Is barbecuing really cooking?


Barbecued ribs featured in Maeve O’Meara’s Food Safari cookbook (Photography: Sharyn Cairns)

Is barbecuing really cooking? The question was asked of me by a French dining companion during a recent a hedonistic weekend in Monaco. I had mentioned the humble barbecue in response to his earlier question about what constituted traditional Australian cuisine. I also mentioned pies (sorry folks), and rambled on about Australian food being influenced in the past by the mother country, and having cuckooed many a culinary tidbit from our Asian neighbours. Given the gastronomic heritage of the French I realised I was painting a picture of a lightweight culinary culture. So when I was grilled (excuse pun) about whether barbecuing really constituted cooking, I could see his point.

If one considers the act of ‘throwing another shrimp on the barbie’ — where edibles are randomly placed (and frequently forgotten) on a heated barbecue hotplate or grill — then the act of barbecuing probably shouldn’t be considered cooking. At best, it’s heating — and not always to the optimum temperature. At worst, it’s incineration — a charcoal-coated, soot-dusted, back-yard abomination.

But then I considered my own barbecuing efforts. Are the chilli beef burgers — made from scratch and moulded into patties by hand — any less of a cooking feat if they are barbecued outside, rather than pan-fried on the stove top? What about the whole snapper that I smother in home-made, hand-pounded Thai curry paste, wrap in banana leaf and place on a hot barbecue plate — is that anything less than cooking? Or the shoulder of pork that is slow cooked for hours in a roasting tin on a barbecue hotplate with the hood pulled down. The technique yields perfectly moist flesh and a chunky side of crackling — is that not cooking?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word cook as follows: to prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by mixing, combining, heating ingredients. Thus, it’s what you do to the food before you plonk it on the barbecue that counts.

I asked Ben Farley, a classically French trained chef and founder of the BBQ Cooking School, what he thought.

“I refute the Frenchman’s comments,” he said, with a chuckle.

“I think people in the past probably had a bit of a perception that barbecue cooking was burnt snags, charred onions, dry steak, potato salad and a bread roll and that was the classic boring barbecue that was more like a sausage sizzle,” Farley said.

“But you’re not restricted at all with anything you can cook on the barbecue. You can cook a souffle, you can cook whole fish, you can cook a steak, you can cook pastries — there is nothing you can’t do, though it depends of course on the barbecue that you are using … you’re only as good as your equipment, more so your ingredients because regardless of how good your barbecuing is, if the quality of the product isn’t there, there is only so far you can go.”

Farley encourages people to be as creative as possible when it comes to barbecuing.

“I try to build the showman,” he said. “I want people to get bathed in glory a bit when they do something beyond the sausage!”

That’s all the encouragement i need. My own next barbecue adventure on Australia Day will feature barbecued ribs from  Maeve O’Meara’s Food Safari cookbook. There are eight ingredients in the dry spice rub that they’re marinated in, along with several bottles of dark beer. They’re smothered in a 12-ingredient chipotle sauce before being barbecued. That constitutes cooking to me.

What are you cooking for your next barbecue? Or will you be sticking to the old sausage sizzle?




Filed under Reflections

16 responses to “Is barbecuing really cooking?

  1. Barbecuing is the only form of cooking that my husband undertakes – I think I might have to share Ben Farley’s thoughts with him. It’s time he lifted his game!!


  2. You’d have to argue against the Argentineans and their proud beef culture over coals too I suspect. Perhaps they do a different kind of bbq in France (TBH I don’t recall ever having bbq in France). I’m also planning on doing some ribs for Australia Day.


  3. Dear Rachel,

    What an excellent article!

    A BBQ can be as simple or as complicated / creative as one wishes. We have had BBQ parties with home-made burger patties, roasts and whole barramundi with Thai chilli paste wrapped in banana leaf and those were some of the most enjoyable ones. It only takes a little bit more effort in preparation to turn an ordinary BBQ into something truly spectacular.

    On the other hand, the traditional and simple grilled meats on the barbie is the very fabric of Aussie backyard culture. How else would one complicate it beyond the usual marinades of EVOO, salt and pepper with perhaps some minor variation for it to be a beautiful and tasty piece of meat? And I would not grill seafood much beyond its minimal cooking time to do any injustice to Sydney’s freshest offerings. The creativity in this case is not in the cooking method but the preparation and creativity of condiments, sauces and accompaniments that would literally bring our fresh seafood to life.

    I totally concur with your sentiments and my respond to the Frenchie is whether he considers sous vide really cooking. I suspect I already know his answer.


    • I agree, a barbecue can be as spectacular or as simple as you want it to be. Sometimes i think i go to too much effort and should have stuck to a simple marinade. I’m looking forward to Australia Day though .. and those ribs!


  4. bizzylizzycooks

    Another interesting and debatable topic, Rachel. I feel that barbecuing is certainly cooking… there is an art to making sure that a perfect piece of beef, lamb, chicken, fish or vegetable isn’t ruined. I would argue that ‘you’re only as good as your equipment’ isn’t necessarily true. Some great food I’ve eaten has come right off a wood fired BBQ that was as simply as a slab of steel over coals in the bush! Happy barbecuing, all!


    • Well i’m about to put “you’re only as good as your equipment” theory to the test. We inherited a very simple brick barbecue with our house … it is about 40 years old ( we know this because the original owner of the house paid us a visit at the weekend – lovely man!) I haven’t used it yet (we have a more modern barbecue that we brought with us). But i’m dying to test it out. Will let you know how it goes.


  5. Eha

    To me this is almost a ridiculous conundrum: if one has brought a raw product to a cooked and edible one: this has been by a form of cooking! Perchance because of climate and custom, the easy way of barbecuing has been has been a common summer way to consume one’s ways of [oft burnt offerings] of proteins in this sunburnt [bl . . . . hell this year!] country! Hey, barbecuing can be quite a culinary art: if you do not know – about time you found out 😀 !


  6. I remember my late father BBQing mackeral in the backyard in the ’70s and the cats’ chorus of meows that it attracted. Sadly, don’t own a BBQ these days (balconyless apartment) but I feel a new Italian family memoir blogpost simmering away.


    • I will keep my eyes posted for another Italian family memoir post … love your work!


      • will put it on my blog ‘to do’ list Rachel. And as far as being only as good as your equipment, from memory our old BBQ was built from old bricks glued together with cement and the top was an old grill from a stove or fridge. The flames licked the fish, giving it a wonderful blackened, smoky flavour. Not a lot of coin spent there!


      • You have a blog “to do” list, too?! Never ever get to the bottom of mine!
        You family’s old barbecue sounds much like the small brick one we inherited with the house we bought six months ago. It’s still standing and looks quite solid, but i haven’t used it yet. Love your description of the flames licking the fish. I might have to road test our little number.


  7. I come from Memphis, where barbecue is most assuredly a legitimate form of cooking. In the South “barbecue” is three things: a particular food, the act of cooking that type of food, and the event at which that food is served. When we moved to California and people invited us to barbecues, we’d go, all hopeful and excited over the prospect of eating flavorful and luscious (not dry!), slow cooked, smoky slab of ribs or pulled-pork sandwiches, only to have someone hand us a hot dog or hamburger–that’s not barbecue. Nowadays when people invite us to a barbecue out here, we know we’re being invited to a cookout.

    Barbecue involves the low-n-slow cooking of large portions of meat, concoctions of marinades and dry rubs, selections of wood, smoking techniques and the finessing of heat. Your French friend should head to the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest or to any place around the South where barbecue is serious business, where fistfights break out over preferences of pulled or chopped, dry rub or wet, whole hog, shoulder or rib, pork or beef. All he has to do is take a pinch of meat out of the side of a mahogany-colored barbecued whole hog or a smoky rack of ribs and savor it to know there’s a world of cooking he knows nothing about–and should!




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