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Everyone loves a barbecue (BBQ). Even in early spring, as soon as the temperature starts to rise above the high teens and the rain subsides, people all over the UK begin to break out their BBQ grills and prepare to dine “alfresco”. In the summer months our eating habits change. It is more about lighter, healthier, quicker things to eat, often with family and friends, which is one reason why BBQs are so popular.
The COVID-19 restrictions have recently seen a huge resurgence across the UK in BBQ popularity, even on colder days, as people gather in gardens and open spaces to comply with the COVID-19 rules. According to research by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, in 2020 the impact of COVID-19 and an earlier than usual peak in hot weather saw a summer like no other with a significant increase in meals eaten at home, particularly BBQs.
They highlighted an increasing total grocery spend throughout the summer of 2020 of 15.2% year-on-year, with BBQ foods accounting for much of the increase. They reported that there were 100 million occasions of people barbequing between April and August, up 44% year-on-year and 18% higher than the sweltering summer of 2018, and they estimate that the BBQ market was boosted by £12.4 million during this period.
Part of the appeal of BBQs during this time is being able to socialise safely with friends and family, however, COVID-19 is not the only health consideration to keep in mind when barbecuing. Cases of food poisoning almost double during the summer months in the UK due in part to our passion for barbecuing and alfresco dining; the main contributing factors being undercooking raw meat and the bacterial contamination of food.
What hygiene practices should be followed when you BBQ?
To ensure that you and your guests enjoy the BBQ and suffer no ill effects afterwards, it is essential to prepare, cook and store food correctly to minimise the risk of food poisoning, including E. coli. The Food Standards Agency recommends the 4 Cs as the four main things to remember for all good food hygiene. They are cleaning, cooking, chilling and cross-contamination.
Planning and Preparation
You should purchase all foods from a reputable supplier and as close as possible to the date of the BBQ to ensure food is at its freshest. People should be discouraged from bringing their own food to share or cook on the BBQ as there is no guarantee that it has been stored and handled correctly.
Defrost frozen food thoroughly, preferably on a plate at the bottom of a refrigerator, before cooking (unless manufacturer’s instructions state they can be cooked from frozen). To prevent harmful bacteria from developing, don’t defrost foods at room temperature.
Washing Your Hands
One of the main ways that germs are spread is from your hands. Harmful bacteria can be spread very easily to food, work surfaces and equipment from your hands, so it is important to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and warm water before and after handling food, and especially after touching raw foods, the bin, pets, and after using the toilet.
As with the COVID-19 advice, you should wash your hands for the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice (around 20 seconds).
Storing and Preparing Meat and Ready to Eat Foods
Raw meat, including poultry, can contain harmful bacteria that can spread easily to anything it touches, including your hands, food, work surfaces, tables, chopping boards, knives and utensils.
Store meats and salads, bread, fruit etc. correctly, that is, raw and ready to eat foods must be stored separately, below 8°C (preferably 5°C) in a refrigerator until required, keeping raw meats separate from salads/ready to eat foods at all times during preparation.
Never wash raw chicken before cooking as it can increase your risk of food poisoning from campylobacter bacteria.
Splashing water from washing chicken under a tap can spread the bacteria onto hands, work surfaces, clothing and cooking equipment as water droplets can travel more than 50cm in every direction. Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK and only a few campylobacter cells are needed to cause food poisoning.
Some simple steps that will help prevent the spread of germs from raw meat are:
- Wash your hands after every time you touch raw meat.
- Use separate utensils (knives, plates, tongs, containers) for cooked and raw meat.
- Never put cooked food on a plate or surface that has had raw meat on it.
- Keep raw meat in a sealed container away from foods that are ready to eat, such as salads and bread.
- Don’t put raw meat next to cooked or partly-cooked meat on the BBQ.
- Marinate meat in the refrigerator unless it is being marinated for a very short time. Bacteria grows at room temperature fast enough to cause food poisoning in less than an hour.
- Don’t put sauce or marinade on cooked food if it has already been used with raw meat to prevent contamination.
Ensure that you have cleaned your BBQ grill grate. If your BBQ grill is clean you are much less likely to get food sticking to it during cooking. Get a grill brush and, after you have heated your BBQ, give the grill a good brush to remove any remains of the last cooking session.
Then dip some kitchen roll in oil and wipe it evenly over the cooking area. A clean BBQ grill will leave beautiful char-marks on your food; a dirty BBQ grill will leave bits of last week’s BBQ!
For charcoal BBQs, if you have a round BBQ, pile the charcoal in the centre to create a high heat zone – the outsides will be a lower heat. If you have a rectangular BBQ, use a half and half method – high heat for searing and medium/low heat for cooking.
With a gas BBQ, controlling the heat is easily done with the turn of a dial. Most BBQs come with a temperature gauge, however, if yours doesn’t, you can test the heat with your hand.
Hold your palm about 12cm/5” above the grill and see how long you can comfortably keep it there:
- 6 seconds = low heat.
- 4 seconds = medium heat.
- 2 seconds = high heat.
For gas BBQs, have one side on high heat and one side on a medium/lower heat.
When is the right time to start cooking? Don’t rush to put your food on! Putting on meat when you have first lit the BBQ will lead to scorched outsides and raw insides which can lead to food poisoning.
On a charcoal grill, you need to wait for any flames to die down and for the coals to be grey and glowing; once they are, you will have the hottest and most even heat and you are ready to get started. On a gas BBQ allow the grill to pre-heat for 5 to 10 minutes.
As juices drop from your meat or fish on to the BBQ grill, you are likely to get flaming. If this happens try the following to prevent the black, burnt look and raw insides:
- Move food from the hot zone to a lower heat zone until the flames have gone down.
- Close the lid (and if cooking on charcoal, close the top and bottom vents), as this will deprive the fire of oxygen.
- Try to resist poking, stabbing or piercing your meat with a fork to check if it is done because more juices will escape which will feed the flames and make your meat drier.
- Use a spatula or tongs to move/turn your food.
Your meat might look as if it is done, but it could still be raw on the inside, so make sure it stays on the BBQ for long enough, otherwise you risk food poisoning. Use a digital thermometer to check the internal temperature (65°C for pork and beef and 70°C for chicken).
Some things, like sausages, benefit from cooking beforehand to keep them juicy. Poach them in stock in the oven until cooked through, then pop them on the BBQ until golden brown. Bake chicken legs and thighs on the bone in the oven at 180°C for 25–30 minutes before barbecuing.
They don’t need to brown in the oven, as that will happen over the direct heat of the BBQ. The other option is to start things on the BBQ, then transfer them to a baking tray and put them in the oven to finish off cooking.
Don’t char things to cremation, no one likes a dry burger or burnt sausage. There are also other health risks such as creating carcinogenic chemicals called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in your food when fat and meats are burnt on the BBQ. This may increase your risk of cancer.
Remember that BBQ meat is only safe to eat when:
- It is piping hot in the centre.
- There is no pink meat visible.
- Any juices are clear.
Preparing and Serving
Ensure that any serving area is thoroughly clean and regularly wiped down to clear any spillages. Don’t leave food out in direct sunlight; pick a shady spot for your buffet table or set up the buffet indoors if possible. Don’t leave food out for more than two hours; it’s best to store it in the refrigerator for as long as possible before serving.
The following foods should always be kept refrigerated and cool to help prevent food poisoning:
- Dairy products such as milk, cream and yoghurt.
- Desserts and cream cakes.
- Ham and other cooked meats.
- Cooked rice, including rice salads.
If you are planning to be serving food over the course of an afternoon, put salads, cold meats/fish and other perishable foods out in batches in fresh bowls – don’t “top-up” dishes already out.
Keep desserts in the refrigerator until everyone has finished their main course, again avoiding unnecessary time of it standing around in the heat. With BBQs and buffets, often the safest option is to throw away any leftovers to prevent food poisoning rather than re-serving for the next day’s lunch.
Catering for vegetarians
Before the BBQ, ask your vegetarian guest(s) what foods they prefer to eat so that you can cater for them. You should always use a separate BBQ grill when cooking for vegetarians to prevent any cross-contamination with meat – using a disposable BBQ is helpful. Halloumi is a veggie BBQ classic, but halloumi is a difficult thing to cook on the BBQ grill.
Those little slices fall apart then slip through the bars and are gone forever. There is a better way; instead of cutting across the block, cut horizontally through it into four equal slices then they don’t go to pieces and you can serve them as a burger alternative, or you can cut it into smaller pieces after grilling and serve with salad.
Catering for people with allergies
When you are organising a BBQ, it is really important that you check whether any of your guests suffer food allergies and to find out what they are. Not only is it crucial not to provide them with foods that cause a reaction, it is equally critical that you do not cross-contaminate foods that they can eat with other foods you are serving that may cause a reaction.
You need to speak to your guest(s) about their specific allergy and their individual needs; however, there are some basic rules to follow:
- Separate safe and unsafe food, assign specific shelves in the refrigerator and store all foods in sealed containers.
- Label either the problem foods or the safe ones, whichever is easier – colour-coded stickers can help here.
- Have separate sets of utensils for handling safe and unsafe foods.
- Avoid cross-contact during food preparation, prepare safe and unsafe foods entirely separately.
- Scrub down worktops and tables with soap and water after you prepare food to effectively remove food protein from surfaces before preparing foods for people with allergies.
- Double-check ingredients listed on pre-packed foods, e.g. sauces for allergens.
Top safety tips when barbecuing
An average 1,800 people visit A&E each year in the UK having had an accident involving a BBQ.
To ensure that your event is safe, enjoyable and doesn’t involve the emergency services:
- Keep your BBQ grill at least 10 feet away from your house, further away is even better. This includes units attached to your house such as carports, garages awnings and porches. BBQ grills should not be used underneath wooden pergolas either, as the fire could flare up into the structure above. This applies to both charcoal and gas BBQ grills.
- Keep decorations away from your BBQ grill. Decorations like hanging baskets, cushions and umbrellas might look pretty but provide fuel for a fire. To make matters worse, modern decor is made mostly of artificial fibres that burn fast and hot, making this tip even more important.
- Keep children and pets well away from your BBQ grill. Both tend to rush about and can easily tip over the BBQ grill or little fingers can get badly burnt by touching hot areas.
- Make sure your BBQ grill is stable. Only set up your BBQ grill on a flat, even surface and make sure it can’t be tipped over. Consider using a grill pad or splatter mat underneath your BBQ grill to protect your decking or patio.
- If you are using a gas BBQ grill and the flame goes out, turn the BBQ grill and the gas off, then wait at least five minutes to re-light it to avoid a flare-up.
- Check for gas leaks. You can make sure no gas is leaking from your gas grill by making a small solution of half washing-up liquid and half water and rubbing it on the hoses and connections. Then, turn the gas on (with the grill lid open.) If the washing-up liquid forms large bubbles, that’s a sign that the hoses have tiny holes or that the connections are not tight enough.
- Use only enough charcoal to cover the base of your BBQ grill to a depth of about 50mm (2 inches). You can top up if and when required.
- Be careful with starter fluid. If you use a charcoal BBQ grill, only use charcoal starter fluid never fire-lighters, petrol or methylated spirit. If the fire starts to go out, don’t add any more starter fluid or any other flammable liquids to restart the fire, try tapers.
- Clean your BBQ grill regularly when using it. If you allow grease and fat to build up on your BBQ grill, they provide more fuel for a fire. Grease is a major source of flare-ups.
- Wear the right clothing. Clothing can easily catch fire, so make sure any loose clothing, sleeves or apron strings don’t dangle over the BBQ grill.
- Keep a spray bottle of water handy. That way, if you have a minor flare-up you can spray it with the water to instantly calm it. The bonus of this tip is that water won’t harm your food, so dinner won’t be ruined! If the flare-up is bigger, then having a bucket of sand nearby will help to extinguish it.
- Keep a fire extinguisher close to your BBQ grill, and know how to use it. If you are unsure how to use the extinguisher, don’t waste time fiddling with it before calling 999. Firefighters say many fire deaths occur when people try to fight a fire themselves instead of calling for expert help and letting the fire service do its job.
- Never turn on the gas while your BBQ grill lid is closed. It causes gas to build up inside your BBQ grill, and when you do open it and light it, a fireball can explode in your face.
- Never leave a BBQ grill unattended. Fires double in size every minute. Plan ahead so that all of your other food prep is done and you can focus on barbecuing.
- Never overload your BBQ grill with food. This applies especially to fatty meats. The basic reason for this tip is that if too much fat drips on the flames at once, it can cause a large flare-up that could ignite things nearby.
- Never use a BBQ grill indoors. People often think it will be safe to use a BBQ grill indoors, especially a small or disposable one – it is not. In addition to the fire hazard, some BBQ grills release carbon monoxide, the deadly colourless, odourless gas which needs to vent in fresh air or it can kill you, your family, friends and pets.
- Never put hot charcoal in the bin. You could consider pouring water or sand over it to make sure that it is out, but the coals will still remain hot for some time and may still cause a fire, so always leave for 24 hours to ensure every last spark is extinguished before disposing of it.
Be aware of regulations and the law
When you are enjoying a BBQ, smoke can be a nuisance to other people when it is drifting across from your garden; check local regulations as you may be breaking the law.
Currently, there are no specific laws against having a BBQ on your balcony, however, the Fire Brigade urge you not to. They highly advise against it as the risk of causing fire is high. Most leases for apartments will prohibit the use of BBQs on balconies.
There are laws against using BBQs in public spaces such as parks, common land or beaches. Areas owned by the local councils or by the National Trust will have different rules and regulations, so check what is allowed in your area.