Summer has hit good and proper, so if you’re cooking up at the beach over the next few weeks, here are Rupert’s top tips for an easy and delicious experience:
Take a reusable BBQ (check out the ProQ Smokers Flatdog, but don’t overfill it with charcoal because this piece of kit gets super hot, so it’s better to start small and top-up). They’re more efficient, great value for money over the course of their lifetime, and cool down quickly enough that you can carry it back to the car after finishing your beers.
Portobello mushrooms with butter and herbs. Prepare them at home and they’re ready to put straight on the grill.
Ice cold beers, of course.
Enjoy the sun, be careful and sensible when cooking outside over fire given the recent dry conditions (this article is about barbecuing at the beach, but you might be barbecuing in your back garden), and if you’re cooking and eating in a public space then leave no trace.
At this time of year, lots of us are taking every opportunity that we can to cook outside, over fire. Unlike in your kitchen, where you turn on the stove and easily controllable heat just happens, cooking over fire involves you creating and managing your heat source, as well as cooking. That means selecting fuel, lighting a fire and tending it until it is at the right temperature to cook over. Most people barbecue over charcoal, although you may also use firewood to start or feed your fire. But not all charcoal is created equal. What’s the difference between different charcoals, and which is best?
What Is Charcoal?
Charcoal is wood that has been burned (or cooked) slowly in a kiln in the absence of oxygen, burning off the water and volatile compounds and leaving black carbonised material. Artists draw and sketch with it, and chefs cook over it. When you burn it again it burns as embers do, hot and pure, and holds an even heat for a long time. This makes it easier and more predictable to cook over than flames from a live fire.
Lumpwood Charcoal vs Briquettes
There are two types of charcoal that you can buy to barbecue with: lumpwood charcoal, and charcoal briquettes. Lumpwood looks like black and broken up bits of branches – it is still recognisable as something that was once wood. It is made from hardwoods (such as oak, ash or beech) and you can still recognise it as something that was once wood. It is pure, however less uniform in size and shape and it can burn faster and hotter. It can impart a woodsmoke flavour so you can treat it like an ingredient when cooking with it. Charcoal briquettes are manufactured using compacted charcoal sawdust, but made into uniform shapes (like small cakes). They often have other material or additives included to bind them together, to help them catch and burn, and to make sure that they burn at a steady rate. They are more predictable and can provide cooking heat for longer, but many chefs don’t like the fact that they have other ingredients that could potentially taint the flavour of their food. If you need predictable heat over a long period (if you’re cooking large cuts or joints of meat, for example) they can be a good option, and they’re a cheaper option too.
Where To Buy Charcoal
You can buy charcoal from supermarkets or even your nearest garage, but this will almost certainly be briquettes. Try to avoid the “ready to go” disposable barbecues or pre-pack bags, as most of these have additives to help them catch fire and burn faster and will almost certainly taint your food. Good quality briquettes will provide a reliable and even cooking temperature, and the heat will persist for long enough for you to cook over.
Restaurant quality lumpwood charcoal can be ordered directly from producers, and is well worth it if you’re serious about cooking over fire. I use Cornish Charcoal but you should be able to find a good producer local to you. Reputable producers will be using hardwood from well managed forests, and you can be confident in the provenance and quality of the product. None of us want to be cooking over the remains of virgin rainforest.
How To Cook With Charcoal
A hand-held charcoal chimney is a great bit of kit. Rather than starting your fire in your barbecue, you start it in the chimney and add charcoal. The chimney is designed to get a fire burning incredibly hot and incredibly quickly, and once your charcoal is glowing red hot you can tip it out into your barbecue or cooking base. If you need to add more coals later to prolong your cooking time or to expand your cooking area, use the chimney again so that you’re adding red hot embers to your cooking fire rather than messing with it by directly adding more fuel and introducing flames.
I won’t go into specifics like offset cooking or using specific hardwoods to smoke or flavour your food here – each of those warrant detailed articles of their own, and we cover these sorts of things in our woodfired cooking and asado cookery courses. Hopefully though, you’re now a little more knowledgeable about fuel for cooking outside and will be able to make an informed decision next time you’re preparing for a barbecue. Which will probably be this weekend, right?
On March 7th we’ll be joined at Philleigh Way by guest tutor Andi Tuck, to lead a special Cooking With Fire course. Andi is widely regarded as a rising star on the Cornish foodie scene for both his incredible abilities with smoke and fire but also for his incredible flavour combinations. He’s head chef at the award winning St Kew Inn, a beautiful 15th Century establishment in North Cornwall, and also the founder of Tan & Mor (Cornish for “Fire and Sea”) his live fire cooking experience business. St Kew’s forward thinking “custodians” (they don’t refer to themselves as landlords, instead seeing their role as looking after the historic inn) allowed Andi to install a live fire set-up in the kitchen and also to build an incredible outside kitchen for the summer months when he arrived there a year ago, and he’s built an incredible reputation for the food and theatre of his live fire cooking.
Ahead of his upcoming course we took the excuse to head up the road to St Kew and sit down with Andi in the historic bar after a busy lunch service to find out a bit more about his food, what attendees can expect on March 7th, and how you can add a bit of cooking with fire to your culinary skill set.
Andi, what is it that you love about cooking with fire and smoke? The flavour, first and foremost. And I think it’s quite nostalgic, as well; growing up with barbeques in the summer. I think there’s a flavour that cooking over fire gives that’s hard to replicate any other way.
What does it allow you to do that you couldn’t otherwise, in a normal kitchen? It’s really the offset cooking. You can’t generate the same flavour smoking with smoke chips as you can smoking over an open fire. There’s not that depth of flavour. It creates a flavour profile that smoke chips try to replicate, but they produce a much harsher flavour. Smoking over an open fire is much more subtle and has more depth. With the smoking chips it’s like “BANG! SMOKE!” but when you’re smoking over wood that has been soaked in water so it’s generating its own steam as well, it creates a deeper flavour. Offset cooking also means you tend to be cooking low and slow, and drawing out more flavours.
How did you develop your skills cooking over fire? Working with some of the best live fire chefs in the country. Lots of research, going to evens like Meatopia which is like my annual pilgrimage. Working with chefs like Ben Quinn and Simon Stallard here in Cornwall, and then at Meatopia working with some amazing international live fire chefs. I got to work with Lennox Hastie who’s an Australian chef and the stuff that you learn with him in a day is more than some people learn in a lifetime.
Before moving to St Kew Inn, you cooked in various notable kitchens around North Cornwall. What is it about cooking in Cornwall that you enjoy so much? The produce. You’re getting ingredients from the sea to the kitchen in a matter of minutes, not hours. With the local connections that I’ve made now with people like George Cleave the fishmonger in Port Isaac, his fish is at the kitchen door within minutes of being landed, which is awesome.
Is the produce that you have access to here particularly suitable to this style of cooking? Yes and no… it’s more all of the foraging and wild coastal ingredients. I could go out for a day’s foraging and get enough to run a menu for the night. I love cooking fish on open fire… I will never put a fish in the oven. The set-up that I’ve got in the kitchen here is basically an oven, it’s just an open oven. You’ve got it really hot near the flames but because the heat rises I can take it up to the next level, which is a foot above the flames, and then I turn it every so often and it’ll get through to about 48-50 degrees on the bone which is perfect.
What are the ingredients that you like working with the most? Fish is my number one. Fish and fire is my thing I suppose. Anything foraged. To know what you’ve gone through to get that is really special. There’re quite a lot of wild and foraged ingredients that people have forgotten about now, but historically, and as far back as the days of hunter-gatherers, they were what people lived off. There are quite a few companies that are starting to use more foraged ingredients and it’s getting bigger. Hopefully it doesn’t get so big through that there’s nothing left for me to find! 99% of what people eat today was wild at some point, like broccoli for instance – we could go out now and forage for sea broccoli, which is an ancestor of that.
And you’ve recently won an award for the food that you’re cooking at St Kew Inn? Yes, out of all of the 180 pubs that are part of St Austell Brewery we won the best food pub of the year. I’ve only been here a year – it was a year to the day since I started and it’s quite a big accolade to win within the St Austell Brewery family, when you’re up against pubs like The Cornish Arms in Tavistock who win it year after year. It’s been a good way to start 2020!
You’ve cooked over fire at food festivals such as Meatopia in London and on the beach at St Ives Food Festival. What do you cook when looking to show off what’s possible with live fire? Anything that people can do at home. I’m not one of these chef’s who’s going to show you all of these secret or unobtainable things that you can’t replicate at home. If you’re demonstrating then people want to know how to do it, they want to learn how to do it. Things like octopus that people assume is going to be unobtainable, you just go through how to do it step by step and you can get it easily. I wouldn’t rock up with a load of dry ice!
Which other chefs do you look up to and admire, and why? For me it’s the chefs that don’t seek the limelight… they’re not TV chefs. People like Niklas Ekstedt who’s got the Ekstedt restaurant in Stockholm. And then chefs like Ben Quinn, he’s been a massive inspiration in my career; he was the one that got me to see my true potential in live fire cooking. Generally though, people that do something a bit different. Tom Brown is a great inspiration being a Cornish boy as well.
What’s the simplest dish that you’d suggest for people wanting a gentle introduction to cooking over fire? Mackerel. But it’s learning how to do mackerel well, because nine times out of ten your dad or granddad will have done mackerel on the BBQ and cooked the hell out of it; it’ll be dry, and horrible. It’s knowing the cuisson and knowing when to take it off. You let the residual heat of the fish finish it off. You can eat fish raw (like sushi), so if it’s still pink on the bone when you take it off the heat then it’ll be absolutely fine.
Do readers who are aspiring to cook over fire need any special equipment? No! As long as you’ve got a barbecue and a safe place to do it. That’s the best thing about cooking over fire. Anyone can barbecue. There’re certain things that I’d suggest, like I’d never suggest cooking with a disposable bbq just because of the flavour it gives off – they’re often soaked in paraffin which really isn’t good to cook over. It’s more about sustainable wood or charcoal, and I’ll cover things like soaking wood on the course… going in to depth on things like using different woods for different meats. Meats like beef and chicken can take a heavier smoke flavour like oak, whereas with fish you’d want to go for apple wood or something subtle like chestnut.
What are you looking forward to sharing at your course at Philleigh Way? My enthusiasm, really. I want to make people not just stick paraffin firelighters under their food and actually show them that they can cook gourmet style food over fire, which is what we do here at St Kew. I’d like to challenge preconceptions about cooking over fire, and show them what they can achieve. It can and should be so much more than having a raging fire and chucking stuff straight on. Some things need a hot heat and some things need a smouldering heat…. We might “black and blue” a steak by just rolling it in the hot coals to clinch it and then knock all the coals off, rest it and cut it. It’d be nice to do my octopus dish but because of time we might not be able to do the full dish – I might start cooking one but bring a cooked one with me that I’ll prepare the day before so that I can show the finished result.
Whether you want to start introducing cooking over fire into your regular repertoire, or simply up your barbecue game in preparation for the summer, Andi’s course is going to cover all bases. We have just a few spaces remaining.
CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR SPACE ON ANDI’S COOKING WITH FIRE COURSE