coated with vitreous or porcelain enamel and that the parts likely to come into contact with the food are of stainless steel. Anything else will rust because of the high heat involved in the cooking process.

Most flatbeds make extensive use of cast iron and this is, on the whole, a high maintenance material, so be certain you are prepared for this before parting with your cash. Flaky rusting particles do not make for great seasoning or a particularly appetizing look. They are also indigestible.

Finally, when you get your new barbecue get a good bbq cookbook at the same time and really learn the best way to cook with the design of your choice. It has been my experience that a great many owners of expensive barbecues simply do not know how to use them. With the proper guide you will astound yourself as well as your family and friends.
About the Author
Michael Sheridan - The Cool Cook - is a former head chef and an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website at All About Cooking contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks, including video based how-to guides.
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