4. How to Light Up and Cook on th Charcoal Grill

Serves: 5



So now you know about the various types of grills and fuels. The next thing to master is cooking over live fire. Let’s begin with a charcoal grill.


When I was 8 years old, my mother gave me a lesson-and a heart-stopping fright-on the wrong way to light a charcoal grill. She threw a match on the briquets, then poured gasoline on top. It was only the quick thinking of our neighbor that averted a tragedy: he knocked the exploding gas can out of Mom’s hands and pushed her away from the fire. We all learned a valuable lesson: If you do use a petroleum-based starter, never, ever use gasoline. Pour the starter on the coals as directed in the instructions, seal the container, and move it away from the grill before you strike the match.

Actually, liquid starters have fallen out of fashion. The theory is that lighter fluids leave a foul-tasting oily residue. And in some states they’re considered pollutants and are outlawed. I’m not sure how much residue survives when the coals have been properly preheated, but many people are turned off by the thought of having a petroleum product burning under their food.

The contemporary alternative is the paraffin starter, which looks like a milk-white ice cube. To use paraffin starters, place two or three cubes in the center of your grill and pile a mound of charcoal over them, or put them in the bottom of a chimney starter (see the next paragraph). Touch a match to a corner of a cube to light it.

The ignition aid most favored by grill buffs these days is the chimney starter, a device of elegant simplicity consisting of a 6- to 8-inch-wide cylindrical steel pipe with vent holes at the bottom, grate in the middle, and a heatproof handle. To light charcoal or wood chunks in a chimney starter, you pile either in the top section and place a few sheets of crumpled newspaper or a couple of paraffin starters in the bottom. Place the chimney on the charcoal grate, touch a lit match to the newspaper or starter, and soon the coals will be blazing. (Never light a chimney starter on a wood or otherwise flammable surface.)

When the coals are ready, lift the chimney and dump out the coals in the grill.

An alternative to the chimney starter is the electric starter, a loop-shaped heating element you place under the coals and plug in. Lay the starter on the grate and arrange a tall mound of coals over the heating element. Plug in the starter. The coals will ignite into flame in a matter of minutes. This starter works equally well with wood chunks. The chief drawback to this device is that it requires an electric outlet next to the grill.

Building a Charcoal Fire

Grilling over charcoal has always been as much an art as it is a science because there’s no perfectly precise way to control the heat. You need to start with enough coals to cover an area 3 inches larger on all sides than the size of the food you plan to cook. To cook a full meal on a standard 22 1/2-inch kettle grill, this means about 50 briquets.

Light the coals, using one of the methods outlined above. Leave them in the chimney starter (or the pile) until they are all blazing red, about 20 minutes. Then use tongs or a spatula to rake (spread) the coals over the bottom grate in a single layer, and let them burn until they are covered with a thin layer of gray ash, about 5 to 10 minutes. Thus, you need 25 to 30 minutes in all to light and preheat a charcoal grill.

Building a Wood Fire

Wood chunks make a great fuel for charcoal-style grills.

Direct Grilling on a Charcoal Grill

Direct grilling involves using a high heat to cook relatively thin cuts of meat, like steaks, chops, and kebabs, and vegetables, like peppers and portobello mushrooms. The high heat sears the surface and seals in the juices. When working over high heat, the total cooking time, depending on the size of the food, will be 4 to 20 minutes (4 minutes for small satés, 20 minutes for a large T-bone steak). In many parts of the world, cooks boost the heat of the coals even further by oxygenating them with a fan or an electric blower.

The most common error people make when grilling is trying to work over a heat that is too high, or too low. The traditional test is to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals. If you can count slowly to three before having to pull your hand away, the fire is the right temperature for direct grilling (about 500°F).

Direct grilling is generally done with the grill uncovered-especially when cooking small cuts of meat, like kebabs and satés, or highly flammable foods, like bread. Larger cuts of meat need to be cooked using the indirect method.

Two-Tiered Grilling: When direct- grilling over charcoal, I like to use the two-tier method: Spread one third of the coals in a single layer over one side (one half) of the grill, the other two thirds in a double layer on the other side. Leave a small side portion of the grill free of coals. This arrangement gives you a super-hot heat source for searing, a moderately hot heat source for cooking, and a warm spot for keeping cooked foods warm. You control the heat by moving the food from one area to the other.

Indirect Grilling on a Charcoal Grill

Try cooking a whole chicken or a 4-pound fish over a super-hot fire, and you’ll wind up with a carbonized exterior and a heart of uncooked flesh. Thicker foods should cook over a lower heat for a longer period of time, anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. So how do you achieve this sort of heat on a charcoal grill?

The answer is to use the indirect method. In indirect grilling, the coals are pushed to the sides of the grill and the food cooks in the center-over a drip pan, not over the coals. The grill is always covered, and the vents in the lid and in the bottom of the grill are used to regulate the heat (open to raise the temperature, close to lower it). The temperature in indirect grilling, about 350°F, is usually lower than in direct.

To set up your grill for indirect grilling, light the coals using one of the methods described earlier. When they are blazing red, use tongs to transfer them to opposite sides of the grill, arranging them in two piles. Some grills have special half-moon-shaped baskets to hold the coals at the sides others have wire fences that hook onto the bottom grate. Let the coals burn until they are covered with a thin layer of gray ash. Set the drip pan in the center of the grill, between the mounds of coals. Place the food on the grate over the drip pan, and cover the grill. You’ll need to add about 10 to 12 fresh briquets to each side after an hour of cooking.

If you want to add a smoke flavor, add 1 to 2 cups of presoaked wood chips, or 2 to 4 chunks, to the coals just before you start to cook, and again whenever you replenish the coals (about once an hour).

Barbecuing on Charcoal Grill

Barbecuing on a charcoal grill works just like indirect cooking, except that you work at an even lower temperature (275°F to 300°F) and you always add wood chips to generate the smoke that gives barbecued foods their characteristic flavor.

Using wood chips: Wood chunks and chips are widely available at gourmet shops, hardware stores, and supermarkets. Look for hardwood chunks, such as hickory, oak, cherry, alder, or mesquite (see the box on page 10). Do not use sawdust, which is designed for smokers, not grills. Soak the wood chunks or chips in a bowl of cold water to cover for 1 hour. This slows the rate of combustion, so the wood will smolder, not burn.

Add 1 to 2 cups of soaked, drained wood chips, or 2 to 4 chunks, to the coals when you start to barbecue, and again whenever you replenish the coals (about once an hour see the next section).

Refueling a Charcoal Grill

As charcoal burns, it gradually generates less and less heat. After an hour, that initial 500°F flame will have dropped 100 to 200 degrees. When you are using a prolonged cooking method, like indirect grilling or barbecuing, you’ll need to replenish the coals every hour, or any time the temperature in the grill drops by more than 50°F. Most newer grills have thermometers built into the lids. If yours doesn’t, you can measure the temperature by inserting a grill thermometer through one of the top vent holes. For a 22 1/2-inch grill, you’ll need to add about 20 to 24 coals at a time (10 to 12 coals per side) to replenish the fire.

You can add fresh coals either prelighted or not. If you are adding unlighted coals, leave the grill uncovered for 5, so the air speeds combustion. This method is the easiest, but it has one potential drawback: As the new coals light, they sometimes emit a bitter smoke that can make your food taste ashy. (Charwood ignites instantly, so you won’t get this burned, ashy taste.)

To avoid this problem, light the replenishment coals in a chimney starter in another grill or on a concrete slab (never on a wood surface) 15 to 20 minutes before you will need them. Then add the lighted coals to the side baskets with tongs.

This 4. How to Light Up and Cook on th Charcoal Grill recipe is from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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