The ‘Coal, Hard Facts

It’s summertime, just in case you missed the needle spiking up near 90°F. When the temperatures get that hot, no one wants to stand in the kitchen cooking, where it gets even more unpleasant. So the cooking moves out to the patio, where the cool breeze in the evening is the perfect setting for a flame-broiled dinner.

Yes. Cool breeze. In the Gush.


Let’s get some things out of the way. Yes, I have a gas grill. Yes, I use it more frequently than I use charcoal. It’s not a cheat in the same way that sous vide isn’t a cheat, nor is cooking directly on a flat slab of granite a cheat. It’s simply a different way of dry heat cooking. It gets the job done, but with less satisfying results. I have a whole article on grilling, as well as assorted articles on techniques. All on my gas grill.

If you are in a windy place, just use lighter fluid. It’s not worth the hassle to try and get the fire lit when the elements are against you. Just don’t use the entire bottle. Aim low, not high, so the fire burns up from the bottom. I’m still undecided about the little cubes they have here. They work, to be sure, but they’re a little like napalm, and not in the good way.

The one-time-use grills are utterly useless. They’re a waste of time and money. Don’t buy them. Get one of the long metal grill boxes and buy replacement gratings every year. Why not the short grill boxes? Because you can use half of the long one for fewer people, but you can’t put twice as much on the smaller one. A long grill can cook food for one to six people within a reasonable amount of time.

Don’t crowd your grill. The coals need oxygen to burn, and covering every square inch of grill space with food will actually take longer

You need to start your grill up to an hour before you’re ready to cook. That means bring snacks for the little ones. You have to give the fire time to spread throughout the coals. It will also give your food time to defrost. Don’t throw frozen hot dogs on a grill with three-foot, lighter fluid flames shooting into the air. Fire doesn’t cook as well as heat, and what you’re going to come away with is scorched on the outside, frozen on the inside hot dogs that taste worse than they already do here.

The fuel you use matters. The good news is that there is no law that says you are stuck having to use only one type. These are the three most common outdoor fuels, aside from gas, that people use to cook their food. If you’re reading this in Ireland, then I apologize for not including peat, but I have no experience with it. Each type of fuel has it’s good and its bad qualities, which I’ve explained below.

When smoking, I start with wood, then add on charcoal. The wood gives me a strong smoky flavor, and the charcoal provides the heat to heat the product up to the temperature it needs to be. When I’m out, it’s usually straight charcoal. We have a fire pit as well that the kids like to throw potatoes into and spear hot dogs and marshmallows for roasting.

Wood

Since the beginning of the Bible, people have been burning wood to cook their food. There is something primeval about watching the branches send out a shower of sparks when they pop, or listening to fat sizzle and catching the smell of it as it drifts on the warm currents of air.
The good: Flavor, hands down. With a good fruitwood fire, the flavor the wood is going to impart to your food cannot be matched by any other means. Wood fire provides light as well, if it’s getting later in the evening.
The bad: You need a bit of skill to get a wood fire going. The speed at which wood is consumed means that you’d better have enough of it to make sure your food is fully cooked, and then add some more because it doesn’t burn as hot as charcoal. If you use a soft wood like pine, you’re going to get a bitter, resinous flavor in your food.

Lump Charcoal

This is by far my favorite fuel source. It burns slowly and hotly. It’s made from chunks of hardwood that have been heated without oxygen. You can get this stuff all over Israel. Charcoal is mentioned as far back as the Talmud.
The good: You’re going to run out of food to cook before you run out heat from the charcoal. And it’s cheap.
The bad: You will need other fuel sources, including kindling, newspaper, or even lighter fluid to get the fire going.

Briquettes

There are people who have this thing against briquettes; I should know, I’m one of them. A modern contrivance, briquettes are formed from wood charcoal powder, sodium nitrate, limestone, starch, Borax, wax… yummy. There are people who will swear by them though, and even I use them if that’s what’s available. It gets the job done.
The good: They are often treated with an accelerant, so one match should do the trick in getting your fire lit. They’re uniform in size, which means you can gauge your cooking much better. They’re lighter if you’re stuck carrying your fuel long distances.
The bad: They don’t burn as hot, in my opinion, as lump charcoal does, and they are consumed much more quickly.

Whichever fuel you use, you’ll need to build your fire smartly. Start with strips of newspaper and smaller twigs to get the fire going. Then, gradually add larger pieces of fuel to the fire. Or, place a small pile of newspaper strips and small twigs in the middle of the grill, dump the whole pile of charcoal on top of it, and light it from the bottom. When the fire is up, start spreading the coals slowly and evenly in the grill.

Summer cooking is full of bold flavors, electric colors, and a relaxed atmosphere. With the right planning and fuel, firing up a charcoal grill and throwing on some food for family and friends is one of the more pleasant ways to spend an evening.

Note: Microwaves are a cheat.

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