Is the reason we love to barbecue because it speaks to our primeval caveman instincts or because it takes us outdoors with the sound of cicadas and sets us in a holiday mood? The fact that there are fewer dishes to wash has to be a big plus. But really, hands down, it's all about the way barbecued food triggers our senses - that fragrant, sweet smoky waft on the wind of food cooking on the grill is guaranteed to set our taste buds alight and our hunger raging. We want to inhale those complex moreish smells, bite into all that smoky, sweet, caramelised deliciousness and lick our fingers.
In 1912 French doctor Louis-Camille Maillard discovered that when amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and sugars are exposed to heat, the reaction produces a range of potent aromas and complex flavours. The Maillard reaction sees literally thousands of entirely new, complex, often aromatic molecules created from these simple building blocks of sugar and amino acids. In addition, barbecuing also produces caramelisation - again creating complex and beguiling flavour notes that aren't just sweet like toffee but also reminiscent of nuts, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, green leaves, fruits, sherry and vinegar.
All over the globe, the trend of cooking over fire, which requires engaging all your senses, is overtaking the precise techniques of technological cooking. Chefs are abandoning thermomixers and sous-vide machines in favour of charcoal cookers, traditional Kamado-style grill cookers and woodfired ovens to impart lip-smacking smoky rich flavours to meats, seafood and vegetables.
Unless you are slow-cooking a large chunk of meat on the barbecue via indirect heat, cooking over the grill is not something you can put on and walk away from. By common consent, the biggest mistake home barbecuers make is cooking their food at too high a temperature. The result is a blackened, bitter crust and a raw interior. In the case of chicken, this is the perfect formula for some serious food poisoning.
The best way around this is to set up your barbecue for two-zone cooking. Stack the lit coals on one side to create a hot zone. The other side becomes a cooler, "indirect" zone. If you are using gas, heat the elements on the outside and leave the ones in the middle off to create an indirect zone.
This technique is perfect for cooking bone-in cuts of chicken or anything fatty that will otherwise cause flare-ups when the hot fat drips on to the coals. Start on the hot side, then move to the cooler side to finish cooking. If you've got a barbecue with a lid, having two zones also means you can use the barbecue like an oven, searing larger cuts initially over the direct heat before moving to the cooler side and putting the lid on.
Light up the grill and set your senses alight with these three super-tasty barbecue recipes.
Yucatan Beef Fajitas
These days some innovative New Zealand companies are producing a range of high-quality products. Auckland-based company Tio Pablo produces and imports a range of Mexican products with authentic flavour profiles including salsas, spice mixes and tortillas, while Kaitaia Fire from the Far North is in the chilli business, with a range of products including home-grown, high-quality sauces.
Prep 10 mins
Cook 15 mins
400g skirt steak, finely sliced across the grain; or thinly sliced beef such as schnitzel
3 Tbsp Mexican spice mix
2 Tbsp neutral oil
2 onions, halved and cut into very thin wedges
2 red peppers, cut into thin strips
MEXICAN SIDE SALAD
6 tomatoes, chopped
1 just-ripe avocado, chopped
½ green pepper, finely sliced
¼ red onion, finely sliced
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
A splash of hot sauce ( optional)
8 tortillas, heated
Iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges
Guacamole or mashed avocado (optional)
Stir beef and spice mix together and set aside.
To make the salad, combine all ingredients in a bowl.
Heat 1 Tbsp of the oil on a barbecue hot plate or in a heavy-based frying pan and cook onions and peppers until they are very soft and starting to brown (about 10 minutes).
Move to one side of the plate or pan, increase heat to high, add the remaining oil and stir-fry the beef for about 1 minute (you may need to lift out the onions and peppers or cook the beef in two batches if you don't have enough room).
Toss to combine the beef, onions and peppers and pile on to a serving platter.
Serve with tortillas, lettuce and avocado, if using, so people can build
their own fajitas. Serve salad on the side.
Fiery Beef with Sesame Carrot Ribbon Salad
This spiky chilli marinade gives chargrilled beef a real flavour-punch. I like to serve this with a zingy carrot salad but it's also great in a burger with some store-bought kimchi and mayo.
Ready in 20 mins + marinating
Serves 6, including salad
1kg piece rump, sirloin or skirt/flank steak
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 Tbsp Kaitaia Fire Chili sauce or ¼ cup sriracha sauce
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
SESAME CARROT RIBBON SALAD
4 radishes, sliced paper-thin
2 carrots, peeled and cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
2 spring onions, finely shredded lengthways
½ cup chopped roasted peanuts
2 Tbsp black sesame seeds
GINGER SESAME DRESSING
¼ cup lime or lemon juice
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce or tamari
2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp soft brown sugar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
½ tsp finely chopped long red chilli
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
To make the marinade, mix ingredients in a clean plastic bag or bowl. Reserve 6 tsp to one side. Add steak to remaining marinade and turn to coat.
Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours in the fridge. While meat marinates, make salad dressing.
Shake all dressing ingredients together in a small jar to combine. If not using at once, chill for up to a week until needed
Make salad, combine radishes, carrots and spring onions in a serving bowl. Add the dressing and toss lightly to combine. Top with peanuts and black sesame seeds to serve. Salad can be made several hours ahead of time.
Preheat a barbecue grill over a high heat. Cook steak for 3-4 minutes each side – it needs to be rare. Remove from heat, cover loosely and leave to rest for 5 minutes before slicing thinly across the grain. Serve drizzled with the reserved marinade. If serving with the salad, arrange sliced steak on top of salad and drizzle with reserved marinade.
Korean Barbecue Beef
Use Korean ingredients such as kimchi and gochujang for a fresh take on the traditional barbecue. Made of fermented soy beans, sweet rice flour and chillies, gochujang provides a real depth of flavour and earthiness in your cooking. Shiso is an easy-to-grow annual that is used widely in Japanese and Korean cooking but any lettuce wrapper can be substituted. This is a great way to transform an inexpensive steak cut.
Ready in 20 mins + marinating
1kg hanger or skirt/flank steak
Neutral oil, to cook
6 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup clear apple juice
¼ cup sugar
1 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp Kaitaia Fire chilli sauce, sriracha or other hot chilli sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1 tsp salt
Green parts of 2 spring onions, shredded
Perilla (shiso) leaves or lettuce leaves
Gochujang or other chilli sauce
Steamed brown rice
Vietnamese mint leaves
To make the marinade, combine all ingredients in a shallow dish that is large enough to hold the meat in a single layer. Add meat and turn to coat. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.
To make the sesame salt, pulverise sesame seeds and salt using a mortar and pestle or food processor to your preferred texture.
When ready to cook, heat a little oil on a barbecue hotplate or in a frying pan. Shake excess marinade from steak and cook for 4-5 minutes on each side – do not overcook. Set aside to rest. Meanwhile, transfer the marinade to a small pot and simmer for 5 minutes.
Thinly slice the steak, drizzle with the heated marinade and scatter with sesame salt. Serve with spring onions, perilla leaves, gochujang, kimchi, brown rice and Vietnamese mint so everyone can make up their own wraps.