Saturday, June 27, 2009

BTO: Ready, set, fire

Business Times - 27 Jun 2009


Ready, set, fire

You can't smoke your way through barbecuing - there's an art to doing it right, says celebrity chef and barbecue-ologist Robert Rainford. By Audrey Phoon

BAKING. Dehydrating. Sauteing. Pureeing. One can readily understand how these cooking techniques contribute towards producing works of culinary art, but barbecuing? Many would consider that a primeval method of cooking, one simply involving slapping huge slabs of meat onto heated pits and firing the beejeesus out of them.

Barbecue-ologist and 'BBQ King' Robert Rainford, however, begs to differ. The celebrity chef of the Asian Food Channel's Licence to Grill programme, who was in Singapore last week to fire up the new Kamado barbecue grills at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore (the world-famous barbecuing machines will be introduced in the hotel's Town restaurant next month), believes 'there's a huge art' to turning out food on a barbecue. From cedar-planked salmon and chicken on a beer can to smoked pork belly, a barbecue is capable of a vast range of delicious dishes, he says - you just have to know the right techniques.

To begin with, if you are using a charcoal barbecue, start the fire with the help of some lighter fluid and paper, then build it substantially before you start cooking. 'What we want to do is get the charcoal from black to a really thick white ash before we start cooking,' says Rainford, a Canadian who prefers to use gas-operated barbecues himself because 'you can just turn some knobs and it's on right away'. He adds: 'Once the coals become this thick white ash, you're ready to cook.'

If you cook before the coals are white, he warns, you get 'an acrid smoke and that smoke is partially what's cancer-causing - so it's really important that you know how and when to start barbecuing when you work with charcoal'.

That done, adding different types of wood to your barbecue - whether it's into the flames in a charcoal barbecue or as a pouch of wood chips on a gas barbecue - will enhance the flavour of your food with a lovely smokiness. Just remember to consider the sort of produce you are cooking when choosing a type of wood to pair with it, says the chef.

'Mesquite and hickory are the two major types of wood that everyone uses, but they're so powerful in their taste that they can overpower food to a certain degree.' While those woods are fine if you are making barbecued pork ribs because 'pork is a naturally neutrally-flavoured item so you would want to introduce some big smoke into that', robust-flavoured foods (such as the beef ribs in the recipe here) do better with woods such as apple and cherry as they have more subtle flavours.

You can also marinade your food by 'throwing an oil and an acid together in combination with onions and garlic', suggests Rainford. 'It's the simplest of marinades but that will infuse flavour into meat, chicken, whatever.' For vegetables, he recommends a simple seasoning by placing them with a bit of olive oil and herbs in a plastic bag and just 'shaking them around'.

When it comes to barbecuing your food, there are basically two main techniques: high and fast, and low and slow. 'Things like chicken breast and chicken, veal or fish burgers are what you would cook fast and on high heat,' the chef says. 'But if I wanted to do ribs or some other type of cut that is very tough, I would use low and slow.'

What the latter method involves is cooking using indirect heat for between three and five hours (depending on what you are cooking), with the fire going only on one side of the barbecue. 'The side with no fire is where we put the meat, close the lid, and allow it to become what I would consider an oven,' explains Rainford, adding that this will help cook the food through without burning it.

Combining both the fast-and-high and low-and-slow techniques will give you the 'two-tiered heat approach' that the chef uses most frequently. He explains: 'I will put one side of my barbecue on high and the other on medium to medium-low. I will start cooking on high to get a crisp exterior and then shunt the food over towards the medium-low side, which gives me the slower heat that's needed to cook things through to the centre.'

This approach helps to prevent food from being cooked only on the outside, but even so cooks must 'look for markers to tell you when to take your food off', says Rainford. In the case of chicken wings, for example, 'when the joints move freely and the juices run clear, we know that cooking has hit the bone'.

Alternatively, if you are using a thermometer, don't put it on the bone; instead, stick it into the fattest part of the meat. An internal temperature reading of about 74 degrees Celsius will tell you that your food is cooked all the way through.

Of course, as with every cooking method, culinary art or not, there's the cleaning-up afterwards. To get rid of any residue on a barbecue grill, crank up the heat if you're using a gas machine, or light a fire and close the lid on a charcoal barbecue to heat it up as much as possible. The heat burns the residue, making it easier to scrape off with a wire brush instead of just smudging back and forth when the grill is cold.

'Proper maintenance is important,' emphasises the BBQ King. 'At least quarterly, take everything out and pressure wash it down, scrub it all nice and clean.'

Spicy grilled beef short ribs
Serves 4


4 beef short ribs, bone in 
1/3 cup five-spice powder 
1/3 cup brown sugar 
3 tbsp garlic salt 
3 tbsp celery salt 
3 cups wood chips (cherry or apple)


1. Combine all of the rub ingredients in a large bowl the day before you plan to serve them. Rub half of the rub mixture into the ribs and reserve the other half of the rub for use the next day. Place the ribs in a large plastic bag and into the fridge to marinate overnight.

2. A half-hour before you plan to put the ribs on the grill, take them out from the fridge. Remove them from the plastic bag and apply the remaining rub, leaving approximately two tablespoons to sprinkle on the ribs while they smoke.

3. Let the ribs stand for half an hour to come to room temperature. This will ensure that they cook evenly on the grill.

4. Place 1 cup of the wood chips in cold water to soak for 30 minutes.

5. If your grill has several grates, remove one on the end and set it aside. Preheat the grill to high heat (approximately 200 to 225 degrees Celsius).

6. Squeeze the excess water from the soaking woodchips and place in the centre of a large piece of aluminium foil. Add the remaining two cups of dry wood chips. Fold the aluminium foil around the chips to create a sealed pouch. Using a fork, poke holes in the package on both sides to allow smoke to filter through.

7. Place the pouch directly over the flame on the side where the grate has been removed. Close the lid and wait for smoke to start building in the barbecue.

8. Once smoking has begun, lower the heat under the pouch of wood chips and turn the heat off on the other portions of the grill. Wait for the temperature to reach approximately 100 degrees Celsius.

9. Place the ribs on the grates where the heat is off. Close the lid and leave to smoke with indirect heat for approximately four hours. After 11/2 to 2 hours, flip the ribs and sprinkle with the remaining rub mixture.

10. After four hours, the ribs should have a crispy delicious rub exterior and the meat should be almost falling off the bone.

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