Barbecues, or open-air meals, date back to large social events such as ox or hog roastings. Such events were communal affairs; today the barbecue is seen as a more private affair conducted in a suburban garden (yard). They still maintain their social functions, as they often double as parties. Barbecues became popular in the United States in the 1960s and spread to Northern Europe in the 1970s. The large barbecues offered as part of Mediterranean package holidays were another stimulus.

The garden barbecue grills or spit roasts food with the heat supplied by hot charcoal or compressed hardwood briquettes. There are many different shapes and sizes, but they are all used in much the same way.

The simplest type is based on the Japanese hibachi, or fire bowl, a simple rectangular container with a grilling rack. Larger models stand on legs and can also be circular. They usually have a windshield with slots to accommodate different grilling positions and spits. Rounded kettle barbecues are more sophisticated, with domed hoods and vents.When closed the hood allows it to act more like an oven, capable of broiling joints or fowl.

The most difficult part of barbecue cooking is to get the charcoal to light. This has been assisted by the use of solid and liquid firelighters. An easier way is to light the fuel by liquid petroleum gas. More sophisticated models also have small gas rings. Funnel barbecues use lightly folded newspaper that is set alight to deliver rapid intense heat to the fuel.

The appeal of barbecue cooking is that it can make simple sausages and burgers taste better. One interesting sociological factor is that, although women still do most of the cooking, the control of the barbecue is often a male preserve.