Each summer we dust off and fire up our barbecues as the first weak rays of sunshine hit our gardens, ready to brutally incinerate countless sausages. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Assuming you've taken on board my earlier epistle on sourcing quality meat, another thing you should consider is the quality of your fuel.
Barbecue at its most basic is the alchemy of wood, smoke and meat and there is no doubt the fuel used can dramatically affect the flavour of your final offering. Hardwood cells contain lignin, which is the main reason smoked food tastes so good. When heated, this lignin breaks down, producing new volatile chemicals that are responsible for the sweet and aromatic flavour that the smoke imparts to the meat. At home, your best bet is to use lump-wood charcoal, made from good-quality hardwoods, with none of the added chemicals that help lesser charcoals burn. Hardwood chunks can be added, depending on the flavour you are looking for – oak, apple and cherry are personal favourites. Avoid charcoal that smells in any way petrol-like – it's probably been cheaply manufactured using accelerator fluid, which will taint your food – along with compressed briquettes, which are made from mixing charcoal dust with glue and often burn much too hot.
Light the grill early so it has died down before you cook your first piece of meat, and take your meat out of the fridge to bring it up to room temperature. Chefs call this tempering. Ideally, meat should be at least 4cm thick to get a good char on the outside while the meat inside remains juicy and tender.
The grill should be hot but not too hot, with the charcoal burnt down and coated in white ash. If it's too hot to stand close to, it's probably too hot for cooking. At the last second, season the meat well, and don't use any oil on it – if the grill is the correct temperature the meat won't stick.
Barbecue at its most basic is the alchemy of wood, smoke and meat
Place the meat on the grill and leave for a couple of minutes before turning – this is known as direct grilling. Then, carry on turning every couple of minutes until you've achieved some enticing colour. As your meat is thick and will need longer to cook, it should be turned regularly to avoid burning. Move the meat if you see yellow flames from the barbecue – this means fat has caught fire and can make the meat taste too smoky. And don't overcrowd the grill – make sure there's plenty of space between each piece of meat.
Another method is to push the coals to the side, place the lid on with the vents open and allow air to pass through. This is called indirect grilling or roasting – indirect convection currents flow and the heat is diffused throughout the cooking chamber, so it circulates evenly around the meat. Using your barbecue this way, as a charcoal roaster, you can cook almost anything you can in an oven. Take a look at the top of your barbecue and you'll probably find a heat gauge, which is there precisely for this purpose. By controlling the temperature of your barbecue using the air vents (open vents = more air flow = hotter temperatures), you'll be able to take larger cuts to medium-rare.
This set-up also provides a safety net for when you have a particularly fatty piece of meat and do not want to suffer flare-ups that could ruin and burn it. Being able to moderate the cooking, using two different zones, is particularly helpful here. If the grill is getting a little out of control and larger cuts are at risk of burning, just move them to the indirect area, where they can rest until the grill calms down.
The other end of the spectrum is dirty grilling or clinching, direct onto the fire instead of on the grill. The most important thing is to use good quality charcoal and wood, and to show no fear. While burning is an understandable concern, it's actually harder to burn meat this way. When meat gets up close and personal with hot, burning coals it can burn, but put it right against them and the coals don't get enough oxygen to create fire, so you're cooking purely on the heat of the charcoal. This process super-heats the fat and allows steam to penetrate the meat quicker than direct or indirect cooking.
It's impossible to give exact cooking times – it all depends on the thickness of the meat, the animal it comes from, the cut, the temperature of the grill, and how you cook it. But the key thing to remember is to take the meat off before you think it is ready and let it rest. Resting is one of the most important techniques you can use – not only does it allow the meat to relax and finish cooking, but our tastebuds work better at more moderate temperatures, so the meat will taste better, too. A 20-minute rest at 60ºC will improve your grilling no end – if you can wait that long…