According to food writer at The Telegraph Xanthe Clay, “The Great British Barbecue is a national tradition.” Xanthe mused that men need to keep up appearances when it comes to the barbecue, insisting that the “ritual has little to do with turning out a meal for the assembled guests, and everything to do with tribal muscle-flexing.” If Xanthe is right, then it’s not about whether you use a high end gas burning contraption or a simple grill over some coals, the important thing is the ritual.
It’s all well and good to say that money doesn’t matter when it comes to alfreso cooking, and while barbecues seem on the surface to be a budget-friendly way of gathering the troops they can however, quickly become costlier than going to a restaurant. With the latest trends from the US making an impact, The Guardian reports that “Brits have embraced American BBQ with gusto over the last few years.” Meat-lovers and barbecue enthusiasts are spending a fortune on smoke pits and whole hogs. But with most of us struggling to keep up with the cost of the weekly food bills, having friends over for a barbecue, let alone an American-inspired feast, might seem out of the question. But providing you spread the cost along with the conviviality, equip yourself with some clever, cheap bits of kit, and take the time to seek out the big bargains, you’ll be firmly in pocket, and people will be talking about your brilliant barbie long after the embers have died down.
Less pricey protein
Buy minced meat and make your own instead of buying pre-formed burgers. Burgers are the one time when fattier mince is preferable, as it makes for a tender, more juicy patty. Or if burgers aren’t your idea of a barbecue, ask your butcher about cheaper cuts of meat. Buy larger pieces of meat that you can cut down to suit appetite and occasion – try dicing into chunky cubes and threading onto soaked skewers with vegetables for DIY kebabs. Try using acidic marinades to tenderise tougher cuts whilst adding bags of flavour. When it comes to sausages, choose a solid, simple staple rather than lots of fancy flavored specimens. Add interest by serving with a selection of sauces for dunking and dipping.
Don’t forego fish
Fishmongers and markets can offer fabulous deals on whole fish – which make perfect barbecue fare. They couldn’t be easier to prepare, either – simply wrap in foil with a few aromatic herbs, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of oil or knob of butter, and place the parcels directly on the coals. Alternatively, stuff a few herb sprigs in the belly cavity and pop on the grill. Fish cooks far more quickly than meat, and is healthy to boot. Don’t just stick to your usual favourites – try more exotic specimens from Caribbean or Asian shops. A great big family-sized fish can make an unusual and wallet-friendly feast.
Make versatile veggies the stars of the show
Vegetables can also be the star attraction – particularly when it comes to seasonal British produce like grilled asparagus or Jersey Royals baked in the embers. Fill a roasting tin with mixed roots, onion wedges, hard herbs and oil and cook ‘til soft and squidgy, stuff peppers and aubergines with cooked rice and barbecue until the edible containers are wrinkled and collapsing, or try baking large potatoes or beetroots in a thick salt crust.
On the sidelines
Bulk out your barbecue with some sumptuous salads and side dishes – look to the Middle East in particular for big, colourful veggie sides. Base dishes on bread and grains to fill tummies for pence. Choose recipes that will sit happily for a good few hours and will improve in flavour over time – steer clear of dairy-based dressing which will spoil in the heat and delicate salads whose leaves will wilt rapidly. Don’t be too prescriptive with recipes – check out what’s cheap in local fruit and veg markets and make the most of well-priced seasonal bounty.
Think outside the obvious
Anything you can cook on the oven or on the hob, you can do on the barbie. Get creative with dishes that make cheap ingredient combinations feed more for less – think stews, curries and chilli. Use a frying pan for pizzas and quick flatbreads, and even egg dishes like frittatas. Big deep dishes of stew can bubble away happily for hours and still taste great, whereas cooked sausages look pretty sorry for themselves when they starts to shrink and shrivel.
When it comes to drinks, ask guests to contribute to a kitty or bring a bottle. Planning a punch or mixed drinks? Opt for own-label versions of branded soft drinks, which come in at a mere fraction of the cost. Keep an eye out for mega-deals at supermarkets on cases of beer and lager, and check out wine warehouses for quaffable, quality tipples at sensible price points. Don’t go overboard trying to please everybody – a small selection of popular choices should suffice. For non-drinkers, squashes and cordials are cheap ways to liven up water.
Pitch- in potluck
Barbecues are convivial, communal affairs, so you should feel no shame in asking everyone to contribute in some way. Prior to the event, you could ask for a small contribution to buy ingredients and refreshments, or just put together a motley feast from various offerings people come up with on the day. Even non-cooks could contribute some pre-packed nibbles or a tub of ice cream – or maybe share their skills in another way – maybe by compiling playlists and taking on the role of DJ, or bringing some sports equipment or outdoor games.
When it comes to barbecue season, it pays to think ahead. Don’t wait until the sun bursts forth and you’re forced to fight another family for the last disposable grill! Buying equipment ‘off-season’ when garden goodies are heavily discounted will net big savings come summer – just be sure to protect it through harder weather. To add fuel to your fire for less, save the prunings from garden maintenance and use in place of charcoal briquettes – the natural flavour is stunning.
Based in London, Kitty Hastings has been writing about food, parenting, fashion and travel for many years. She’s most interested in sharing tips on how to balance your budget both inside and outside the house. Kitty’s articles appear in a wide range of online publications – and she’s currently busy preparing a book with her collected writings.