The quest for fire
Last Updated July 23, 2007
There is indeed something primal and eminently satisfying about cooking one's food in the great outdoors (also known as the backyard). No need to fuss with a kitchen stove. Just fire up the 'cue and it becomes an instant social occasion as guests crowd around, offering unwanted grilling tips, getting in the way, or simply savouring the smoky aromas. Say what you want, but the old oven-baked tuna casserole never gets a reaction like that.
What does 'barbecue' mean?
First, a word about the terminology. Barbecuing may be a casual pastime, but its aficionados can be sticklers for accuracy. They point out that the very word "barbecue" is usually misused. I know what you're thinking — these people have been inhaling the lighter fluid. But hear them out.
Barbecue, the sticklers say, involves cooking meat at low temperatures for long periods of time with specialized equipment like a smoker or a barbecue pit. This is a southern style of cooking that uses fatty cuts of meat like pork shoulder and beef brisket.
Vancouver-based Ron Shewchuk, who is a Canadian barbecue champion, says true barbecue is nothing less than an art form. "Barbecue at its best is a spiritual experience, and I like to think of what I do as high ceremonial cooking," he says on his website.
Grilling is what the rest of us do in the backyard when we want a hamburger or steak – cooking the meat over the direct heat source which sears the meat and seals in the juices.
No less an authority than the Canadian Barbecue Association puts it bluntly: "Barbecue is not what you cook on, or the dish itself, but rather the method of cooking!" So now you know. But a quick warning: In the interest of simplicity, this story will completely gloss over that distinction and refer to all backyard cooking equipment as a barbecue.
Gas or charcoal?
Infrared barbecues were once only affordable for high-end chefs but over the past few years the grills have come down in price substantially. (Gene Blythe/Associated Press)
Want to start an argument? Find a group of people and ask which type of barbecue is best – gas or charcoal. You might as well ask if it's better to wear briefs or boxer shorts, for this is an intensely personal preference.
Having said that, there are some points that each side throws out to try to persuade the non-believers. Arguments in favour of charcoal:
- Charcoal adds a special flavour during slow cooking (indeed, many barbecue champions swear by it)
- These barbecues can be very portable
- They initially don't cost very much (as little as $29)
- Newer models offer features like special ash containers and even propane igniters
And now the "ayes" for gas:
- Gas barbecues heat up faster than charcoal.
- It's easy to add smoke flavour with a smoker accessory
- There are no messy ashes to empty or used coals to dump
- Cooking temperatures can be controlled more precisely
- Over time, the cost of charcoal can be much more than gas
Of course, it doesn't have to be an either/or situation. Many enthusiasts have both. Champion BBQ'er Shewchuk (see above) has six – both charcoal and gas, in portable and free-standing models. Ted Reader (host of television show "King of the Q") apparently has no fewer than 11 barbecues.
Now a further word about gas. Most gas models are fuelled by propane. But if your house is heated by natural gas, you might want to have your gas line extended to the backyard or an upstairs deck. There's nothing worse than running out of propane half-way through a 90-minute session of beer-can chicken. With a natural gas hook-up, there's no running off for tank refills. The only down side – it often costs a minimum of $200 to $300 to get the gas company to install a gas outlet.
Keeping up with the Joneses in the backyard
The simple backyard cookout has, in the minds of some, become a perfect excuse to bring the kitchen outside. You can buy barbecues with side burners ("Spaghetti, anyone?"), smoker boxes, flip-up workspace, a bigger cooking surface, a stainless steel finish, shelves, and warming racks. It's quite possible to spend $3,000 on a fully-equipped gas barbecue.
Consumers should do a thorough inspection of their barbecues before they begin grilling, sweeping away debris and cobwebs and clearing grills of grease and grime. (Doug Ives/Canadian Press)
Once-pricey infrared grills are becoming more affordable at around $1,000, down from highs of as much as $8,000. The propane-powered grills heat food through convection and radiant heat, reaching temperatures of up to 800 C. The grills also cut cooking time in half, sear the meat on the outside and distribute the heat evenly throughout.
The experts say no matter what you buy, you should look for a long warranty on the burners and the body. Grills with thick grates help lock in juices best and help chefs create presentation grill marks. Consumers should also consider whom they're cooking for, selecting a larger unit if they entertain frequently.
You should also seek out a knowledgeable dealer who sells more than one kind of barbecue. Generally speaking, stainless steel beats galvanized steel. Ceramic briquettes beat lava rock. A neat-looking apron and sturdy BBQ tools are a must. And be sure to keep your barbecue clean and covered when not in use.
After a season of grilling, grime and grease can build up on barbecues, posing a danger to users. Consumers should be sure to wash ceramic briquettes in warm soapy water and change pan liners and drop pans in gas grills.
When changing the propane tank, backyard chefs should also check for leaks by spraying soapy water on the connections and hoses.
If bubbles form when the gas supply is turned on, a part will have to be replaced. If no bubbles form, consumers should just wipe the soapy solution from the hoses and grill. Burners should also be swept clean of cobwebs and debris, which could pose a safety hazard.