May 08, 2013

Charcoal Barbecues on a Charter Boat

By Robert Cross

Cooking dinner at the back of the boat is a central part of an enjoyable sailing holiday. In some locations a charcoal barbecue will be supplied which can be intimidating for those not familiar with this style of cooking. For people preferring gas and not keen to take on the challenge of lighting and controlling a real fire as a cooking appliance I would implore upon you to take this chance to give it a go. These following tips will be useful.
Grilled CrayfishGrilled Crayfish

A barbecue is more than just an outdoor device to cook food, it is lodged in our primal being to sit around the campfire and take in the smells of burning wood and roasting meat. Coals give us real fire, that smokes and crackles, glows light, emits heat and imparts its character on our food. Gas just gives us heat.

For reasons of a more full and enriching experience I am an advocate for charcoal but as with gas it has safety issues as well as the challenges of lighting and cooking with this primitive fuel.

My Tips for Cooking with Coals 

The first rule of cooking with charcoal is to cook on embers not fire. With charcoal or its compacted form of bricks or biscuits the process is to establish a fire and letting that fire burn down to form a hot bed of embers. This takes around 2 hours and cannot be hurried so a barbecue is a lengthy but worthwhile process that needs to be anticipated early in the day

If you cook over flame the food will burn, the embers need to be consistently red with only small black spots. Black spots are not giving off heat and food will cook inconsistently above them.

It is likely that it will be windy on deck making it hard to establish a fire so make sure you have plenty of firelighters for this purpose. Normally I establish a fire just by using these and maybe some paper as a light fuel source. Place the firelighters evenly around the base of a few coals being careful not to choke off the air supply, especially if your coal is dusty. Locate the barbecue where it is most sheltered being careful that the inflatable dinghy is clear of any embers that may spark.

I have used petrol or meths to pre-soak my lighters to give them a boost but this is done in a separate container. It is a high risk practice to pour flammable liquids onto the barbecue itself. It is also said that soaking coals can taint the food. Do not be tempted to try this potentially dangerous shortcut.

The lid of charcoal barbecues is not there to create an oven. A solid fuel barbecue is an open grill, the lid on restricts oxygen and the fire will go out.
As the fire becomes established add more charcoal to ensure you make enough embers and then leave to burn down. The lid on a kettle style barbecue will hang off one side of the barbecue and can be used to shelter or direct more air onto the coals. Do not put the lid on when making embers, only when you have finished with the fire.

When you have that nice radiant evenly glowing bed of embers it's time to cook. This part of the program is as much art as anything.
There is no thermostat and the coals are going to progressively turn down the heat as you cook. There is plenty of heat left in your coals and you do not need to hurry but subsequent batches will take longer. On my last charter we had 10 people on board and even cooking for this number on a small kettle barbecue there was plenty of time for all the food to be cooked to everyone's liking.
Keep an eye on what you are cooking reading the signs as the food changes colour. The edges of the coal will not be as hot so you can move out items that have taken all they can on the outside but still need to bake inside.
Fatty meats will drip into the fire creating a flame searing the meat, loosing control of the cooking process and shortening the life of the embers. Cut off surplus fat and leave fatty sausages till last.

Marinate and rest meat as per normal culinary guidelines and enjoy.

Embrace the experience of cooking with solid fuel and give your sailing holiday a depth of flavour!

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