Now that you have the information you need to buy a grill, let’s look at the fuel options for firing up your grill.
About 300,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia, our prehistoric forebears made a revolutionary discovery: Charred wood (charcoal) burns cleaner, hotter, and much more efficiently than fresh wood.
Charcoal is made by burning wood without allowing complete combustion (it has nothing to do with coal, which is a carbon-based mineral). It was probably discovered by accident when someone shoveled dirt or sand on a campfire. Deprived of oxygen, the wood continued to smolder, just enough to evaporate the water and resins, but not enough to consume all the combustible components.
Cordwood contains 20 to 30 percent water charred wood contains 2 to 3 percent. This gives charcoal many advantages: It burns faster and hotter (as much as 200 degrees hotter), and it’s easier to transport and store. Charcoal is the preferred cooking fuel for more than half the world’s population it is used throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. Particularly delicious is the coconut charcoal (made from coconut shells) used in Southeast Asia.
Most of the world uses lump charcoal, but in North America it’s the briquet that reigns supreme. The good news about charcoal briquets is that they’re more uniform in shape, size, and consistency than charred wood. The bad news is that, like sausage, you never quite know what’s in them (see "Types of Charcoal"). Some briquets are made from charred hardwood with natural plant starches as a binder. Other briquets contain wood scraps, tree bark, sawdust, coal dust, borax, limestone, and or sodium nitrate held together with a petroleum-based binder.
The Flavorful Fuel: Wood
Wood was the first fuel that man used for grilling. In many ways it remains the best. Wood burns hot and long, releasing flavorful smoke that enhances any food cooked in its presence. (Whatever the virtues of charwood or charcoal in terms of convenience and temperature control, they are essentially flavorless. The only way to produce a real smoke flavor with charcoal is to toss wood chips on the coals.)
Wood’s superiority as a cooking fuel is attested to by its universal popularity in North and South America and Europe. From Boy Scout campfires to the wood-burning grills at the trendiest restaurants, wood firencooked food has an irresistible appeal. This truth is not lost on Tuscan cooks, Argentinian asadors, and the new generation of American chefs, many of whom have made the wood-burning grill the focal point of their restaurants.
Wood does have its drawbacks, however. First, it’s bulky. Logs are harder to light than charcoal and take longer to reach the ideal cooking temperature. Heat control can be tricky, and it’s wasteful to build a log fire to cook for only one or two people.
However, when it comes to smoke flavor, nothing can beat a wood fire. In the box opposite you’ll find instructions for building a wood fire. If cooking over wood is impractical for your particular setup, you can achieve a wood-grilled flavor by tossing wood chips or chunks on your grill.
Almost any hardwood is a candidate for grilling. (Hardwood comes from deciduous trees-trees that lose their leaves in winter.) Oak is probably the most popular wood on a worldwide basis, burning hot and clean and producing a distinctive but not overpowering smoke flavor. Hickory is popular in the South and the Midwest (Kansas Citynstyle barbecue would be sorry stuff without it), burning somewhat slower than oak, producing a rich, sweet smoky taste.
Conventional wisdom holds that the only wood you should never use for grilling is a softwood, like pine or spruce. It’s true that evergreen trees are loaded with resins, which cause dangerous flare-ups and impart a sooty, tarry taste to foods cooked over them. But even here I’ve found exceptions to the rule. One autumn I stumbled upon a village cookout in Bavaria, where bratwurst was being grilled over pinecones. The resulting resin flavor was delicious.
Finally, a word of caution to home handymen and -women who may be tempted to use wood scraps for their barbecues. Plywood and pressure-treated lumber, which contain toxic chemicals, should be avoided at all costs.
Gas grills run on liquid propane, which is available at grill shops, hardware stores, and RV centers. The standard tank holds about 20 pounds of propane, which will burn for 12 to 18 hours, depending on the usage and the temperature of the grill.
Most of the newer gas grills come with gas gauges. On mine, you set the gauge when the tank is empty, then you fill the tank. Cook’s Magazine offers a handy tip for assessing the gas level in your propane tank if you don’t have a gauge: Tilt the tank slightly, and pour a cup of boiling water over the outside of the tank. Feel the tank with your hand. It is empty where the metal feels warm. There is propane where the tank remains cool.
When filling a new propane tank, the air must be removed first. Advise the service person that you are filling a new tank, so he or she can bleed the tank properly. Transport the filled tank in an upright position. I keep a milk crate in the trunk of my car for this purpose.
Some of the new high-tech built-in grills run on natural gas. Contact your local utility company for hookup.
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