Fan the flames: Chef Gráinne O’Keefe’s top 10 tips for the perfect barbecue

From ingredients to equipment and cooking tips, here’s the guide to the perfect barbecue

Gráinne O'Keefe is a firm believer in barbecues being used all year-round to cook, not just in summer. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Buy good quality produce

This is the most important step. As always in cooking, your end result is only as good as your initial ingredients. Buy meat from a qualified butcher, your fish from a fishmonger and vegetables that are in season and fresh. I always like to experiment and cook something a little different. If you can get your hands on it, try Peter Hannan’s sugar pit bacon (order for delivery from

Pick the right cooking equipment

With the ingredients sorted, the next step is picking the right barbecue for you. There are debates about charcoal being better than gas and vice versa, but it depends on what you’re cooking and your skill level. I’ve been cooking over fire for years professionally and see the benefits (and drawbacks) of both. Gas grills are more consistent, easier to manage, easier to light and take less time to clean up after using. Charcoal allows you to cook at higher temperatures, and to have different sections of the grill at different heats. Charcoal is also very messy and takes longer to clean up. It’s a common misconception that charcoal gives you that charred flavour – it doesn’t. The charred flavour comes from the fat hitting the coals (or bars if it’s gas), and the smoke that’s released being absorbed by the food.

Cook with wood

If you’re using a charcoal grill, add some wood to the charcoal to give a deeper smoky flavour. Wood gives off a lot of smoke and different types pair well with different foods. Cherry wood for duck, apple wood for pork, etc. Don’t cook solely over wood though, it’s too smoky and won’t give off enough heat.

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Temper your ingredients

This step is crucial for getting a perfectly cooked, juicy end product. Tempering is the process of taking your ingredients out of the fridge and bringing them up to room temperature before cooking. There are a few reasons for this, with the main one being that if you put a fridge-cold steak or fish on a grill, it will sweat and cool before getting that initial hot sear, leaving it without the crunchy char. My rule of thumb is temper for at least an hour before cooking (unless it’s burgers or sausages; I take them out just before cooking).


Fat is your friend

All of that smoky goodness comes from fat. Have you ever tried to grill a piece of celery? With no fat content, it’s pointless and will ultimately just wilt. The trick is to add fat to anything that doesn’t contain a lot naturally (vegetables, lean meats such as fillet, fruits). You can experiment too by using beef dripping, different oils and butters. Avoid olive oil as a precook fat as it burns quicker and will leave a bitter taste.

Fan the flames

This goes for both gas and charcoal. Oxygen is the key for a barbecue to maintain a steady temperature. If you find your coals are getting a little cool, fan the flames a little to get the heat back. Be very careful not to let the flames touch the food though as they will leave carbon on the food which gives a bitter and burnt taste. Lower the flames and aim for white smoke.

Use a meat thermometer

I rarely cook without mine. You want an instant probe that tells you the temperature right away. I use Thermapen. They are a worthwhile investment. The thermometer is great for ensuring meats such as chicken and pork are cooked through, and also to cook meat and fish to the perfect temperature.

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Buy accessories

Once you master your grill and are confident with your cooking techniques, buy some grilling accessories. One of my favourite is the rotisserie, which allows you to slowly cook and smoke meats and fish with limited interaction or fuss. I’m a firm believer in barbecues being used all year-round to cook, not just in summer.

Seasoning matters

I always put sea salt on my ingredients before and after grilling (if it’s meat, I’ll slice it when it’s cooked and season the slices). I always add pepper after instead of before, as the pepper can burn and create a bitter flavour. Marinades and glazes are also great for barbecues. Marinate lamb in garlic and rosemary oil, chicken in a miso butter and fish should always be lightly salted and air dried before cooking.

Rest your food

A general guideline is to rest your meat and fish for half the cooking time. Allowing food to rest gives the juices time to travel to the centre and cook through slowly. This is also why turning your proteins during cooking is important, as it means the juices travel from all sides. I always turn half way through the resting of the protein also. Rest on a rack to avoid the surface heating and cooking the food any more.