Happy Independence Day, everyone! I hope you are either en route to your long weekend or settled on your plan to watch the fireworks display. Both promise to give you a reprieve from your everyday and hopefully surprise you with something new.
I tried something new recently that was right on time for the holiday weekend eating: grilling with charcoal. Normally I am jazzed to use a gas grill—you open the tank, turn a knob, ignite and you are ready to go. However, the client for whom I was cooking had only a charcoal grill. I was ready to learn and grow!
The thought of heating the coals and not sending the food (or myself, I might add) up in flames was daunting, to say the least. However, I did my research, talked to a couple of friends and dove into the matter at hand with conviction and fervour.
Here are my learnings for grilling with charcoal:
- Safety: Make sure your grill is in a safe space where it cannot catch something (or someone) on fire. Once done, cover the grill and close the vents to let the coals extinguish completely before deposing of them.
- Time: You’ll need about 20 to 30 minutes to light your charcoal and get your grill to the proper temperature. Figure out when you want to get the food on the table and work backward so you can determine cooking times and when you should begin to build your grill.
- Preparation: Set yourself up at the grill by being prepared with everything you will need to start, cook and serve your final product.
- Clean: Always start with a clean grill by removing ashes from previous use.
- Grill essentials: Charcoal, long wand lighter and newspaper (optional).
- Cooking utensils: Tongs, spatula for flipping, meat thermometer, heatproof grilling gloves and kitchen towel.
- Food: Portioned and prepped meats trimmed of excess fat (which prevents flare ups), marinated/seasoned, brought to room temperature (for faster and even cooking).
- Serving dishes: With the exception of all non-meat items, the finished product cannot return to the container from whence it emerged raw.
Now, there are two types of charcoal—regular and self-starting. The latter is saturated with lighter fluid to speed up the process. You also see plenty of people mindlessly dousing charcoal with lighter fluid. However, I enjoyed using regular charcoal and letting it do its thing, as I’d rather taste my food and not lighter fluid. Again, if you determine when you want to eat, you will know when to begin the process and not have to rush.
There are a couple of ways to start your charcoal fire, but the best way with the most limited tools is my focus here: charcoal, wand lighter and, though not necessary, some newspaper. Remove the top grate (the cooking surface) and make a pile of enough coals to cover the lower grate of the grill. Mix in a couple balls of newspaper if needed. Light the charcoals and newspaper.
When the charcoal is ready for grilling, it will look ashen, with a white or gray color all around. This is when you spread it to build your fire. At this point, you have two choices: all direct heat or half direct and half indirect heat.
For all direct heat, spreading a single layer of ashen charcoal will give you a medium fire. A double layer will give you a high fire. You can always add on more charcoal as needed when the other charcoal is dying down. The existing glowing coal will light the new ones for you.
My recommendation is to have half high fire and the other without any charcoal. This is called indirect heat. It allows you to start something on the high side, like a thick eight-ounce burger, to quickly sear and seal in all the juices.
SCHOP! Tip: Please don’t mash down your burgers with your spatulas unless you require a dry burger in your life. It didn’t do anything to you.
Once seared, then move it to the low side to finish cooking internally and sometimes to hold until you are ready to serve. It’s also a good place to toast some potato buns for that burger and let hearty root vegetables and corn on the cob finish cooking.
My last tip is to wear long sleeves to protect your arms and a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the heat and smoke … and to look like a badass as you tame that fire! Charcoal grilling is fun and delicious. Give it a go this weekend!
Happy birthday, America!
Happy eating and thanks for reading!
Kysha Harris is a food writer, culinary producer, consultant and owner of SCHOP!, a personalized food service offering weekly and in-home entertaining packages. Questions? Comments? Requests? Feedback? Invitations? Email her at kysha@iSCHOP.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SCHOPgirl or on Facebook www.facebook.com/SCHOPnyc. For even more recipes, tips and food musings subscribe to her blog at www.talkingSCHOP.wordpress.com.