17 February 2023 · Consuming passions
Marcus Bawdon is obsessed by cooking with fire. It’s an all-encompassing passion that he loves to share with people via his vibrant CountryWoodSmoke website, Facebook group and YouTube channel; through demonstrations and appearances at food and BBQ festivals across Britain, and as editor of UK BBQ Mag. He was crowned king of Meatopia BBQ festival, is a judge at BBQ events such as Grillstock, and makes regular appearances in the media to talk all things related to outdoor cooking. Marcus’s latest book, BBQ for All, will be published on 14th March.
I place my hands confidently over the coals to get a feel for how hot they are, counting the seconds before the heat gets too much, listening to the sizzle of the fat as it hits the embers, the searing heat lifting the smoke in waves, I watch how the meat darkens in places, all these clues give me a pattern for how the heat is interacting with the meat, you need to fully use all of your senses when cooking with fire.
It takes a while to tune in to these signals, but after a while you become at one with the bbq zone, and it’s a tasty place to be.
There are so many wonderful variations and subtleties in harnessing these ancient techniques, bringing them to life with the incredible selection of ingredients we have available to us today in the UK. This is what drives me.
I’ve always been a feeder, it makes me happy to see people enjoying the food I cook for them, I’ve always felt that providing food for my friends and family is the best way of saying you love them. For me, a microwave meal just doesn’t say this.
I really got into outdoor cooking when I moved from a city bachelor pad to a family country home, kids arrived, family gatherings grew ever bigger, and were always in the summer, so it made sense to bbq, but my first efforts were stressful and not enjoyable, but I researched easier, better, tastier ways to cook outdoors, and discovered the holy grail of large format outdoor cooked food, American smoked BBQ…
It quickly took my interest into an obsession, wanting to ever improve my food, working towards the juiciest brisket I could cook, whole hogs cooked over applewood embers, mounds of fall apart pulled pork stuffed into buns. What a simple and delicious way to cook for a crowd, cooking slowly for many hours with subtle cherry and apple wood working their magic on the meat. I quickly cracked the code of this way of cooking and started to explore other cultures of fire cooking.
With many things in life, a passion you get good at, becomes something others want to learn, and boy do I love to teach bbq, it started slowly, messages online, friends popping over for advice, and before I knew it, I was stood in front of classes at my UK BBQ School, and in front of crowds of eager to taste people at events around the UK.
I realised that passing on these skills that had been mostly forgotten (and certainly undeveloped here in the UK) was where I could make a big difference in the world. So many people came to me who were struggling with even the basics of outdoor cooking. I’ve helped so many to gain confidence with this, and strive to make it accessible for all.
But what lights my fires, and fans my flames to keep the passion of cooking outdoors with fire and smoke so strong in me, over so many years (around 13 proper bbq years)? It’s that the flavours you get simply can’t be achieved with indoor techniques. Sous vide?….no thank you. It’s also about the journey for me, challenging myself to make slight improvements, to come up with new flavour combinations that work with fire, to play with new/old techniques.
It’s often the simplest approach that works the best with this style of cooking, placing a plump hanger steak straight onto some glowing lumpwood charcoal embers, then brushing on a herby garlic baste onto the seared steak.
For me the bbq journey is special — I see it as a kind of meditation, a fiery version of a Japanese tea ceremony. The various stages of a fire give so many cooking options, I see the stages of fire cooking analogous with the phases of a human life, the youthful exuberance of a newly-lit fire, the productive middle aged years of embers (usually the best time to cook), and the fire gradually fading away to ashes.
All stages of a fire can be cooked on, but each has its own character for cooking, you need a raging fire to cook wood-fired pizzas at 400°C, and smouldering embers to slowly smoke.
BBQing in the UK is going through a real transformation, but it’s not a new thing, we were the masters of cooking large chunks of animal in front of fires, larding, and basting, but we mostly lost those skills for a while…. So many people are now hearing the calling of these ancient cooking ways, and as we look for more authenticity in our lives, more and more people are rediscovering cooking with fire.
Cooking outdoors can be a solitary or social experience, there are times I like cooking for myself, and other times I like to share a beer stood around a fire with friends. It’s becoming increasingly of interest to many professional chefs who see the benefits of integrating these flavours into their menus. There are bbq competitions in the UK where pitmasters can pit their fire cooking skills against others, all to be assessed on taste, texture and appearance by a table of esteemed judges. There are festivals now fully given over to our love of fire cooking, the fires are burning bright indeed.
So BBQ is surely just for the summer isn’t it? Well no….there are many of us in the hardcore bbq community who relish the challenge of cooking outdoors in storms, rain, frost and snow, and why ever would we do this, because we can….
I’m at my happiest cooking for friends and family these days, passing on my love for outdoor cooking of all kinds at my UK BBQ School, writing recipes and penning books, (my third book, BBQ For All, is out on March 15th) creating inspiring content, videos and photos, and generally having fun with bbq’s, smokers, grills and wood fired ovens.
Check out The Wood-Fired Oven Cookbook, and other books on our BBQ & Grilling bookshelf. There’s a collection of crowd pleasing barbecue recipes, and more ckbk recipe selections by Marcus below to get you started.