Food

How to use a charcoal grill

©iStockphoto.com/Freeze Frame Studio, Inc. Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©iStockphoto.com/Freeze Frame Studio, Inc.

Food

How to use a charcoal grill

Many of us love a good barbecue meal, but when it comes to actually making one, propane versus charcoal often causes a debate. Rob Rainford, celebrity chef and author of Rob Rainford's Born To Grill (Random House, 2012) says that guys like him can go either way, but admits that charcoal is the original choice.

"Most people start with propane in Canada, but in the southern US, it's always charcoal. Even in Jamaica, where I'm from, it's still more charcoal than propane," he says. Why? "Affluence," he says, pointing out that propane can be expensive and you can get charcoal anywhere.

But ask any die-hard BBQ-er, and they'll tell you there are differences in flavour and cooking methods that make charcoal the number one choice. "People who are true barbecue heads are dictating the policy on what's acceptable," Rainford says with a laugh, "and charcoal is their gold standard."

Here's how to use a charcoal grill:

1. Experiment with charcoal
"Choosing a charcoal is almost like choosing wine," says Rainford. Some charcoal is flavoured so you need to match it to your recipes and palate. Some light and burn differently, so you need to see which one best suits your chef's temperament.

"I like lumps, not briquette," he says. Lumps start as pieces of wood then are heated to become charcoal; briquettes are often made from sawdust or soft wood and are less pure, often including binding agents. "Lumps burn a little hotter and they give a thick white ash," he says. "I need that eye marker to identify when I put my food on."

Along with the charcoal, the smoke from your grill will be white when you're ready to put food on it. (Reminder: Don't add lighter fluid to coals that are already lit; it's dangerous and leaves a heavy taste of lighter fluid.)

When buying charcoal, go basic. Charcoals made with lighter fluid added speed up lighting, but don't burn evenly or cleanly, so the smoke doesn't leave an appetizing flavour. You can add wood chips, like cedar, to your charcoal if you're after a specific flavour.

Page 1 of 2 -- Discover four more great tips on how to use a charcoal grill on page 2
2. Be careful with lighter fluid
When using lighter fluid to start your charcoal, let the fluid soak into the charcoal for a minute before lighting. This helps dissipate some of the lighter fluid flavour and prevent eyebrow-threatening flare-ups.

You might also want to avoid lighter fluid altogether by investing in an electric charcoal lighter.

"I like the Looftlighter," says Rainford. "The technology has been around for about three years now, but it's not in everybody's hands yet."

The handheld electric gadget is available in specialty barbecue stores and works like a reverse hair dryer, he explains. The air stream that's emitted from the device can hit 1250°F; point it at the base of the charcoal pile and it'll light in about a minute. No newspapers, no lighter fluid.

3. Create cooking zones
Pile the charcoal in a dome in the centre of the grill bottom. If you're using lighter fluid, use only enough to cover the surface (don't drown your charcoal; less is more). Wait about a minute for it to absorb and then light the bottom coals on each side. When they turn white (it can take up to 30 minutes), use long tongs to spread the coals onto one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty.

This two-zone cooking area allows for direct and indirect cooking. Quickly cook thin pieces of meat, like burgers or fish, on the direct side. For larger or thicker cuts, like ribs or a whole chicken, the indirect side allows for slow cooking and reduces charring. The direct area can also be used to sear thick steaks first, then move them to the slower side to finish.

Whether you're using a single zone or two, scrape the grill clean while it is hot and brush on vegetable oil to stop food from sticking.

4. Guard the juice
One of the great things about barbecuing is getting moist, flavourful food, so don't work against yourself by accidentally drying it out. Try these tips: Put a pan of water under the cool, indirect heat side. The humidity helps keep the meat moist. Don't squish hamburger patties (or any other foods, really) down with a spatula -- it makes the juice run out, drying your food and making more mess on the grill. Keep a water bottle nearby when you're grilling with charcoal so you can extinguish flare-ups when they happen because they can char meat, stealing the juices while leaving it underdone on the inside.

These helpful hints will help you make the most of barbecue season. And once you've mastered your charcoal grill, your summers will never be the same.

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How to use a charcoal grill

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