Cooking over an open fire is the world’s oldest cooking method, somehow it seems to reawaken our primordial instincts. Even those who wouldn’t normally be caught dead in an apron feel an urge to grab the tongs when they see a barbecue! Barbecuing means less fuss, more fun and (when one gets the hang of it) more flavour too. It’s all about easy, casual entertaining – unwinding with friends and family, while the steaks sizzle and the chicken wings crisp over glowing embers.

You certainly don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. I’ve cooked many an outdoor feast in the most basic circumstances – a circle of stones, a fire and a wire rack will get you started. The skills one needs to learn are: how to light the fire, how to judge when the heat is right for cooking, and where to position the food in relation to the source of heat.


Before you start barbecuing make sure that you’re organised – with your tongs, seasoning and dishes ready. Even though these are laidback affairs, they will only seem effortless if you’ve organised yourself a little first.

The fundamental principle of barbecuing is controlling the heat. On a barbecue, you do this by raising or lowering the grill. Because they cook more slowly, the larger the pieces of meat, the further from the heat source they need to be. So for thick steaks, chicken legs and larger cuts of meat, you are better off searing over the high heat for a few minutes before transferring the meat to the edges of the grill, where the heat is lower. Searing will seal the meat, so that the juices remain inside during further cooking on a low heat. Smaller pieces of food (chicken paillarde or lamb chops) can be within 10-12.5 cm (4-5in) of the coals.

It is difficult to gauge if chicken legs and wings are properly cooked through. Because of the risk of salmonella and campylobacter, it is definitely worth pre-cooking chicken drumsticks a little first – this may sound like cheating, but it’s better to be safe, particularly if you are using intensively produced meat.
As you cook, fat will drip off the meat and onto the coals, producing flames. Damp these down by spraying a little water on the coals. Avoid basting with too much oil or marinade as well, as this can also cause flames to leap up. Keep turning the meat so it does not stick, burn or dry out. Most burgers, chops and so on should be ready with 20 minutes, but do check before serving. Fish and seafood will be much quicker.


Marinades are fun to experiment with, and can be an excellent way to improve and strengthen the flavour of meat, but they are certainly not essential. If you start off with good quality fish and meat, you shouldn’t have to do very much to it. For a simple marinade, all you need is good olive oil, sea salt, a few herbs and perhaps a little lemon or lime juice, vinegar or red wine. You only need to marinade for 10-15 minutes, and be particularly aware not to leave meat in an acidic marinade for too long as it can be counter-productive and toughen it. A word of warning: avoid marinades with tomato or honey as they tend to burn. It’s a better idea to baste the meat with sauce once it’s cooked.

Food for Barbecues

Barbecues were traditionally carnivorous affairs, with perhaps the odd green salad or baked potato on the side. This is far from the case now. There are some exceptionally tasty vegetarian and non-meat options to try: vegetable kebabs and parcels, stuffed flat mushrooms, goat’s cheese wrapped vine leaves, coal-baked potatoes, prawns and fish. Remember that people’s appetites increase when they eat outdoors, and of course all those lovely aromas of cooking food will make them hungrier still. Keep your guests’ hunger at bay with some fingerfood – this will also ensure that they’re not completely sozzled if you get your timing wrong and the cooking takes longer than expected! As a rough guide, allow per person:

3-4 portions of ‘main’ course, e.g. kebabs, steak, burgers, sausages or fish parcels

2-3 portions of salads or vegetable dishes, e.g. baked potatoes, salads or vegetable parcels

1-2 portions of dessert

3-4 drinks

Try to have some standby food on hand, such as extra sausages (which can be frozen later if they’re not used) and bananas or tomatoes which can be wrapped in streaky baacon.

Pork Ribs with quick Barbecue Sauce

(recipe from Bord Bia recipe collection no. 33 – see top tips)
These ribs are par-boiled before barbecuing, this will reduce the fat and ensure that they are fully cooked. 
Serves 4

1kg (2lbs) pork ribs
Boil the ribs in a large pan of boiling water for 10 minutes. You can flavour the liquid with onion and a half teaspoon of 5 spice powder. Drain and leave in the fridge until ready.
Quick Barbecue Sauce
4 tablesp. tomato ketchup
1 tablesp. honey
1 tablesp. wine vinegar
1 tablesp. Worcestershire sauce
dash of Tabasco
salt and pepper

To barbecue:
Mix all the sauce ingredients together.
Cook the ribs for 6-7 minutes on each side. Brush a little of the sauce over the ribs towards the end of the cooking time.

Bananas wrapped in Streaky Bacon 
A super standby which can become one of the most sought after items, prunes, dates or chicken livers are also great (careful not to overlap the bacon too much). 

Thin streaky rashers.
Peel the bananas and cut into chunks about 2 - 22 inches (5cm - 6.5cm) long (depending on the width of the rasher).
Wrap each piece in bacon and secure with a 'soaked' cocktail stick, toss the bananas in fresh lemon juice if prepared ahead. Cook on a grid on the hinged barbecue 4 - 6 inches (10cm - 15cm) from the hot coals for 6-10 minutes depending on the size, serve immediately.

Barbecued Flat Mushrooms 
These disappear so fast, cook twice as many as you think you’ll need.

Large flat mushrooms
olive oil
chopped fresh herbs, eg. chives, thyme, parsley and marjoram
salt and freshly ground pepper

Arrange the mushrooms on a flat dish, sprinkle with freshly chopped herbs. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Leave for ½ - 1 hour approx. Cook on the barbecue, sprinkle with sea salt as they cook. Serve as they are or with garlic or herb butter.

Chargrilled Red Onions with Thyme Leaves

Great with steaks, everyone loves steak and onions!
Serves 6
3 large onions
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper

Peel the onion, slice, cut into generous half circle. Thread the onion slices onto flat metal skewers. Brush both sides with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with thyme leaves. Allow to marinade for 15 or 20 minutes. Grill over medium heat on a barbeque or pan grill. Cook until browned on both sides and softish in the centre.

Sweet and Sticky Drumsticks

This marinade is also good for chicken thighs or breasts.
Serves 15

30 drumsticks
12 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons clear honey
10 floz (300 ml) white wine

Put the garlic, mustard, soy sauce, olive oil and honey in a food processor and whiz for about 30 seconds. Add the white wine, whizz again.
Slash the drumsticks on both sides. Marinade for 6-12 hours, turning every now and then.
Barbecue or pre-heat oven 220C/425F/Gas mark 7. Cook for 10 minutes, basting with marinade. Reduce temperature to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4-5 and give them another 30-40 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Darina Allen’s back to basics 

Basic Marinades for Meat
A good Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the most important marinade of all. Combine all the ingredients and mix well.

Olive Oil Marinade

Suitable for meat and fish makes 2 pint (300ml) approx.
8 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic crushed
4 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs eg. thyme, mint, chives, rosemary and sage
4 tablespoons parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper

Optional Extras
2 tablespoons finely grated orange rind
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

Olive Oil and Ginger Marinade
Use for Pork or chicken

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons orange rind
4 cloves garlic chopped 

Basic Marinade for Chicken and Lamb etc.

3 sprigs of tarragon, thyme or rosemary, chopped
Optional additions:
½ -1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest or
1 grated onion and a good sprinkling of cinnamon.
1 grated onion and a good sprinkling of cinnamon

Yoghurt Marinade

Suitable for lamb and chicken
Makes 18 fl ozs (525ml) approx.
16 fl ozs (475ml) natural yoghurt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint leaves
Freshly ground pepper

Hot Tips 

Seasonal produce

Fresh local food in season is what I love to feast on, full of vitamins and minerals. This week look out for sweet juicy sweetcorn. It takes just 3 minutes to cook in boiling salted water. Eat immediately sprinkled with a few flakes of sea salt and a knob of butter melting over the top. I bought some recently from Catherine and Vincent O’Donovan’s roadside stall on the main Cork to Innishannon road about a mile and a half from the Halfway Roundabout. They are open every day and hope to have sweet corn for the next month or so, and if you would like to order some for the freezer ring Vincent on 087-2486031. Their corn will also be available on the Ballymaloe Cookery School stall at Midleton Farmers Market.

Bord Bia have a tempting Barbecue Pork recipe leaflet available – kebabs, sausages, burgers, ribs and salsas – also some good tips for successful barbecuing – Tel. 01-6685155, ask for Good Food Recipe collection No 33

‘Barbecue’ by Eric Treuille and Birgit Erath - published by Dorling Kindersley – for me this is the most exciting and inspirational book for barbecueing.

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


Past Letters

  • Recipes