14 July 2011 by Elaine Lemm

How green is my barbie?

Use real plates rather than paper; buy local, seasonal food to cut down on food miles; cook more veg, less meat. These are just three of Elaine Lemm's tips for a more eco-friendly barbecue
Barbecue_burgers and flame-620 Corbis

Add some green stuff: growing veg has less impact on the planet than meat production. Photo by Corbis

Try to define the true meaning and origin of the barbecue and you will wind up in one big smoky quagmire. There are ferocious arguments on the subject and according to Derrick Riches, a renowned writer on the subject: “The debate over the origin of the barbecue is one that will probably never be resolved… Wars have been fought over less.”

On Riches’ webpage, he credits the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean with the invention of the barbecue as a method of preserving meat. Previous attempts using solar power had failed, as the flesh quickly spoiled and become infested with bugs. But when it was placed on racks over smouldering logs, the bugs left it alone and a cooking method was born.

In suburban Britain, we have certainly embraced it with vigour. Just a thin, weak sliver of sunshine is all it takes for us to drag out the barbie, throw on the coals and slap on the meat.

And it is with this slapping-on of the meat that we seem to have lost our way. Burnt-banger cooks take note. Soft, succulent meats require long, slow cooking and/or overnight marinating in herbs, spices and flavoured oils.

Any barbecue with a well-fitting lid can become a smoker, or a slow-cooker. And as flavour does not come from scorched, blackened skin (which is not only so-last-decade, but is also believed to be carcinogenic), special flavours can be added by using smoke chips with scents like apple, plum, cherry wood or hickory.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that a barbecue is also a social occasion – you know, the call from neighbours to “come round for a burger” kind of event.  Interestingly, those who in all other walks of life lay claim to green credentials and tot up their brownie points in the recycling department often totally overlook the impact of the cookout.

Top four tips for an eco barbecue
  • Charcoal may be one of the greenest ways to cook but that doesn’t mean it is totally green. There are environmental concerns over cutting and transporting the wood, and burning charcoal gives off soot, which can be a problem in urban areas. The solution is to choose charcoal from sustainable sources or buy Traidcraft’s fairtrade coal. Avoid briquettes, as they contain chemical additives.
  • Crockery Use real plates and cutlery, rather than paper and plastic. If you want to be totally eco-friendly, use compostable, disposable crockery and cutlery made from plants and fibres that decompose in under 12 weeks. Tree-huggingly wonderful stuff.
  • Food Where possible, buy your food locally and choose seasonal varieties to cut down on the food miles. And don’t forget to put vegetables on the grill. Bulk out your blowout with grilled vegetables and salads, as growing veg has less impact on the environment than meat production.
  • Heating Finally, if it gets chilly (as it inevitably does) don’t light the gas-guzzling patio heater. Instead, put on a sweater or jacket and, if it gets too cold, go inside.  Seriously. I’m sorry to tell you, but contrary to popular myth, there are no prizes for last man standing at the barbie.
Elaine is a trained chef and has run her own restaurant. She has written widely on food and wine, including for Waitrose Food Illustrated and Olive, and is editor of NY Times’ About British Food. Follow Elaine on Twitter.

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