How To Build a Charcoal Cooking Fire

Charcoal Fuels, Igniters, Building Techniques and Procedures Explained

Grilling with charcoal

Unless you live in an area where the climate is always warm and sunny, chances are you're thinking of packing up that charcoal grill and relegating it to the shed with the rest of your summery seasonal items. This need not be the case! Possibly the most underutilized and unappreciated kitchen accessory, the grill can do things no other kitchen tool can accomplish. Although daunting to some, charcoal cooking with a living flame is easy, fun and delicious!  You can pick up great recipes that can be used on a charcoal grill or in a convential oven if you check out the Copy Cat Cookbook - you'll learn how to make restaurant-quality meals that the whole family can enjoy!

Cooking with charcoal is versatile and dependable in the hands of someone who understands and respects it. In order to build a good charcoal fire, we need to put a few things in order first:

  1. Get a grill: Obviously, the first step to making a fire is having someplace to put it. If you don't already own a charcoal grill, you should go and get one. The market is flooded with different types of grills, ranging in size and price. Don't be fooled by price tags and or sucked in by nifty features. We're cooking food, not purchasing a family heirloom or launching a space shuttle. The grill's cooking surface should be no lower than your waist and large enough to accommodate enough food to feed your diners. 
  2. Get some fuel: I need to clarify the term "charcoal" before going any further here, because contrary to popular belief, not all charcoal is created equal. An authentic charcoal fire should be built with lump charcoal, not briquettes. The difference is in how the fuel is produced. Lump charcoal is made by burning hardwoods in a closed container with very little oxygen, producing a fuel that is almost pure carbon. The result is a fuel that lights easier (without nasty lighter fluids), burns cleaner and hotter, and is easier to control. Lump charcoal is available in most areas under the names "Natural," "Hardwood," or "Cowboy" charcoal, but they're all the same. If lump charcoal is not available in your area, by all means, use briquettes that have not been treated with lighter fluids. No Matchlite please.
  3. Load and light: The use of a chimney starter is indispensable. Available at most hardware stores, this simple device takes some newspaper and a portion of charcoal and turns it into a red hot barrel of coals in about 5 minutes. Simply put a sheet or two of crumpled up newspaper into the base of the cylinder and top it off with your fuel (the charcoal). Light from the bottom and place the chimney starter inside the grill where you plan to eventually dump the coals. Don't tip the cylinder out yet; that part comes next.
  4. Tip out your coals: Once the flames die down inside the chimney starter and the coals have started to turn an ashen grey, you know it's almost time to start grilling. The coals are extremely hot at this point, so be very careful not to spill any on your deck, patio or feet! Carefully remove the starter and tip it into the base of your grill. You should now have a pile of smoking coals in the center of your grill's base. The coals may flame up a bit. It's totally natural.
  5. Bank your coals: Now, create heat zones so you can utilize the full potential of your grill space. By "banking" the coals, what I mean is push the coals around so that you have an empty space under your cooking surface and a pile about 2 or 3 times as high on the other side of the kettle. This allows you to cook using both direct and indirect heat. For that juicy steak with the nice crusty outside, sear it over the high pile of coals (direct heat) and then move it over to the empty space (indirect heat) to finish cooking. This kind of approach also allows you to cook your ribs over a low smoke or cook that steak and some veggies at the same time! The nice thing is that you can always reorganize the way the coals are banked. If you want even heat all around, spread them flat. If you need the different zones for different foods, bank away! When you bank the coals, they may reignite and you might get a bit of flame up. Again, it's completely natural.
  6. Test the temperature: There's nothing worse than trying to grill something over a lukewarm fire. When your coals get nice and gray, and there aren't any visible flames, put your hand over the fire. Be brave. Hold it palm down over the coals and start counting. If you can leave it there for 5 seconds, you have a low fire. 3 to 4 seconds means you have a moderate fire. 1 to 2 seconds and your fire is hot. This method works well for distinguishing the different cooking zones. If you need more heat, add more charcoal directly from the bag.
  7. Keep the fire lit: Fire needs two things to survive: Fuel and oxygen. You've already addressed the fuel part of the equation, so now let's look at how the law of supply and demand affects your fire. Since there is a limitless supply of oxygen in the air, you only need to worry about how much the fire demands. All charcoal grills should have two sets of vents; top vents and bottom vents. These aren't decorative; use them! If it's windy out and your fire seems to be having trouble, it might help to close the top vents a bit. If the weather is nice and calm, you can regulate the fire by adjusting the top and bottom vents to create a cross breeze, thereby feeding the fire with a constant supply of oxygen. There is no catchall answer for how or when to adjust the vents. The more you grill, the better you'll get to know your equipment and how it works in your environment.

Charcoal cooking is much more involved than gas, but it's also much more fulfilling. When you get the hang of it, start experimenting with flavored hardwoods, like hickory or mesquite. The sky is truly the limit once you master the living flame. Live it, love it, eat it.


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