No matter how much gas grills have improved, there’s still nothing like cooking food over real fire – which means good, old charcoal. Charcoal grilling is easy and flavorful.
There are many styles of charcoal grills, ranging from simple hibachis (small, cast-iron grills with non-adjustable grates on top to hold the food) to large kettle styles that can double as smokers. Sports fans can purchase portable grills in their favorite team colors to use at tailgates. Purchase the type of grill that suits the way you plan to use it. If you’ll do most of your grilling at home, consider a large kettle type that will give you many grilling options. Buy a portable grill if you will take it on the road for camping or tailgating.
It’s easy to prepare for grilling over charcoal. There are several kinds of charcoal you can use. “Instant-light” brands of charcoal are permeated with a fluid that lets you light it without using additional lighter fluid. It’s convenient, but the fluid often imparts an odor to the food that you cook over the charcoal – which can also happen when using lighter fluid on conventional charcoal. The “instant-light” charcoal also does not stay hot as long as regular briquettes, so if you use it, reserve it for quick-cooking items, like hamburgers or hot dogs.
Charcoal briquettes are compressed squares, all the same size. Another popular style of charcoal is natural or chunk charcoal. Gourmet grillers prefer natural charcoal because it’s made from all-hardwoods and contains no chemicals. It also burns longer and hotter than briquettes, so you may not need to use as much of it.
Both briquettes and natural/chunk charcoal require a starter. Charcoal lighter fluid – sprayed over the charcoal in the grill – is traditional. But it’s time to get away from that. The lighter fluid can be dangerous to use and transport, and it gives a chemical flavor to the food. There are alternatives, and one of the best is to use a charcoal chimney.
A charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle. Put your briquettes or chunk charcoal in the top, then stuff newspaper in the bottom. Place the chimney on a non-flammable surface, such as a paved driveway – it will get very hot. Light the newspaper. As the newspaper burns, it will light the charcoal. The chimney speeds up the process of getting the charcoal ready to cook with – it should be ready in 20 minutes or so, depending on how much charcoal you’re using.
When the charcoal is covered with fine ash, it’s ready for cooking. Using a protective oven mitt, carefully lift the hot chimney by the handle and pour the charcoal into your grill. If cooking over direct heat, simply spread all the charcoal evenly in the center of the grill. If you want indirect heat for items that require longer cooking, such as whole chickens, mound the charcoal to each side, leaving space in the center. Your grill may have movable baskets to hold the charcoal that make this process easy.
Place the grill grate over the charcoal, and let it heat up for several minutes before adding the food. A good, hot grate will give your food those beautiful grill marks.