From blackened sausages to gourmet grills: Barbecues through the decades

4th Jul 18 | Lifestyle

Hannah Stephenson looks at barbecues through the ages, from the first kettle models to the high-tech gourmet griddles of today.

It’s barbecue season, when budding chefs – often in novelty aprons, tongs at the ready – fire up the barbie to cook everything from basic sausages, ribs and chicken drumsticks to more adventurous griddled veg, goat kebabs and lobster burgers.

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Yet, a few decades ago, it took an age to light the barbecue. You’d be covered in soot from the charcoal, bellows at the ready, and all you would have at the end was inedible blackened sausages and scorched burgers.

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Like the food, barbecues have changed over the years – from the early kettle models, to the brick-built DIY projects of the 70s, to the stainless steel altars to gastronomy they have become today.

Barbecue history

“Despite looking fairly similar, the barbecue as we know it has gone on quite a journey,” says Vinny Iaciofano, outdoor buying manager at Argos, which is currently celebrating its 45th anniversary.

Barbecues for sale in the 1987 Argos catalogue (Argos/PA)

“From barbecue pits post World War Two, to the kettle barbecue which fed us in the 60s and 70s, through to the 80s which saw the rise of the larger outdoor cooking units we see today.

“What has changed dramatically is the choice available, whether that be charcoal, gas or electric barbecues or briquettes, fire starters and smoking wood.”


George Stephen, pioneer of the kettle barbecue (Weber/PA)
George Stephen, pioneer of the kettle barbecue (Weber/PA)

After his attempts at cooking on a brick fireplace barbecue resulted in the food going up in flames because he couldn’t control the fire, George Stephen, a welder from Chicago, decided to take action.

He was working at Weber Brothers Metal Works where they made buoys for the Chicago harbour system. Half spheres of steel would be welded together to make a buoy and Stephen took one of the half spheres, put legs on it, punched holes in the bottom to get air moving through and put a lid on top. That was how the first kettle barbecue evolved.

François Lepeltier, Weber country manager UK and Ireland, recalls: “When our founder, George Stephen, invented the first Weber kettle in 1952, he was looking for a grill that would allow him to create great-tasting food for his family.

The original Kettle from 1952 (Weber/PA
The original Kettle from 1952 (Weber/PA)

By adding a lid and vents he discovered he could control air flow, maintaining a constant cooking temperature for outstanding results.

“This concept of lid-on cooking revolutionised charcoal barbecuing, and holds true today with all Weber grills, banishing the notion that barbecue food is burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.”


Same Kettle - different setting (Weber/PA)
Same Kettle – different setting (Weber/PA)

The kettle barbecue remained the same essentially, although it was embellished with different colours, handles and frames to persuade the public that cooking al fresco was the way to go.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company redesigned a charcoal grill to run on bottled propane in an effort to get customers to buy more natural gas. It was more expensive, but new customers found it easier to use.

1970s and 80s

Brick-built barbecues were all the rage in the 70s (Thinkstock/PA)
Brick-built barbecues were all the rage in the 70s (Thinkstock/PA)

As DIY stores came into their own, brick-built barbecues became the griddles of choice in the 70s. You could make them to measure, as long as the griddle would fit across, and they would last for years.  The only disadvantage was they weren’t portable.

While purists continued to use charcoal to cook their food, gas barbecues were ‘exploding’ on to the market and slowly but surely rectangular replaced round and lava rocks were inserted into gas grills – but the rocks were porous, absorbing fat and would eventually flare up.

Genesis gas barbecue from 1985 (Weber/PA)
Genesis gas barbecue from 1985 (Weber/PA)

In the mid-80s Weber introduce ‘Flavorizer’ bars into its new Genesis gas barbecue – angled pieces of metal above the burners. The juices and fats dripping on to these bars vaporised, creating a smoky barbecue flavour, and with the lid down the smokiness was infused into the food.

And now

New state-of-the-art barbecue heaters (Chesneys/PA)
New state-of-the-art barbecue heaters (Chesneys/PA)

Things have come full circle with open-air dining, as barbecues merge with outdoor heaters to become one.

On point are firepits, huge authentic Indian firebowls made from recycled steel with accompanying barbecue racks, and snazzy outdoor heaters which double up as a barbecue but funnel the smoke out so you don’t end up smelling like a bonfire. All come at a price.

Indian fire bowls appeared at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Indian fire bowls appeared at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

The technological advances have also been immense, enabling chefs to cook everything from a full English breakfast, to a roast chicken, with thermometers which allow you to monitor the progress of your food from an app.

Kettle barbecue from 1965 (Weber/PA)
Kettle barbecue from 1965 (Weber/PA)

But for some, the kettle barbecue will forever remain a favourite.

© Press Association 2018