Fuel: Lump charcoal, hardwood briquettes, or the ol’ standby, Kingsford
No matter what or when you plan to grill, there are a few basics that you’ll need to get right. From hardwood charcoal, using a chimney starter, to indirect cooking, these tips and tricks (and a few others) will keep you grilling all year long.
Lump charcoal starts off as wood logs that are covered and burned in underground pits. The wood slowly smolders for a few days. In this oxygen starved (anaerobic) environment the fire burns off water, sap, and other substances. What’s left, almost pure carbon! Lump charcoal heats fairly quickly. Usually in about 10-15 minutes you’ll have an intense heat that can sear in seconds. Pops and crackles are not unusual as the wood burns and releases tiny pockets of trapped gas.
Subtle flavor differences can be detected based upon what type of woods you chose. Mesquite, Oak, Hickory, Maple, and some tropical woods.
Once lump charcoal reaches its hottest temperature, sometimes in excess of 1200° (for comparison your gas grill will get to about 600°), it will lose heat quickly. You’ve got about 30 minutes or so to keep things hot. Fortunately with its quick heating capability you can easily add more to your existing fire.
Hardwood briquettes are the easier to work with, more compact, and convenient version of lump charcoal. The process is fairly simple. The lump charcoal from above is crushed, and then combined with a starch to hold their shape. Look for the words natural or hardwood to ensure they aren’t combined with anything else. They burn just as hot and just as quickly as lump charcoal, but their size and evenness result in a smoother bed of coals.
Surely you’re familiar with the Kingsford. Similar to the hardwood briquette, but with a few more additives to prolong the heat. They tend to light a little slower, but stay lit a bit longer. If you’re going to go this route, please make sure you don’t purchase the kind that are pre-treated with lighter fluids!
If you really want to go down the rabbit hole and are looking for the holy grail of hardwood charcoal reviews, you can do no better than Doug Hanthorn, and his The Naked Whiz’s Lump Charcoal Database.
Using A Chimney Starter (or a quick lesson in thermodynamics)
We can’t think of an easier way of starting charcoal than with a chimney starter. Gone are the days of dousing coals with lighter fluid and incinerating anything within 10 feet. If you splurge on one additional implement for your grill, this is it!
Fill the space under the wire rack with some newspaper, fill the space above the wire rack with charcoal light the newspaper, and allow physics to do the rest. After about ten minutes, you’ll be ready to go.
The more you use your grill the more you start to see the similarities between it and your oven/range. And with various fire configurations you can easily mimic the settings of your burners. Here are a few to know…
This efficient and easy configuration combines both direct and indirect heat. It’s important to have the flexibility to cook over these two areas to allow for slower cooking methods as well as achieving that perfect sear for flavor and texture. Simply pour your coals from the chimney to one side of your grill (direct heat) leaving the other side coalless (indirect heat), and sear, reverse-sear, slow roast, or smoke away!
Just like a two-zone fire, with an added level of flexibility. Think of it as a burner set to hi, one set to simmer, and one set to low. With this method stock most of your coals to one side (direct heat), and slope them down towards the middle of the grill (medium heat) leaving the last 1/3 of your coalless (indirect heat). A riff on this is to split the coals on either side of your grill (direct heat) and leave the center coalless (indirect heat). This is perfect for cooking roasts. You can even go a step further and add a pan of water to the center (indirect heat). This will help add additional flavor on your meat, as the smoky water vapor condenses on the meat and then evaporates leaving behind flavor. Science!
Bullseye/Ring of Fire
Both indirect/direct methods of cooking. This is especially good for cooking smaller items like chicken pieces (bone in please), lamb chops/loins/ a pork chop or two…
How hot is it?
While lacking the precision of cooking with gas, grilling more than makes up for it with texture and flavor (although todays infrared grills are trying to change that). And since we’re not baking who needs precision? There’s really only two ways to check the temp of your grill. A thermometer is going to be the most accurate method and will avoid those peaks and dips as you open and close the dome/lid Remember that temps vary depending where you take them: at the coal level/heat source, on the grill grates, or at the top of the dome/lid. Another method employs your hand. I’m sure We don’t need to remind you to be carful. Hold your hand out, palm down, roughly 5 inches from the grill grates. If after 4 seconds you need to pull your palm away, the heat is high (over 500°). If you make it to 6 seconds it’s at a medium heat (around 400°). At 10 seconds, you’re at a low temp (about 300°).
Gas/Charcoal (or, a time and a place for everything)
Much has been written and many arguments have been made as to what is the superior method for cooking outdoors. We prefer, both. You can bet that in the middle of winter (we love a snowstorm grill) we’re not excited about that 10-15 minutes waiting for those coals to combust. Nor are we particularly excited about gas “smoked” pork shoulder. So with the help of our friends at the Food Lab and the tireless efforts of Kenji Lopez-Alt (and his much larger budget) here’s a great chart that lists out the pros and cons of gas vs. charcoal.
MORE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM OUR TEAM
CHUCK EYE ROASTS & TOP ROUND LONDON BROIL
They are a great value for feeding a crowd at $10.99 per pound in our shops. The chuck roast, marbled and fatty, is perfect for smoking low and slow, while the London broil is a terrific steak to grill over high heat to medium rare, thinly sliced for tacos, salads or sandwiches. Cook the chuck eye to an internal temperature of 190-200°F for pulled, brisket-like consistency. Let it rest for up to an hour wrapped in in foil, in a towel, in an empty cooler to maintain all the juices, flavor and fat. As top round is a lean steak, be sure not to overcook or dry out the meat. We recommend 120-125°F and slice thinly against the grain. And with pasture-raised beef in general, just add salt.
NAILING A SPATCHCOCKED CHICKEN
- A certified humane or pasture-raised chicken is going to taste the best. When you trust the source, you can then cook your bird to temperature using a probe thermometer: chicken breasts to about 150°F and thighs to 165°-170°F.
- Because of the range of cooking temps on the parts of the bird we recommend spatchcocking your chicken. By removing the backbone the bird lies flatter on the grill and will cook quicker and more evenly. You can do this at home with poultry scissors quite easily, but we will happily do it for you.
- Create hot and cold zones on your grill to start your bird off slow, bone side down, giving time for the fat to render without losing moisture.
- When you’re about 20°F away from your final temp move the bird over to the hot zone, skin side down to get golden crispy. Depending on the size of the bird, it can take an hour or more before you flip.
- Don’t worry about salting over night – we’re doing all of the above so you get a crispy, juicy bird.
- After serving to friends and family, pick any leftover chicken off the carcass and set aside for chicken salad, tacos or a late night snack. Save the bones to make a hearty chicken stock, which will come in handy for poaching hot dogs and sausages at your next cookout.
THE BEST THING FOR BURGERS
- Cast iron is key. We prefer to grill on a cast iron skillet, keeping the juices and the fat of the burger from dripping through the grill to prevent those pesky flare-ups. Put your cast iron pan on top of the grill and get it nice and hot before you grill.
- To flip or not to flip? Resist the temptation to flip, flip, flip. Let the patty cook fully on one side before turning to the other side!
- It’s all about ingredients (always). No matter what you’re cooking, the better the ingredients the better the result. In addition to top-quality meat, make a restaurant-quality burger by sourcing the best cheese, condiments and buns.
SECRETS TO SAUSAGE SUCCESS
- For ultimate ease, skip the casing and grill up some patties. Make sure to use a flat cooking surface, such as a cast iron, just like you do with burgers.
- Things get tricky with cased sausages. High heat and they’ll explode, low heat and they’ll shrivel up. Poaching them in liquid, beer, cider, stock allows them to cook more evenly, since they are submerged in a liquid which is a good heat conductor.
- Using an aluminum pan, place the liquid and sausages, on the direct heat and bring to a simmer. Move pan to the cool side to continue cooking. When they hit about 145° to 150° pop them on the direct heat.
- Keep your grill covered (and use charcoal) while they poach, if you’re looking for that smokey, sausage flavor.
As always, have fun, be safe and enjoy yourself! Summer grilling is about warm nights, cold beers and good company. As long as your heart is in the right place, the food will taste delicious!