24 Jun 2024

It’s Barbecue Season!

For a country with reliably undependable weather the British are remarkably keen on barbecues and al fresco entertaining. This means that, in addition to all the usual hazards involved in entertaining, the weather is an unknown quantity, and best-laid plans are often upended.

With this in mind, we looked at the five most common barbecue blunders and countered with five basic tips, which will help your event go with a swing:

Barbecue Blunders

1. Not lighting up before guests arrive

Everyone agrees that food grilled on charcoal is particularly delicious, but if you are choosing to go down this road you will have to accept that it is much more fickle and fiddly than a gas barbecue, which can simply be fired up 10-15 minutes before you want to start cooking.

Never resort to lighter fluid to start the coal as a paraffin taste will impregnate the food and the unpleasant smell will linger. Take it slowly and use a chimney starter: pack the bottom with newspaper, add the coals, light the newspaper and allow 20–30 minutes for the charcoal to heat up before pouring the hot coals into your grill. Only do this when the coals have turned grey, and no black is visible. You can create heat zones by piling up coals on one side of your grill for high temperature searing and positioning fewer coals on the opposite side for cooking more delicate fish and vegetables. Now close the lid on your grill and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before you start cooking.

2. Not focusing on the food

Barbecuing is an art, and you will need to concentrate when you’re cooking, especially if you are juggling meat, fish and vegetables, which will all need different heat levels and cooking times. It’s easy to get carried away with your professional chef persona but the reality is that barbecuing is not a theatrical performance, and you will probably need to ignore your guests while you concentrate on cooking.

It is sensible, therefore, to enlist the services of your partner, or a close friend, as a co-host, while you are negotiating the most challenging part of the process. They can hand out drinks and nibbles and make sure that guests are comfortable.

3. Not thinking about vegetarians

Traditionally, barbecues are seen as pretty meat-centred affairs. Carnivores will drool at the prospect of sizzling slabs of rare steak or fatty sausages, but for pescatarians and non-meat eaters this could be a real turn-off.

Check out beforehand if any of your guests are vegetarians or vegans and don’t simply resort to making an extra large bowl of coleslaw. Cheese such as halloumi is delicious on the barbecue, and vegans will enjoy grilled tofu. You can also create vegetable skewers, using peppers, onions and courgettes. Fish-eaters will enjoy robust choices that withstand the barbecue experience like halibut and swordfish (lightly oiled before cooking to prevent sticking); sardines and mackerel also barbecue well.

4.  Not thinking about the guests’ comfort

It’s all very well revelling in the primitive ‘cave man’ aura of cooking over fire in the open air, but many of your guests – while undoubtedly appreciative of your culinary efforts – will be less than pleased if they find themselves perched on a wobbly chair, forced to balance an overloaded plate of steaming hot food on their laps, while their wine glasses repeatedly topple over in the long grass at their feet.

Eating and socialising is much better if everyone is sitting around a table on reasonably comfortable chairs, with real crockery and cutlery. The furniture doesn’t have to be pristine – you can disguise a multitude of imperfections with tablecloths, throws and cushions – but it should at least be stable and functional.

5. Not planning for the weather

Optimistically setting out the garden furniture and the grill, with no provision made for a sudden dash indoors (dining room table overloaded with papers, not enough chairs etc) is foolhardy unless we are in the middle of one of our rare heatwaves.

Many people wisely make barbecuing into an impromptu decision, entirely based on the weather and on levels of confidence in the sunshine lasting all day. It is hard to organise a barbecue well ahead because the weather may not fit in with your plans. The best solution is to invite your guests in advance, mention that – weather permitting – you will be barbecuing and serving food in the garden (this will alert them to the need for hats, suncream, sweaters and wraps for chilly evenings). But always have a Plan B: you may have to cook the food in your conventional oven, and your guests may have to move inside and eat in the dining room.

Barbecue Basics

1.  Preparation is key

Most barbecue food preparation can be done well in advance: marinades for meat must be prepared and utilised ahead of time, and salads and salsas can be chopped, assembled and refrigerated (add dressings at the last minute to avoid salads looking sad and oily).

But it’s not just about the food; you should also ensure that seating is organised, and the table is laid before your guests arrive. There is nothing more discouraging than arriving, and then being forced to stand around, looking helpless, while your hosts hump large items of furniture and cool boxes around the lawn.

2.  Timing is Everything

Cooking on a barbecue is stressful because it involves concentration and coordination, which can be very difficult to maintain when you’re surrounded by guests. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a solo show: enlist a couple of willing helpers to keep an eye on the various components and distribute cooked food. You might have to accept that a barbecue is effectively an ad hoc staggered meal, with different dishes coming out at irregular intervals and some people getting their food way before their companions. This really doesn’t matter, because people really enjoy the improvisational nature of barbecuing – they will appreciate well-cooked food straight off the grill even if they do have to wait for it.

3.  Remember the drinks

With so much focus on the grill and the cooking, it’s easy to forget to keep your guests’ glasses full and ensure that they are well hydrated – especially important if it’s hot and sunny. If possible, deputise someone else to ensure that there is a smooth flow of bottles from the fridge to the cool box (or shady spot) and that ice is regularly replenished. You could set up your drinks on a table under a tree and point your guests to the drink with an invitation to help themselves; barbecues are, first and foremost, informal affairs so they’ll be happy to do their own pouring. Finally, make sure you have adequate supplies of water and soft drinks for people who do not want to drink alcohol, or for those who have reached the point where self-restraint looks like a sensible option.

4. Take a break

It’s hard, sweaty work keeping a barbecue going for a crowd of people. No matter how much you love the process, don’t overdo it. It’s easy – especially if your marinades start sizzling, the sausages are spitting, flames are licking out of your grill, and your garden is engulfed in clouds of acrid black smoke – to become extremely frazzled and short-tempered. This is a sign that you should take a break; sit down, have a drink and talk to your guests.

5. Don’t be a barbecue fanatic

It’s great to enjoy outdoors cooking, but don’t get so absorbed by the food that you fail to notice that your garden is windswept, it’s spotting with rain, your guests are huddled under an assortment of blankets and their fingers are gradually turning blue. Sometimes, you really do have to concede defeat and take it indoors. Don’t put your guests in a situation where they must either sit it out in sub-Arctic temperatures or plead with you to go inside. Keep an eye on everyone and the moment you see any signs of incipient discomfort, call it a day.


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Get In Touch
Subscription Enquiries
+44 (0)330 3339699
General Enquiries
+44 (0)20 3950 5240
Join our weekly newsletter
Subscription Form
MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Designed by Anna Ocipinska. Developed by BuiltByGo. © 2022 Debrett’s. All Rights Reserved
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.