The expert’s guide to the perfect meat barbecue

Everything you need to know about grilling meat, from fuel to two-zone cooking, by Hawksmoor’s executive chef. Plus recipes for pre-meat-fest snacks and sauces to go alongside


Barbecue, at its most basic, is an alchemy of wood, smoke, and meat, so the fuel you use can dramatically affect flavor. Your best bet is to use lump wood charcoal, made from high-quality hardwoods with none of the chemicals that help lesser charcoals burn. You can then add different hardwood chunks, depending on the flavor you are looking for: oak, apple, and cherry are personal favourites. (Any garden center worth its salt will have a range of woods for cooking and smoking in the barbecue section; failing that, there are numerous stockists online.)


Avoid charcoal that smells in any way of petrol – it will probably have been made using accelerator fluid, which will taint your food. Steer clear of compressed briquettes, too: they’re made by mixing charcoal dust with glue and often burn way too hot.


Your grill needs to be hot, but not too hot – if you can’t stand close, you shouldn’t cook on it. Light it early enough so the flames have time to die down before you start cooking: the charcoal should have burned down and be coated in white ash. At the last second, season the meat well. Don’t use any oil on it – if the grill is the correct temperature, the meat won’t stick.

The meat of the matter

Understanding the role of collagen in your meat is crucial to understanding barbecue. Muscles that generally do very little work have less connective tissue and collagen, and are therefore more tender: these are the prime cuts. Cheaper cuts usually have more connective tissue and collagen, so tend to be tougher.

To turn a tough, collagen-rich cut into something juicy and tender, you need to cook the muscle at an even, low heat. This gives it a chance to break down and dissolve into soft gelatine, which bastes and moistens the meat from the inside. As a result, cheap cuts are best suited to slow, indirect cooking or smoking, while prime cuts benefit from faster, more direct cooking.

Tempering and seasoning

Take your meat out of the fridge to bring it up to room temperature – in chef-speak, this is called tempering. Ideally, your meat should be at least 4cm thick, because the aim is to get a good char on the outside while keeping the inside juicy and tender, which is impossible with a thin piece. Dry it before seasoning (just pat it all over with kitchen towel), because wet meat struggles to form a decent crust and can pick up unpleasant, boiled-meat flavors.

When seasoning meat, I like Maldon sea salt; I never use table salt, which is way too salty and contains anti-caking agents. Season aggressively, throwing handfuls of salt at the meat: the theory goes that much of the salt will fall off at this stage and during cooking; what is left is the correct amount of seasoning.

Some people claim you shouldn’t season meat until after it is cooked. I disagree. But, as with any type of cooking, there are variables to watch out for: thicker pieces, such as bone-in ribs, need more seasoning than thinner cuts, due to their lower surface-area-to-meat ratio.


An overcrowded grill is a no-no, because it stops oxygen reaching the charcoal. Photograph: Julian Hawkins/Rex Features

Now we’re cooking

Put the meat on the grill and leave it undisturbed for a minute before turning, then turn every minute or so until you have achieved some enticing caramelization. If your meat is on the thick side, regular turning helps prevent it from catching and burning. Always move your meat if yellow flames leap up from the barbecue – this means fat has caught fire, which can make meat taste too smoky.

Don’t overcrowd the grill. Leave plenty of space between each piece of meat, so oxygen can reach the charcoal. It is impossible to give exact cooking times: it depends on the thickness of the meat, the animal it comes from, the cut, and the temperature of the grill.

Controlling temperature can be learned only through practice. You will soon begin to understand the hot and cool spots, how long it takes for the coals to burn down to the optimum temperature and how long a full load of charcoal lasts.

For tougher cuts, try pushing the coals to one side and putting on a lid with the vents open, to let air pass through (if your barbecue doesn’t have a lid, improvise with something else made of metal). This is known as indirect grilling or roasting and causes hot air to flow evenly around the meat, much as occurs in a convection oven.

Indirect fire cooking is far from an exact science, but as long as you have a meat probe to hand (there is a wide choice on Amazon, to suit all pockets) and know the optimum temperature for whatever meat you are cooking, all should be well. Don’t forget the touch, either: the more well done a piece of meat is, the firmer it will feel. Again, it is something you will pick up only through practice, but using a probe and fingers side by side will help you train your touch without too many mistakes.

Two-zone cooking

Indirect cooking also provides a safety net. By using two cooking zones – direct and indirect – you can moderate how your meat cooks: if the grill gets a little out of control, just move the meat to the indirect area until it calms down. The aim is to have two very different temperatures, one at each end of the barbecue. Ideally, the indirect zone will hover about 105-130C, while the direct zone will be about 170-190C.

Dirty grilling

The other end of the spectrum is dirty grilling, or “clinching”, direct on the coals. Here, it is vital to use high-quality charcoal and wood – and to show no fear. It’s pretty hard to burn meat this way: put it right against (rather than just close to) the coals and they won’t get enough oxygen to create fire.

Put the meat straight into the smoldering wood or charcoal, keep it moving and it will color fairly quickly and give off some splashes and sizzles. When you think it is nearly done, transfer it to an area of indirect heat and leave it to finish and rest. Warning: this takes a bit of practice.


One of the most important stages in any barbecue. Take the meat off before you think it is ready and let it rest: it will continue cooking in the residual heat and the tissues will relax, meaning what you serve will be juicier and more tender. Our tastebuds work better at more moderate temperatures, too. A 20-minute rest at 60C will improve your grilling no end – provided you can resist that long.

Join the ’cue: some simple snacks and sauces


Raw veg takes on a whole new life once dunked into the anchovy-and-garlic-heavy dip anchoïade. Photograph: Alamy

Crudités with anchoïade

You are about to eat a ton of meat, but you need something to nibble on while you’re waiting. My advice is to give your body a gentle warm-up with some fibrous raw vegetables; the trick is to make them tasty as hell. This French classic fits that bill with bells on. All the prep is done in advance and people can dip in and out – quite literally – as and when they please. Serves six.

For the crudités
1kg (prepared weight) of any or all of these, raw or just blanched and still crunchy: asparagus, cauliflower, fennel, sugarsnap peas, radishes, green beans, cherry tomatoes, yellow wax beans, baby carrots or corn, sprouting broccoli, peas in the pod, little gem lettuce
Lemons (for squeezing over; optional)

For the anchoïade
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
100g (ie 1 small jar) very good salted anchovy fillets (Ortiz are my favorite)
3 small red chilies (or fewer, to taste), deseeded and finely chopped
3g thyme leaves, picked
6 basil leaves, very finely shredded
200ml extra-virgin olive oil
3 tsp Dijon mustard
3 tsp red-wine vinegar

To make the sauce, pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar, then add the anchovies and grind again. Add the chili and herbs and grind to a smooth paste. Stir in the remaining ingredients and mix to the consistency of a thickish dressing.

Arrange the vegetables on a large platter and serve with a bowl of the anchoïade for dunking.

Barbecue ketchup

I don’t do marinades; the idea of buying good meat, then masking its natural flavor, seems silly to me. I also don’t like the excessively sweet stuff that passes for barbecue sauce these days. If you must have sugar with your barbecue, try fruit ketchup instead. Long before Heinz, cooks in medieval England made ketchup to serve with meat. The possibilities are almost endless. All recipes serve six and will keep in the fridge for a week.

Pulled pork bun

How to improve that pulled pork you’ve made on the barbecue? Stick some apple ketchup on it. Photograph: Felicity Cloake/The Guardian

Apple ketchup (for pork)

500g granny smith apples, peeled and cored
150g fruit sugar
150ml cider vinegar
½ stick cinnamon, 2 cloves, 8 black peppercorns, all tied in a muslin bag
50ml lemon juice
1 pinch salt

Put everything in a stainless-steel pan, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. Remove and discard the spice bag, then blend the sauce to a smooth puree. Pass through a fine sieve, pour into a sterilized bottle or jar, seal and refrigerate until needed.

Rhubarb ketchup (for pork)

500g forced rhubarb (pink stems only)
150g fruit sugar
100ml cider vinegar
½ stick cinnamon, 2cm piece peeled fresh ginger, 2 cloves, 8 black peppercorns, all tied in a muslin bag
50ml orange juice
1 pinch salt

Follow the method for apple ketchup.

Cranberry ketchup (for fowl)

500g fresh or frozen cranberries
150g caster sugar
150g red-wine vinegar
50ml orange juice
1g each ginger, nutmeg, allspice, black peppercorns, all tied in a muslin bag
1 pinch salt

Follow the method for apple ketchup.

Pineapple ketchup (for sausages, bacon and ham)

500g pineapple, peeled and cored
100g fruit sugar
100ml cider vinegar
1 hot red chili, split, 1 vanilla pod, 20 black peppercorns, all tied in a muslin bag
50ml lime juice
1 pinch salt

Follow the method for apple ketchup.

Tomato ketchup (for beef)

1kg fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped (you could, at a pinch, use passata instead)
250g apple
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 small chili, split
200g sugar
50g Maldon sea salt
200ml malt vinegar, 2 whole black peppercorns, 1 whole allspice, 1 clove, 1-star anise, all tied in a muslin bag

Follow the method for apple ketchup, only this time simmer the mix for two hours. Discard the spices, pass through a mold, then blend smooth. Decant into a sterilized bottle or jar, seal and refrigerate.

Gooseberry ketchup (for oily fish such as sardines and mackerel)

500g gooseberries (frozen are fine)
150g fruit sugar
150ml cider vinegar
50ml lemon juice
1 pinch salt

Follow the method for apple ketchup.

Barbecued sardines

There’s a ketchup to suit just about anything you feel like throwing on the barbecue, from beef and pork to oily fish such as sardines. Photograph: Lisa Linder/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

Shrimp butter (for firm white fish such as turbot, halibut, brill, and cod – or even salmon)

This will probably provide more than you need to serve six, but it keeps well for a few days.

250g salted butter, at room temperature
1 large pinch ground mace
1 large pinch ground white pepper
1 large pinch sea salt
Zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
125g peeled brown shrimp
25g chopped curly parsley

Blend the butter with the spices and lemon juice, then fold in the remaining ingredients. Lay a sheet of clingfilm on a work surface and use this to roll the butter mix into a sausage shape. Put in the fridge to set, then cut into roughly 50g discs. Lay a disc on top of freshly grilled fish and leave to melt.

• Richard H Turner is an executive chef at Hawksmoor and co-owner of Turner & George butchers in London. His latest book, Prime: The Beef Cookbook, is published by Mitchell Beazley at £25. To order a copy for £21.25, go to, or call 0330 333 6846.

If you want to learn from the pros, there will be barbecue aplenty at this year’s Meatopia in London on 1-3 September, where dozens of chefs from all over the world will show off their ’cue skills.

Fiona Beckett’s drink recommendations

While you’re tending the grill and your guests are nibbling on Richard’s crudités, you might as well pour some rosé down them. A magnum is always a winner: I really like the elegant Chivite Las Fincas Rosado 2016 (£35 for 1.5 litres, Great Western Wine, with a 10% discount if you buy a case; 13.5% abv), from Navarra; the Co-op’s Irresistible Pic St Loup Rosé 2016 (£7.49; 13% abv) would also take the punchy anchoïade in its stride. So far as ketchup are concerned, they are unlikely to be the only big flavor you will have to contend with, so you will need an assertive wine, rather than a shrinking violet. A juicy red such as Te Haupapa Central Otago Pinot Noir (brilliant value at £8.99 from Aldi; 14% abv) should go down a bomb.


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