Cooking directly over coals is a skill rapidly dying out in Australia as wood fired barbecues are replaced by modern gas models.
Although barbecuing is traditionally considerd men's culinary contribution, in Australia, I find these days, my male friends are a bit intimidated when confonted with making a real fire and knowing when the coals are just right for perfect, unburned char-grilling. They tend to back off and leave me to it, until up to the final cooking stage and even then, venture near with trepidation, despite being practised at cooking on gas barbecues.
It saddens me that this very traditional Australian means of cooking is being lost.
Nothing beats the flavour of food cooked over aged Australian gum tips and I will never be one to join the ranks of the great Aussie gas barbecue convenience fans, as way too much flavour is sacrificed in the end product!
To me part of the joy of a barbecue is collecting the wood and connecting through the fire to the earliest of human cooking experience, traditions and simple succulent flavours. Cooking over hot coals connects us to our ancestral heritage as homo sapiens, like nothing else. I find cooking and sharing food I have cooked over coals very primal.
There is no messy griller to deal with, nor barbecue hot plate to clean and hot coal grilling is my preferred method of preparing prime cuts of meat and the humble sausage, known in colloqial Aussie 'lingo' as a 'snag'.
Don't attempt to cook for large numbers until you master the art of a basic barbie over coals for yourself and your family, or a couple of friends. This will help you gauge the quantities of wood you need in relation to what you are cooking and how many you want to serve.
Practice makes perfect, when it comes to cooking over coals!
Gather a decent quantity of dry wood. You can often find it lying under gum trees, as eucalypts naturally drop branches. School grounds or parks are ideal collection areas and local authorities are usually only too happy to have someone remove fallen wood to prevent injury of small children, or be a trip or fire hazard.
Fallen aged river red gum wood is the ultimate wood for fabulous smokey eucalypt flavour and it burns hot and slow.
Take only what you need. Small insects, grubs and fungi live in this fallen wood and provide a vital component in the Australian eco system.The wood breaks down to to feed the soil. Birds use this wood for constructing nests.
Wood size should vary from pencil thin pieces ideal for kindling your fire, to pieces about half the size of a human wrist.
I collect mine in a large plastic rubbish bin and that lasts a good few barbies.
You can easily snap small pieces of wood, to fit your barbecue. Bigger pieces of aged wood can be broken by using your knee as a lever. Bigger than that I don't bother collecting, as that is getting to the needs to be sawn up category and I'm into minimal work, for maximum return and pleasure.
Such wood is free.
I also lay aside small fruit tree prunings and old untreated fence palings to use on my barbecue. These I cut up with a small electric jig saw. Great free fuel and fabulous recycling of an otherwise waste material that would go to land fill.
Small is beautiful
You don't need a gigantic camp fire to cook a piece of steak, chops or sausages, just enough to do the job. Logs are for camp fires, sticks small to medium are the scale I use for home char-grilling.
Constructing your fire
Back at home use a webber style barbecue, or construct a temporary one out of 4 piles of 2-3 clay bricks, or half a 44 gallon drum cut lengthwise to support a two sided steel flip grill available at disposal and camping stores. This way, you do not even need to turn the sausages or meat, other than to turn over the grill itself. Use gardenining gloves or an oven cloth to protect from burns with hot metal though.
On a Webber style barbie use the existing grill. Get hold of long handled tongs, again to avoid burns.
I begin by loosely twisting up 4 sheets of newspaper and spreading them across the Webber fire zone evenly.
Next comes a layer of small kindling wood, spread in lines with at least an inch (2cm) gap between them, over the newspaper layer. Then another layer of kindling pieces across the first layer, equally well spaced out.
Open the vents under you webber to get good airflow up into your fire container safely at this stage, if you haven't already done so, as a good supply of oxygen will help that initial fire to spark and accelerate.
Next go for bigger finger sized pieces of wood and do the same double layering as with the kindling sized pieces.
Finally add a double layer of the bigger stuff.
Too much newspaper or wood, with insufficient spacing will not allow your fire to draw air up and through it to burn.
Next get some old fashioned matches, strike one and carefully light the end bits of the newspaper at several points around your wood construction. These days long handled matches make this task easy, even for novices.
At this stage the flames should spread to create a decent fire and take up the wood you have laid out.
Let it burn and flame up.
Watch out for sparks, depending on which way the wind is blowing. They are not a major hazard, but can occur.
The wood begins to drop down and settle a bit, as the kindling wood burns away. Put your empty grill back on your Webber at this stage. This will disinfect it and heat it ready for the meat.
If using the cooking with grill and bricks or 44 gallon drum method, just heat the grill over the flames. Don't add meat.
Be patient with the flame to coal phase.
When your fire is beginning to be a glowing mass of coals is the point to put on your meat, unless you want a cremation, rather than a culinary masterpiece. There will still be some flame, but the flames will no longer be the feature, more glow than flame and you cant go wrong.
Start with steak and or chops. Sausages need less heat to get them started, brown and cook through. Put them on too early and they will blacken to an unappetising extent. Fast!
At this stage almost completely close the air vents in your Webber, as you don't want your coals to burn away before the meat is cooked.
Grill away, turning ideally once only, to ensure meat is cooked evenly on both sides. I like to rotate sausages right around for even cooking.
If using the double flip grill and brick barbie method, simply flip the meat over by turning over the entire grill.
Ideally, meat should be slightly charred, but rare, medium or well done, as per your personal taste. If it burns and chars all over you have used too much flame.
Remember this is grilling over coals, not flame!
I only ever use a hot plate if cooking eggs on the barbie. Even then, I am more inclined to use an old frypan than a hot plate.
Add a salad or two, some good quality bread, or damper and other accompaniements such as tomato sauce or chutney and you will have one of Australia's ultimate, but sadly increasingly rare, authentic coal cooked barbecue food experiences.
If you really want to impress your friends with Aussie heritage and authenticity, you can get a traditional billie can, again available from disposals and camping stores. Fill to within 2-3 inches of the top with water. Boil it over your fire. When boiling add a handful of black tea leaves and a eucalyptus leaf. Take it off the direct heat and allow to draw for a few minutes. Serve it either black (super traditional) or with milk and, or sugar to taste.
Be very careful pouring it as there is no pouring point, or spout on a traditional billie.
Responsible Fire Lighting
Remember to be responsible with fire. Supervise small childrena and pets in its vicinity.
Protect your hands from flame and always check to ensure you are not lighting a fire on a total fire ban or high risk fire day.
Make sure the area where you light your fire is clear of flammable materials and hazards, such as dry grass or oil products and paint cans.
The fires I use to cook over are sufficiently small, that they burn away within an hour. Be mindful if leaving a fire unattended at this stage. Put your Webber lid down to exclude air. Close the vents. This suffocates the fire, depriving it of oxygen.
If in doubt, and you will not be near your fire remains, or in a public park extinguish your fire by smothering it with soil, or dousing with water.
Tips and additions
Whole peeled onions and halved tomatoes, eggplant and capsicum slices or mushroom tops come up a treat cooked directly on the barbecue grill.
Fish is best done in foil and very quickly. Alternatively you can wrap it in green banana leaves, or like indigenous chef, Mark Olive, use paperbark as a protective layer, for even more great indigenous flavour!
Season with crushed lemon myrtle leaves and some mountain pepper berries, that's about as Aussie as it gets. unless you fancy some kangaroo kebabs, or prime cuts!
At Pony Club, in my youth, we would make 'chocolate bananas' for desert. Peel the banana enough to access the friut inside, insert some chocolate chips all along the banana flesh. Wrap in foil and pop it on the grill as soon as you take off the meat, or if coals are well died down, directly onto the coals.
Small scale backyard barbie bio-char
Ashes and coals when totally extinguished and cold, are a great resource for your vegie patch. Mine get returned to the soil, when I clean out my ash box and upturn my barbie every few months. I use it around my vegie patch and under fruit trees as a soil enhancer with fabulous results!
Add a handful to a hole when planting seedlings or trees to give them a great start in life!
Snails hate crawling over them too!