Tips for Cooking with
There’s nothing quite like cooking with charcoal – the flavour is just so much better than BBQ’ing on gas. Before the 1980’s, charcoal was the only way to go. Unless you just ran around the yard gathering up sticks and what not and lighting a wood-fired BBQ of course. But then in the 80’s something happened. Shiny stainless steel grills became ubiquitous in backyards everywhere. This is mainly due to some brilliant marketing, selling gas grills as being ‘cleaner’ and ‘easier’. While ‘cleaner’ is debatable (don’t get me started on CO2 content, processing etc involved with gas!), ‘easier’ is definitely no longer the case. Here’s some Tips for Cooking with Charcoal.
Before we get into it these tips for cooking with charcoal, we need to have a clarification of terms. When we’re talking about charcoal there are two main types: Lump Charcoal and Briquettes. Lump Charcoal are pieces of whole wood that have been processed into charcoal. Briquettes are made from charcoal powder and small pieces of charcoal, mixed into a slurry and pressed into identical sized and shaped briquettes. Some of the tips we’re going to look at are better suited to lump charcoal and others are better suited to briquettes. I’ll make it clear which is which.
Tips for Lighting Charcoal
We live in a modern age and fortunately there are several advancements that now allow us to use charcoal much more easily and freely. The first is what’s referred to as a Looft Lighter (brand name) and is essentially an electric heating element combined with a fan. This device is brilliant and can get charcoal up and running in a matter of minutes. They’re a favourite on the competition BBQ circuit and can seriously make your life easier. The only downside is that these are mains-powered so you will need an extension cord running to wherever your BBQ is, and they won’t be much help if you’re taking your BBQ camping.
The second device to discuss is what’s referred to as a charcoal chimney. This is a cheaper and more traditional solution, not relying on electricity. The ways these work is by filling the top of the chimney with charcoal. About 8 centimetres from the bottom of the chimney is a small grill, suspending the charcoal partway up the chimney. The charcoal is started by some kind of firestarters that you’ll light and place under the chimney. The flames from the firestarters lick the bottom of the charcoal and gets the charcoal started. The chimney will have strategically placed vents to suck the air in, forcing the fire up the chimney through the charcoal. Before you know if, you’ll have a whole chimney full of charcoal ready to go.
There are two great ways to get the charcoal lit. My preferred way is to use paraffin firelighters. These are fantastic as they light easily, and burn for a long time. Moreover, as they are made from paraffin, they’ll light even if they’re wet or conditions are windy. Some people are concerned about the kerosene-like smell that can come from paraffin firelighters as they’re burning. I find that by the time all the charcoal in the chimney is ready, the paraffin firelighters have long since burned away and any trace of that smell is long gone. I’ve never detected any odd-flavours in my food either.
If you don’t like this idea of paraffin firelighters, another trick is to grab some paper towel and a bottle of vegetable oil. Ball up the paper towel and douse them in the oil. Put three or four of these under the chimney and light them up. The oil will burn for long enough to get the charcoal started and the process described above will take over and get the job done.
Tips for Reusing Charcoal
One of the many benefits of cooking with charcoal is that charcoal can be reused. Let me clarify. Unburnt charcoal can be reused. It’s worth pointing out that lump charcoal is easier to reuse than briquettes. From my experience, briquettes that have been put out seem to crumble quite easily when attempting to relight them as the binding agents in them must deteriorate from the process.
Firstly, if you want to save the charcoal that is yet to burn, you need to be able to snuff out the fire. If you’re cooking on a BBQ without a lid, like a Hibachi, this will be a problem. If you do have a BBQ with a lid, put the lid on and close all the vents. The fire will burn up all the oxygen inside the BBQ and with no more fuel the fire, it will starve itself out. The remaining unburnt charcoal can then be relit later.
It’s always a good idea to leave the charcoal for at least 24 hours before trying to do anything with it. Charcoal can burn for a long time and even if it looks like it’s out, charcoal can easily flare up again when exposed to oxygen. So snuff it out and forget about it until the next day.
One common question is whether you can put out the charcoal with water. Ultimately yes you can, but it’s not advisable. Charcoal is hydroscopic – it absorbs water. If your charcoal is wet, you need to make sure you dry it out properly. If you don’t you’ll get a steamy black smoke that’ll create a bad taste on your food. Also, I find that briquettes that have been wet down crumble more when I try and reuse them. Again, the binding agents are clearly affected by water.
Bigger isn’t always better
We often assume that bigger is better but when it comes to lump charcoal, this isn’t necessarily the case. Smaller pieces are best for direct grilling or short cooks. Bigger pieces are what you need for low’n’slow. The bigger pieces will burn longer which will mean you’ll have less stress managing the fire.
More important than size is the carbon content. The higher the density, the hotter the fire and longer each piece of charcoal will burn. Unfortunately it can be very difficult to find a company that will declare the carbon content of the charcoal on their packaging. You’ll soon work it out though as you experiment with different brands.
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