Way back in 1983, Paul Hogan starred in a TV commercial that aimed to get Americans to visit Australia. Toward the end of the commercial, Hogan promises to “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie.” And that’s how barbecue virtually launched Australia’s tourism boom.


Australians just love outdoor living and an Australian resident without a barbecue is a rare oddity. From the days when a barbie meant a billy can on an open fire to today’s gas-fired ranges that look like the set props for a sci-fi movie, barbecuing remains an enduring social obsession and every Aussie’s inalienable right.


And so firing up that barbie is not only encouraged, it’s downright expected! Let us guide you through some of the finer points of hosting the ultimate alfresco barbie.


The Meat of the Matter


Paul Hogan may have jump-started Australian tourism by promising to slip an extra shrimp in, but most barbies commonly feature slabs of meat or sausages. And selecting the right kind of meat is the first step on the road toward a glorious barbie. Of course there really is no “right” meat because this is a matter of preference or of what is readily available on hand.


          • Lamb


Lamb is a barbie favourite because the meat actually benefits from fire better than other types and you can grill practically any cut of lamb. The first thing to note is the age of the sheep from where the meat is gotten. Lamb refers to sheep aged one week to eight months and its flesh is pink. When slaughtered beyond eight weeks, the sheep’s flesh starts to turn dark, almost purplish, and the meat is now referred to as mutton. Lamb meat is more tender and has a milder flavour. Mutton tastes more gamey and may be tougher.


The preferred cuts for grilling are the loin, leg, rump, chops and ribs. It’s also better to tenderise or marinate the meat before cooking.


          • Sausages


Sausages are great for barbies because they always end up tender and juicy (unless you mess up the grilling, of course) and perfectly seasoned all the way to the centre. They cost a lot less than prime cuts of meat, are neatly packaged into perfect serving-sized cuts and come in a variety of flavours to choose from.


          • Beef


First determine the cut of beef you want for your barbie. The right cut ensures that the meat stays moist and tender after cooking. Some cuts are naturally moist when cooked over an open flame and require little or no preparation before grilling. These include the higher grade cuts such as porterhouse, ribeye, top sirloin, t-bone and tenderloin steak. Cuts like bottom round, round tip, sirloin tip and top round need to be marinated so that the meat stays tender.


Next you need to select a grade of beef. Australian beef grading is determined by a system called Meat Standards Australia (MSA) that predicts the quality of the eating experience people think the meat will provide. The system considers the information submitted by the producer and attributes of the meat itself, including meat colour, marbling, fat depth, carcase weight, maturity and pH levels. MSA logos on the packaging and on the meat itself help you identify if the meat is of MSA quality. Obviously, you will want to buy the best quality beef that fits your budget.


          • Chicken


Chooks make great barbies; the meat is highly nutritious, costs less than beef or lamb and is said to be a much healthier alternative as well. The secret to great chicken barbecue is to choose a high quality bird. But that may be a challenge, especially with all the labels that use all the right keywords but add to the confusion. Essentially, what you want are chooks that were pasture-raised. We can then assume that a significant part of what the bird ate came from their natural environment, making for better flavour. You also want birds that were 100% organically raised -- no hormones, no antibiotics, no pesticides and no animal byproducts.


Of course, the more ideal the chicken, the higher the cost, so it will be a matter of balancing what you can afford with the compromise in quality that you can tolerate.


Other things to watch out for when buying chooks for the barbie include checking the skin colour. Fresh chicken should be pinkish and you should avoid buying any other colour, especially gray. Plump-looking birds or pieces are also a good sign, but transparent, patchy and torn skin are danger signals. Lots of blood in the package may mean that the chicken has been handled too much and too roughly or that it has been frozen and thawed several times. Either way this is not good because there is an increased chance the meat may have been contaminated by bacteria.


          • Seafood


So now we come to that “extra shrimp.” Actually, it was a prawn that Paul Hogan slipped on the barbie, and prawns are excellent for barbies, along with all sorts of fish, calamari and shellfish. Even yabbies have found their way on to the grill. In fact, there is no fish, shellfish or crustacean that cannot be grilled.


When grilling seafood:

          • Make sure the grill is really clean and oiled to keep fish from sticking.

          • Keep the skin on the fish to help keep it together when you grill it.

          • Use a fish basket to prevent the fish from falling apart as you handle it on the grill.

          • Use a skewer to grill small-sized seafood so that they don’t slip through the grates and into the fire.


          • Veggies


Even vegans can enjoy a very good, meat-free barbie. The trick is to use suitable protein substitutes such as tofu, seitan and tempeh. Then throw in some grains, potatoes or some other carbs and antioxidant-rich vegetables for a splash of colour and flavour.


          • Exotic Meat


If you want something more exotic and adventurous, you are fortunate because Australia has abundantly diverse wildlife and there is no shortage of options for bush tucker type cuisine. Kangaroo, croc and emu are rich sources of meat for the barbie. And if that’s still not bold enough, you can always slip some witchetty grubs on the grill.


The Barbie Grill


There are four general types of barbie grills. Before you head out to Bbq Galore, this quick guide will help you consider which one to get. 

          • Gas grills are the most popular, especially with impatient people who want to get the barbie started as quickly as possible while not having to worry about cleaning up afterwards. But speed and convenience come at a price. Because gas grills hardly produce smoke, the end-products tend not to be as flavourful as the products of charcoal grills.


          • For purists, nothing can equal the flavour and the experience given by charcoal. But charcoal barbies require a lot of time and effort, before, during and after cooking.


          • Fire regulations may not allow city dwellers to use gas or charcoal and so the electric grill is their only option for getting a barbie going. They are easy to use; just plug in. No fire is needed to get one started. But don’t expect any of that smoky barbecue goodness.


          • Portable grills are designed to be taken with you wherever you fancy a cookout. There are models that run on propane and there are some that use charcoal. But either way, don’t expect to cook for a big crowd.


The Heat of the Moment


You’ve got meat and your grill is ready. The last ingredient for an awesome barbie is heat. There are two main sources -- gas or charcoal. There is a raging debate that goes on between these two camps. Purists will tell you that only charcoal can sear the meat to perfection and give it that smoky awesome flavour we look for in a barbie. But gas enthusiasts insist that flavour comes from fire, not smoke, and that gas controls this aspect of the barbie much more precisely.


Regardless of where you stand in this eternal debate, the important thing is to be prepared. If you use charcoal, have enough on-hand before you light up the grill. If you use gas, have an extra tank or two ready, especially if you are cooking for a big number of guests.


The worst thing that can happen is for you to run out of fuel in the middle of the event and serve undercooked meat or not be able to serve any more food. That would be “game over” for your barbie.


A Few More Tips and Tricks


Here are a few more tips to round up your barbie.


          • Pre-heat for 10 to 15 minutes before you start cooking. This helps your grill reach the optimal cooking temperature and let you create those flavourful sear marks on the meat.

          • If you use a charcoal grill, first get rid of the ashes from your last barbie. After preheating, scrape the charred remains of barbies past using a wire brush.

          • When you have cleaned the grate, grab a paper towel, dip it in some cooking oil and wipe this on the grate. This helps prevent the meat from sticking on to the grill and contributes to those highly desirable grill lines you see in magazines and cookbooks.

          • Get all your gear ready -- spatulas, tongs, plates and whatnot ought to be placed within easy reach.

          • Flip your meat and vegetables using a tong or spatula instead of a fork to keep the moisture in. Ideally, you should also limit the flips.

          • Whatever you do, do not press down on the meat while you are grilling them. This squeezes out the juices and could dry up your meat.

          • If you like to baste your meat, do this last so that the sugar in your marinade does not caramelize and burn.


Now light up that barbie and go be the hero of the party!