If the words ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘barbecue’ sound poles apart, think again – I meet a man on a mission to green-up our grilling
With 130 million of us set to dust off our kettles, fire pits and dual fuel grills this summer – the BBQ has become more of a British institution than a cream tea.
But add in the chemical-based firelighters, disposable plates and imported food and it’s not just the coals that leave a sizzling carbon footprint.
While the idea of a carbon neutral barbecue can appear to go up in smoke, there are ways you can reduce your impact and opt for an eco-friendly not eco-fatal barbecue.
Probably the single biggest change you can make to your outdoor grilling is to ditch the single-use foil barbecue for something more permanent. Impossible to recycle or compost, approximately 300,000 of these shining beacons of environmental unfriendliness are sold by every supermarket each year and make up a big part of our waste mountain.
While solar powered grills have yet to catch on here (for good reason, given our often overcast summers!) many people assume a gas or electric barbecue is the next green solution, but as a fossil fuel gas grills remain a big contributor to global carbon levels.
Charcoal can be dirtier in its footprint, particularly when it comes to emissions – but not all charcoal is created equally. Buy your charcoal from the garage on the corner and it’s likely it will have destroyed a multitude of precious habitats on its journey to your grill, but source it from sustainable, managed British woodland and it is much more carbon lean.
“Ask people what they know about their barbecue charcoal and most won’t even know it’s made from wood, let alone that it’s been shipped half way across the world,” says Jim Bettle, from The Dorset Charcoal Company, who has spent the last 20 years producing charcoal from local coppiced woodlands. “In fact 90 per cent of our barbecue charcoal, some 40-50,000 tonnes, is imported every year from South American rainforests, South East Asian mangroves and even bush clearances in South Africa, where it contributes to desertification. Of course, nothing on the bag will tell you any of this, so you need to be more aware.”
What makes Jim’s charcoal so much greener is that its very production helps foresters and woodland estate managers utilize lower value timber that can’t be used for the construction industry or manufacturing, and which would otherwise be destroyed.
Jim and his team take their huge cylindrical kilns – which look like giant saucepans with lids – directly to the woods, converting logs into charcoal on site by driving the water off as steam and vaporizing the oils until the kiln puffs “just the right colour smoke” to tell them it’s cooked.
It’s an ancient and alchemic process that would have been commonplace 150 years, and has some key environmental benefits.
“By supporting woodlands that are coppiced in this way, we’re allowing light to get onto the forest floor, which provides the ultimate ecosystem for countless wild species,” says Jim, the official charcoal supplier to this year’s Glastonbury Festival. “What’s more, because we use superior English hardwood – oak, beech ash and hazel – they produce a very long burn time, giving you a more economical barbecue, and they’re quick to light so there’s no need to douse your coals in petrochemicals.”
With The Dorset Charcoal Company’s charcoal made up of 90 per cent carbon too – unlike imported types, which have around 55-60% carbon – it’s a more efficient fuel and has many other applications in cosmetics and within the film industry. Jim’s charcoal was recently used on the set of Game of Thrones!
Of course, if you really want to flex your green muscles then growing your own barbecue food is the ultimate in earth conscious outdoor cooking.
Courgettes, tomatoes and peppers are perfect for kebabs; potatoes for barbecue wedges and sweetcorn can be grilled on the cob. Collect together pots of garden herbs near the cooking area and you can create instant rubs and relishes too. Thyme works wonderfully with grilled beefsteak tomatoes and rosemary with potato wedges. Plums can be drizzled with honey; cinnamon and orange zest and grilled until slightly caramelized, and strawberries doused in balsamic vinegar and dark brown sugar for sweet skewers.
Once the coals are hot, grilling with the hood down will ensure heat is distributed more evenly, meaning you cook for less time and use less energy (as well as locking in that lovely smoky flavour). Put as much food as you can on the grill at one time, so you do not have to open the lid all the time, and only use one set of coals. Once you’ve finished, close the vents so you can reuse any leftover coals.
You can even ‘clean green’ with baking soda and water instead of toxic chemicals, and, if you leave out bins for guests to recycle and compost leftovers before they go, you’ll turn patio barbecues into planet friendly picnics in no time!
“When you love being outdoors as much as I do, it stands to reason to protect it,” says Jim. “You can’t change whole world, but you can still make a big impact with small changes.”
- Find a local charcoal burner
First published in Vegetarian Living magazine in August 2017