The humble barbie has undergone a radical makeover since the days when dads in King Gees presided over the snags in a cloud of smoke emanating from a brick-and-cement-block edifice.
Today, the nation’s favorite barbecues are gas-fired, stainless-steel beasts with multiple high-powered cooking functions.
Just like the kitchen stove, only outdoors, where cooks can enjoy entertainment rather than be cut off from the crowd while they slave away inside.
Because of the trend to use our ‘outdoor rooms’ for everyday living and entertaining, barbecue manufacturers have realized that barbecues need to perform to a higher standard too.
Accordingly, barbecue feature wok burners, non-stick cooking surfaces and extras such as prep areas, sinks and even bar fridges built in.
And, since we are spending tens of thousands of dollars opening up our living spaces to better connect with the outdoors, it makes sense that our barbecues look the part.
“People are increasingly concerned about the appearance of their barbecue,” says Blair Boaden, Director of Lifestyle Barbecues.
“At the upper end of the market, people are looking to recreate their indoor kitchen outdoors,” Boaden says.
“A built-in unit with roasting hood, storage, sink and perhaps even a wine fridge – a real outdoor room with features to rival the indoor zone.”
We’re also cooking a greater variety of dishes on barbecues.
“These days, people are cooking just about everything outdoors – not just sausages and steaks, but roasts, pizzas, even cakes,” says Craig Williamson, Product Marketing Manager – Food Preparation for Electrolux.
“There’s a lot of interest in alternative ways of cooking within the same barbecues,” agrees Boaden.
“If you have a unit with a wok or side-burner, for example, you can steam, stir-fry, sauté, simmer…pretty much anything where you need to retain the sauce or stock.”
Needs vs wants
With so many additional features, buying a barbecue is more complicated than before.
There’s more to choose from in terms of look, function and cost, as well as a greater diversity of design and quality of materials.
When selecting a barbecue, resist the temptation to choose solely on whizz-bang features.
You need to consider:
- How much space you have? Most units can be moved around, but built-ins are best for serious cooks.
- What you intend to cook?
- How often you intend to cook?
- Which type of fuel is appropriate for your needs?
“The most popular style of barbecue is a trolley-style, gas-fired grill – typically with four burners,” says Peter Anderson, Category Manager at Barbecues Galore.
You can choose from simple two-burner models to commercial designs with a whopping 15 burners, but four or five will be ample to feed a family of four, plus a few guests when the need arises.
An amazing range of accessories are fast becoming standard features too.
In addition to roasting hoods with viewing windows, rotisseries, warming racks and storage shelves or cupboards can be found on basic models costing as little as $400 as well as on high-end designs.
Most barbecues are constructed of sturdy metals such as stainless steel or cast iron, perhaps combined with hardwood timber in the surrounding trolley or storage unit.
Models with vitreous enamel coatings on the frame are ideal, since enamel is resistant to temperatures up to 1472°F (800°C).
Beware of barbecues with painted frames, however – paint has little resistance to heat, so the finish will burn off, leaving flame beneath susceptible to corrosion.
A cast-iron grill and hotplate is sturdy and relatively inexpensive, but takes effort to keep in tip-top condition.
Stainless steel is an increasingly popular choice as it is less prone to rust than cast iron, as well as easier to clean.
And, since there is no food residue on the hotplate or grill, there’s no cross-contamination of flavors (beef-flavored fish anyone?)
Hotplates and grills made from vitreous enamel or enamel-coated steel are also an excellent choice as the surfaces are easier to clean and wear better than cast iron.
Purists insist that a barbecue isn’t a barbecue if it’s not fired by wood or charcoal/briquettes.
But environmental concerns have led many of today’s grillers to switch to natural or LP (bottled) gas.
Wood and charcoal are traditional barbecue-fuel favorites as they impart a lovely smoky flavor to the food.
However, they take a long time to heat up and dealing with ashes can be messy.
The biggest advantage of barbecuing with gas is that it allows food to be cooked at a controlled temperature.
Bottles gas provides an intense heat quickly; natural takes slightly longer to reach optimum cooking temperature.
If you prefer natural gas, you’ll need to connect the barbecue to your home’s mains supply.
Electric barbecues are an option, but they tend to be most effective in smaller sizes.
The main challenge with electric barbecues is that it’s hard to generate enough heat to cook on an area larger than a skillet-sized frypan.
The other advantage of gas and electric is that they may still be used during a total fire ban, while wood or other solid-fuel barbecues are prohibited.
Even if your outdoor entertaining space is limited, you can still have a sizzling barbecue.
There are many compact and portable designs to choose from, including charcoal, electric and gas-fired units.
A kettle barbecue, such as the iconic Weber, is one of the most popular options for courtyards, terraces and balconies.
Great for grilling, it’s also large enough to accommodate a whole joint of meat for roasting.
Kettle barbecues are usually charcoal-fired, but weatherproof electric models (the Crazy Kettle, for example) are also available.
Fold-away designs, like the bottle gas-fired Weber Q1200, are ideal for small balconies.
For keen outdoor cooks and entertainers, an all-in-one appliance featuring a built-in barbecue plus food preparation areas, utensil storage, a sink and bar fridge is a wise investment.
“Barbecue design has been driven by a greater connection between the inside and outdoor living spaces,” Williamson says.
By incorporating an all-in-one barbecue into the outdoor entertaining area, cooks can remain part of the party while they tend to their gourmet delights.
And, while many outdoor kitchens look like they are surrounded by rendered concrete, most are made from lightweight materials, which means they aren’t too heavy for timber decking.
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