“It was part of the Australian dream to have the huge backyard and the big brick barbecue,” says Ross Dobson, author of Firepit Barbecue. In the 1970s, timber was the fuel of choice, although back then “they didn’t wait for the coals to develop”, he says. We’ve since seen the advent of the gas barbecue, and now a growing swing back to what some call “live fire”.
Jay Beaumont is behind Meatstock, a barbecue festival that pulled in as many as 20,000 punters in Sydney and 15,000 in Melbourne in pre-pandemic years. Before establishing the event in 2015 he was a founder of the Australasian Barbecue Alliance, billed as the “the home of low’n’slow” down under, referencing the cooking style prevalent in US barbecue culture.
Several years ago, Beaumont says, a push back to wood and charcoal began, driven by the flavour of wood, which isn’t imparted by gas barbecues unless you’re using a small smoker box and wood chips. It was, he says, “the rebirth of barbecue in Australia”.
The US and, in particular, its south – where you could argue that barbecue comes after only politics and religion – is the influence, through media both traditional and social, as well as travel and a wave of barbecue restaurant openings across Australia. Plus streamers including Netflix have given global barbecue culture the Chef’s Table treatment.
As a result, the barbecue market is booming, with choice way beyond the brick-built ’cue of old, or the Weber kettle that for many is synonymous with the dark art of getting your snags just right. It’s rich pickings for the gadget- and brand-obsessed.
Caroline Harkin has been distributing barbecues and smokers for 15 years. She’s seen a “real culture” grow in Australia. Harkin could talk for days on the likes of the Big Green Egg, a versatile ceramic grill, which does indeed look like a giant egg – albeit one that utilises Cordierite, a silicate ceramic developed for space shuttle re-entry. Versatility and design aesthetic seem to be a selling point with the Egg, as well as competitors like the Kamado Joe, another ceramic offering. They’re beyond a grill, also being used for smoking, and even baking. Harkin likens the Big Green Egg to a tandoor.
Both products come with a hefty price tag, starting above $1,000, which goes up to $4,000 for larger models. Whether that cost is worth it will depend on your frequency of use, and how you barbecue. For home cooks pushing their backyard or balcony skills with longer low and slow cooks, or even breads, these ceramic barbecues are perhaps a gold standard option for temperature control and ease of use.
But this kind of outlay is far from essential. Leon Tartaglia and Cory Frayling started barbecuing seriously three years ago, dusting off a Weber kettle that Tartaglia’s dad had long since abandoned. “It’s like joining a cult,” laughs Tartaglia of the ’cue community. Frayling says: “We just started cooking burgers on it, then taking a few photos, sharing them on our Instagram page.”
Using YouTube as an endless source of reference, they were soon “taking risks and doing showstopper cooks that a lot of people in the backyard will be scared to do early on”. Documenting prime rib roasts and three-hour cooks under their @cheatmeats Instagram account, they now have 292,000 followers and, after just nine months on TikTok, they’ve racked up an audience of 400,000.
Tartaglia and Frayling’s origin story mirrors many, who tell me they started on borrowed or even verge-salvaged barbecues. A basic kettle with a dome-shaped lid can be picked up new for $100. It’s perhaps the training wheels of the barbecue world, but no less effective with a bit of practice.
While many of us may have a spiked analogue, ovenproof thermometer for roasts, or just go by look and feel, there’s a plethora of Bluetooth probes that allow you to monitor a cook from your smartphone. This upgrade, rather than a fancy cooker, is Tartaglia’s pick for a gadget worth spending money on. “Look, it does take a lot of the guesswork out of the equation,” he says. “You can buy a wagyu brisket for $450, so you’re not going to just cook it and have a guess on when it’s going to be ready. You are going to use the right instruments and tools.”
Dobson, who has several barbecue books under his belt, has come back around to the firepit. It’s not far from the brick barbecues of his youth but he cautions against going big. Our instinct may be that a big fire is dramatic and desirable, but Dobson is mindful of burning more wood than needed, saying: “I bought a tiny one, the size of a wok and that’s what I just ended up using and testing on, because it was just really doable.” As with the kettle, a basic firepit or brazier starts at about $100 from the likes of Bunnings and, like all things barbecue, YouTube has countless tutorials on how to build your own.
For Dobson the appeal of the switch from gas is the fundamentals of cooking over coals.
Patience is key, so for those who want to fire up and cook quickly gas is still the go-to. “There’s an awful lot of smoke in the beginning,” he warns of using wood. If you don’t wait for the water and oxygen to burn out, “which creates the smoke, you’re going to ruin the food”.
“It gets that diesel-like taste. Give it a couple of hours and then you get those glowing hot embers, which is what you’re looking for.”