National Barbecue Month? In May?

As the rain bounces off my window, I have two inspirations for today's column. The first of these was reading that someone somewhere had decreed May to be the National Barbecue Month. In fairness, the weather in Scotland in May can often be surprisingly good. Sadly, not this year. I have cleaned my barbie in advance of flipping burgers for the Jubilee street party, but it hasn't been used yet. The second was a recent article by the estimable Stephen Jardine in The Scotsman newspaper. In uncharacteristically gloomy mode he more or less said that all Scottish BBQs were disastrous.

While I can see his point, I am predicting scorching weather in June, and want to share a few thoughts on how to snatch culinary triumph from the jaws of disaster.

At this time of year, the weekend mags are full of features on the best equipment for your garden extravaganzas. One model bearing Heston Blumenthal's name will give you a fiver of change from £1500. I'm assuming you're going to stick with your tried (or trying) and tested, however basic it might be. Let the purists close their ears: I cook by gas. I was converted many years ago on a holiday in Burgundy where each apartment in a converted farm steading had its own gas one. That resolved one major problem which we have all encountered, namely getting the damn thing lit. Remember that after you get it going, it will be a good 45 minutes before the coals start to turn grey. You need heat, not fire. It may take you that long to realise that it's not going to go, so you have to start again. Even a successful second attempt will mean about a two hour wait, during which everyone has been plied with booze because you didn't want to light a match till your guests arrived. Lesson one - keep the cook sober.

More fundamentally, who will the cook be? In the bizarre caveman tradition surrounding these rituals, it is usually the man, very often one who cooks at no other times. And you wonder why disaster looms? Face a simple fact. Cooking on a barbecue is not easy. If you are going to take on the mantle, practise a bit first. And please, pretty please with pink sugar, learn some basic hygiene rules. The first of these is that raw and cooked must never, ever meet.

Have two tables, one on either side of your grill. One for what you are going to cook, the other for the final (hopefully edible) product. And separate plates and utensils for each side. I try not to be too serious in these columns, but this time I really, really mean it. Failure to follow this basic rule can result in someone going to hospital. And another cause of illness? The way you cook the stuff. Let's have a look.

With many foods there can be health hazards if you serve them uncooked or undercooked. Being aware of this simple truth, what do we tend to serve? Burgers - hmm; sausages - you're starting to worry me; chicken - now I'm getting very frightened. The typical barbie is very hot. This means that food will often look charred and, to the inexpert eye cooked, when it's raw in the middle. An advantage of gas is that you can regulate the heat. If you're cooking on charcoal, rake the coals so you have cooler areas. You can detect these easily by waving your hand just above the surface. Small burgers will cook quicker though are usually less good. A fortiori (as we used to say a lot in Lochgelly), sausages. When you first learn to make breakfast for a crowd, you discover that your bangers can take 20 minutes to cook through. You generally have no idea what's in them, and you sure as hell don't want them pink in the middle. And the one that really can kill you? Undercooked chicken. Some meat can be served pink. Not this one.

A thick marinade can help. I like to coat sausages with a mix of mustard and tomato ketchup. The coating will char, but it allows them more time on the grill before ruining them. Or why not start by baking your burgers and chicken drumsticks in the oven? That allows you to check they're properly cooked before chucking them on the barbie for the last few minutes to get that charred finish.

Here's a better idea. What food do we like charred on the outside and rare in the middle? You're ahead of me, I can tell. Lamb chops, steaks and the like. And don't forget venison - my good friends Andy and Neil at Castle Game Scotland will be pleased to provide everything you need. Again, you need to cook these things for long enough, but it's not a disaster if they are rare. Obviously thin cuts will cook more quickly - the aptly named minute steak, for example - but they can dry out. As with any meat cookery don't forget to allow it to rest. And don't be proud. If you're in doubt as to whether something is properly cooked, cut it in half and check. This ain't Masterchef. I'd far rather have my dinner presliced, than have it pre a trip to A & E.

Unlike Stephen I believe you can have great and safe fun at a Scottish barbie. I hope you do too.

What's that I hear? Mutiny in the ranks. Oh, you are pointing out that this is a cookery column with no food. OK. Here are a few marinades to play with. Chicken, beef and lamb can cope with 6 hours plus in a marinade, while fish needs only 20 - 30 minutes. Don't worry if you make too much marinade. Don't discard it, but brush some on to your meat at intervals during the cooking process.

All purpose BBQ Sauce


1 onion, very finely chopped; 3 cloves garlic, crushed; 1 tbsp brown sugar; 1 tsp smoked paprika; 1 tbsp cider vinegar; 1 tbsp Worcester Sauce; 1 – 2 tbsp tomato ketchup; olive oil; salt and pepper.


Cook the onion and garlic gently in a little olive oil until the onion is soft. Season with s & p. Sprinkle with the sugar. Increase the heat and cook for a few minutes till the mixture is beginning to caramelise. Stir in the paprika, then add the vinegar, Worcester sauce and tomato ketchup. Cook for 2 – 3 minutes till the sauce is the desired consistency. Allow to cool before using.


If you're using top quality beef I really wouldn't play about with it too much. A thin scraping of Dijon mustard works, or rub each side with a cut clove of garlic. A thick - and I mean a surprisingly thick - coating of salt and pepper will form a tasty crust. Flavoured marinades are better with poorer quality beef.


Combine 3 tbsp dark soy sauce, 1 finely chopped chilli, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce), 2 tsp of brown sugar (palm sugar would be more authentic),  a small piece of grated ginger,1 tbsp of vegetable oil and juice of 1 lime. Add pepper if you like, but no salt.


Almost too obvious, but combine olive oil, a couple of crushed garlic cloves and a few sprigs of rosemary.

Or add a couple of teaspoons of oregano or za'atar.

Spicy yoghurt

Mix 100g of full fat yoghurt with 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 tbsp each of paprika and ground cumin; 1 tsp curry powder and juice of 1 lemon. Season with salt and pepper.



Start with 200 - 300ml of plain yoghurt and a clove of crushed garlic. Add 1 tsp each of ground cumin and garam masala, 1/2 tsp each of turmeric and ground cinnamon. Then chilli powder. The amount of this is up to you. My recipe calls for one tablespoon, but that makes it pretty hot. Adjust to suit your taste. Grate in a thumb sized piece of ginger. Finally add the juice of 1 lemon and mix well. You may be wondering why this doesn't look like your Indian takeaway. That's because they add red food colouring.


You are having a laugh, aren't you.





  1. Fiona Garwood on 27th May 2022 at 9:38 pm

    Great column, Master Chef. I need to make sure our son and son in law read it and looking forward to the Jubilee bbq a la Tom Johnston. I think it’s a “by invitation only” affair!

    • Tom Johnston on 28th May 2022 at 3:51 pm

      Of course. Select invitees only. See you next week.

  2. Marion Donaldson on 28th May 2022 at 6:13 pm

    Tom, love reading your cooking advice and recipes. Always makes me smile and feel nostalgic! Today I had my barbecuing rules validated lol. I’ll imagine we’re coming to your get together.

    • Tom Johnston on 28th May 2022 at 7:47 pm

      Well at least you’re guaranteed some decent weather in the summer, so your cavemen get a chance to develop some expertise. Our Scottish weather is so poor that we get little practice.

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