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Cooking outdoors has not always come naturally to the British. We have our temperamental weather to thank for this. But with the development of a uniquely British barbecue culture in the past twenty years, I predict cooking outside will only grow as a national pastime, as people experiment to unlock flavours in different ways.
One such way is cooking over open fire. We've seen awareness of the quality of Latin American beef steadily rise, but knowledge of how the meat is actually cooked has lagged behind. The famous Gouchos of Argentina and Uruguay aren't just cattle ranchers, they are incredible cooks too, using their Parrilla Grills over open fires. If you've seen Chef's Table, the episode featuring Argentine chef Francis Mallmann is well worth a watch. Eight hours of preparing the fire alone is a minimum for him.
I'm not saying we'll be going that far as a nation, but where restaurants and chefs go, home cooks soon follow. Whether it's baking in the embers of a fire pit, flash frying on a hot stone, grilling over wood or charcoal, or hot smoking, there's a real variety of methods out there for people to experiment with.
For me, it's the simplicity of outdoor cooking that is so satisfying. Food and fire. It awakens something primeval. That said, technique is vital, not least getting your timings right. For instance, direct and indirect cooking over hot coals create very different results - direct, right over the fire or smoking coals, indirect - out of the immediate heat.
Any chef worth their salt knows as much effort must go into choosing the ingredients as the cooking itself. You definitely do not have to go for imported beef for the full experience. It might surprise you, but the Uruguayan and Argentine national herds are predominantly comprised of British breeds like the Hereford or the Angus. These adaptable beasts were taken over in the 19th century, and thrived on the Pampas Grasslands.
It's better to have less good quality meat (and more veg and salads) than lots of mediocre meat. When I say good quality, I mean slow grown, grass fed, free range and, preferably, heritage or rare breed. The fat content is higher, and therefore the meat is more succulent when the fat has rendered down through the cooking process. Sausages and burgers are always going to score points, but I'd recommend something like a substantial tomahawk steak or côte de boeuf. Full boned joints are not only impressive, they're also easy to do - they are suited to long, slow exposure to glowing embers. The art is to keep the fire stoked without letting it get too lively.
Outdoor cooking does not require more effort than preparing a regular dinner, it just needs good planning. But don't leave cooking outside for special occasions and summer - if you don't have charcoal, you can try wood. If you have the room, why not dig a hole in the garden and use that? There are even options available for cooking on the balcony.
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