Olivia Potts

Five tips for a sumptuous summer barbecue

Five tips for a sumptuous summer barbecue
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The sun is set to shine again this weekend, and those lucky enough to have access to a garden are turning their minds to al-fresco dining. So we’ve gathered together our top five tips to help you pull off your weekend barbecue – everything from how to get the best out of your meat, to barbecue-friendly puddings.

1. Marinating

Marinating meat (and veg!) is a no-brainer when it comes to injecting flavour quickly and easily: using punchy spices, herbs, sugars and salts and letting them get to know the raw meat is minimal work for maximum reward. Ideally, you marinate quite far in advance, 12-24 hours depending on the marinade (that, for me, is part of its appeal; less frantic work just before I cook), but even if you forget and end up doing it half an hour before you grill while your barbecue is pre-heating, it’s still going to give bags more flavour than you would get without it.

It might sound obvious, but I speak from experience: don’t forget to season your marinade, otherwise your meat or veg will end up disappointingly bland no matter how many aromatics and chilli peppers you’ve rubbed into it.

Keeping meat moist and tender as it cooks over a high heat is the key to getting good results from small pieces of meat (on a skewer, for example), or lean cuts like chicken breast. Something as simple as rubbing the meat with a little olive oil and vinegar, or oil and wine will make a difference. Add some herbs, and you have a souvlaki-style marinade.

Marinating in yoghurt or buttermilk is a fantastic way of ensuring that any flavourings stick to the meat and protects the meat from drying out – but even better, the acids in the dairy react with the proteins in the meat and actively tenderises it: try buttermilk-marinated chicken or yoghurt and mint lamb skewers. The enzymes in pineapple juice will also tenderise your meat, and combining it with something like soy, garlic and honey are going to give you a sweet ‘n’ sour style thing going on.

If you’re looking for a marinade which will end up being the star of the show, rather than just a supporting actor, try North African chermoula made from coriander, parsley, garlic, chilli and lemon, or Dishoom’s tikka marinade. And I absolutely love this Korean spiced chicken recipe from Diana Henry with a gochujang marinade.

2. Vegging out

Vegetables can end up as a secondary consideration on a barbecue, represented by some dressed lettuce, or maybe a token field mushroom for a vegetarian. But barbecued veg is a joy: direct and indirect heat have completely different effects, and bring out delightful and surprising characteristics. Plus, veg is quicker to cook than most meats, and presents less of a concern about being undercooked or dried out.

If you’re cooking hot and fast, I’m not sure there is a vegetable out there that isn’t improved by charring briefly on the grill. Even unlikely candidates like quartered iceberg lettuce, pea pods, and green beans are brilliant given a flash on a hot barbecue. Grill leeks or bundles of spring onions over direct heat until floppy and charred; throw whole cobs of corn straight onto a hot barbecue, brushing with butter when they’re cooked and brown in spots. Or for a real showstopper, try a whole cauliflower, roasted over medium indirect heat.

If you’ve spread your heat around to allow you to cook a big cut of meat low ‘n’ slow, sling a couple of whole aubergines on the grill too, a little nearer to the heat. Eat the melting fresh straight from the skin or combine with a tablespoon of tahini, a crushed clove of garlic, some lemon juice and olive oil and you have a baba ghanoush (king of dips, in my humble opinion).

3. On the side

So you’ve got the meat and veggie options sorted, but what are you serving alongside? I like to boil potatoes until they’re tender, line them up on a kebab stick (soaked in water, to stop it burning), and then char them over direct heat. When they come off the grill, brush them with a little herb oil or garlic butter.

Having cold sides is both a good counterpoint to the main dishes and also sensible from a time-management point of view. That cabbage that’s been sitting in your salad drawer will be given a new lease of life when sliced finely and dressed in mayonnaise, turning it into a slaw. Try a mixture of white and red cabbage and carrot for a classic slaw.

4. Pickles and sauces

The best kind of barbecue food is rich and smokey, and often quite fatty – so you want to make sure that you have something on the side which is going to cut through that richness.

I like to serve barbecue with pickles, either ones I’ve committed to jars (or just bought), or those that I’ve prepared about half a hour before serving, quick pickled cucumbers or ribbons of carrots.

Carefully chosen sauces spooned directly onto the meat are a good way of introducing spice or freshness: try South American herb-packed chimichurri,, a fresh and chilli-spiked tomato salsa, or a simple tzatziki.

There are more recipes for barbecue sauce than you could shake a stick at, and every barbecue region in the US has their own distinctive way of making it. My favourite is the Pitt Cue cookbook bbq sauce recipe, based on the one they serve in their restaurant which specialises in barbecued meats, but here’s a more store-cupboard friendly version.

5. The Sweet Spot

Barbecues are a surprisingly brilliant vehicle for pudding. The best, of course, are the type you can just pop on the dying coals, and are ready by the time you’ve decimated the rest of your feast. For this, I like an old classic: take a banana (unpeeled), and cut a slice through the peel down the length of the banana. Stuff the slice with chocolate chunks or buttons – we used to make it with Toblerone when I was little – and then wrap the whole thing well in tin foil. Pop onto the embers for 15 minutes, or on the grill above for 25 minutes, before carefully unwrapping and enjoying straight from the skin, preferably with ice cream.

S’mores might be a camp-fire favourite in America, but I prefer it wrapped in foil and gently warmed through until the chocolate melts – try my recipe for s’mores here.

If you’ve still got proper heat left on the barbecue, then make the most of it by grilling pineapple until it is charred and caramelised. Serve with our quick, no-churn coconut ice cream for the perfect pud to enjoy in the sunshine.

Written byOlivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.