There are several types of barbecue: charcoal, gas and electric grills, as well as smokers, which are much more popular in the US.
A charcoal barbecue is the traditional back garden favourite, and the classic style of its kind is the kettle. The most famous brand is Weber and you can buy the company’s original kettle-style charcoal BBQ for about £150-£200, depending on the diameter of the grill.
The Weber One Touch E4710 with a 47cm grill is available from John Lewis for £152.
You can also buy smaller, portable charcoal barbecues for camping and picnics.
To get the most from a charcoal grill, get one with a lid – and use it. Quick cook items including thin burgers, shrimp and vegetables can be grilled with the lid off, but steaks, roasts and whole chickens should be cooked under the lid. Some barbecue chefs recommend only ever cooking with the lid on, as it increases the smoky flavour in the food and allows for more even cooking.
A charcoal barbecue will also allow for direct and indirect cooking. Direct cooking is when food is grilled directly over a flame. With indirect cooking, the charcoal is heaped towards the sides, and the food is placed in the centre of the grill so that it is not directly over the flame but cooks in the resulting heat.
Charcoal grill pros
A charcoal grill is barbecuing. The smoky taste is what outdoor cooking is all about.
Charcoal grills are also usually cheaper than gas, although as a fuel, charcoal will prove more expensive than gas over time. Charcoal is also more readily available than gas canisters, so you don't have to be as careful about staying stocked up.
Charcoal takes longer to heat up. You’ll need to be a bit more organised than if you’re using a gas grill, leaving yourself 30 minutes for the coals to heat up and be ready to cook.
To make starting a charcoal grill easier, for about £20 you can get a charcoal chimney starter and never again be tempted to use lighter fluid for a jump start. (This one is reduced from £19.99 to £11.50 on Amazon in the UK.) All you need is some crumpled newspaper or a couple of lighter cubes and it will heat up your charcoal in 10-15 minutes.
Charcoal grills are also a pain to clean, although you can get easy clean versions. (The Weber One Touch listed above is an easy clean barbecue.)
Also, depending on where you live, you may not be able to use a charcoal grill in your garden as smoke may affect your neighbours.
Finally, charcoal grilling creates chemicals including heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can damage your DNA and lead to cancer. There’s a reason that barbecuing is a special event. Other forms of cooking are far healthier and more environmentally friendly.
Gas barbecues are growing in popularity as more people invest in outdoor kitchens. While you can get smaller, portable gas grills suitable for camping, most gas grills are large. They are sturdier than an average charcoal grill, with a number of individually controlled burners.
Deluxe units may also have prep counters, shelves, heated plates, tool hooks and a storage area for accessories. Some can be fitted with other cooking add-ons, like a pizza stone. They can cost from £75 up to £500 and more.
Gas grills run on propane or patio gas cylinders but can also be connected to the gas main.
Pros of gas barbecues
Gas barbecuing is cleaner, faster, healthier and more environmentally friendly than charcoal grilling.
It’s simple to control the heat on a gas grill and individual burners can be set to different temperatures to ensure that all foods are really well cooked.
Gas barbecues are easier to clean as well.
They also have aesthetics on their side. If you’ve invested in decking and outdoor furniture and you want your garden to have a high-end feel, gas grills look good. And when the wind changes, you won’t envelop your guests in a cloud of charcoal smoke.
Barbecue aficionados will say that gas grilling is just not barbecuing. And it’s true that if you’re a skilled cook, you can get some incredible flavours from a charcoal grill.
But for many people, the difference in taste will be negligible, either because they're just going for basic burgers or because they're willing to put some effort into marinades, sauces and rubs.
You can also buy flavouriser bars or lava rocks (these cost £12.87), which can produce a little smoke and help to recreate some of the smoky flavour in food. But before you buy, make sure that the products are compatible with your barbecue.
Gas cylinders are not as easy to come by as a bag of charcoal. If you run out, you probably won't be able to nip out to the garage to stock up. Getting your outdoor grill connected to the gas main is also expensive.
An electric grill isn’t really a barbecue as it lacks any kind of an open flame, which is really what barbecuing is all about.
But if you live somewhere with no outside space, or a shared garden, you may not be allowed to barbecue at home. In this case, an electric grill can help you to recreate some of the outdoor cooking magic.
Pros of an electric grill
If you can’t grill outside any other way, an electric grill is a decent purchase. It’s also the healthiest form of outdoor cooking.
You’ll have to rely heavily on marinades and sauces to get barbecue flavours into your food.
A barbecue smoker is essentially an outdoor slow cooker. It uses indirect heat, along with smoke, to cook large hunks of meat. Cooking can take anywhere from 3 hours to 16.
They can be powered by coal, wood, pellets or gas. They are much less common in the UK than in the US and consequently more expensive, with prices from £200.
Weber makes the Smokey Mountain Cooker, for £309. It’s essentially an elongated version of the company’s kettle-shaped charcoal barbecue.
Pros and cons
This is a specialist type of barbecue and isn’t really a substitute for a typical back garden grill. It’s ideal for large cuts of meat, so you could make barbecue leg of pork, (a whole) smoked chicken or ham.
Although you can also smoke side dishes (I’ve seen recipes for smoked mac and cheese and corn on the cob), a smoker is not the kind of cooker you’d use to grill a couple of burgers and a few sausages. But if you want to plan a Viking banquet, a smoker will be just what you need.
Want to read more? Here are some suggestions: