Welcome to July – mid-summer, sun-drenched days, and ripening fruits. Veggies you’ll soon want to toss on the barbecue – with, or without meat. Open flame cooking makes all foods taste better, even some sweet fruits. Being kissed with real smoke vs. synthetic smoke flavoring sends a meal to another level of deliciousness. But there are flames that create smoke, and then their flames mingled with smoke. What’s your open flame grilling method?
For speed and action, that work night steak or fillet whipped up in haste kind of meal, you can’t beat the almost instant satisfaction of a gas grill. Compared to the flavor of the same foods cooked on the stove in your kitchen, it’s a taste sensation to be sure. As an added bonus there’s no pots or pans to scrub.
Gas grilling is a real time saver. You turn a knob, let the rack heat for a few minutes, and you’re ready to roll, but… The smokiness is all from fat and sugars dripping into the gas flames, or an oil brushing that gives a slab of eggplant or zucchini a great browned finish. You might call this self-smoked and iron-browned.
It’s really good, but more like dry frying on a perforated surface than traditional open flame grilling methods. Smoke caused by dripping fat and sugars is a pale facsimile of the real thing.
You could have better with a little more time on hand.
Every culture has its rendition of barbecue that harks back to the days when all cooked foods were only accomplished over wood fires. Gas is convenient, but it’s no substitute for wood-fired flavor. And here’s why:
“Barbecue at its most basic is the alchemy of wood, smoke, and meat, and there is no doubt the fuel used can dramatically affect the flavor of your final offering. Hardwood cells contain lignin, which is the main reason smoked food tastes so good. When heated, this lignin breaks down, producing new volatile chemicals that are responsible for the sweet and aromatic flavor that the smoke imparts…” — Richard H Turner, Foodism, Issue 11
Now you understand why corn on the cob roasted in the husk over a wood fire makes gas grilled corn on the cob taste like a cheap knock-off.
But most people don’t want to wait several hours for a bonfire to turn into coals one can grill over. Certainly many aren’t even allowed the luxury of a place to build a wood fire. That’s impossible on a high rise balcony and inside many cities and developments. But you need not go without until your next camping trip in the wilds.
Richard fondly referred to as the King of Flame, goes on to explain that for the best tasting barbecue grilling at home you need lump-wood charcoal.
TYPES OF CHARCOAL
Like anything else you go to buy today, there will be a range of options on the shelf in the grilling supplies aisle. You’ll have prices from high to low, a variety of brands, and instant-light vs. lit by other means choices to pick from. Do you always opt for the cheapest brand that only needs a single match to get the fire going? Big mistake.
Until recently, I had no idea that there was a difference between ‘charcoal briquettes’ and ‘wood charcoal’. The higher the price, the better quality the charcoal. The better you’ll feel about eating the finished product too!
Cheap charcoal briquettes are the crumbs glued together, infused with chemicals, and then coated in soft COAL and limestone. The limestone turns white when your coals are ready, and the coal keeps them burning longer, but it doesn’t disappear. It and those chemicals can’t all be gone, because the flavor of your grilling is totally different than when you use ‘hardwood charcoal’, or ‘lump charcoal’.
Is another couple dollars a bag worth not cooking on a coal and chemical fire? I’d say so. Better food that’s safer to eat is the reason that you have a garden. Cheap charcoal ruins everything, including making that sweet, aromatic wood-fired flavor you’re after impossible. Imagine the toxicity in the smoke from that chemical infused, coal-coated cheap stuff. Not what you want on the patio. Certainly not a healthy thing to stand over as the chef!
HARDWOOD CHARCOAL GRILLING
Here again, you’ll find there are options. Some brands give you a mix of hardwood lumps, while others let you choose a wood that will complement the foods you’re going to grill. There’s mesquite, oak, hickory, cherry, apple, and sometimes exotic woods from other parts of the world. The word NATURAL will probably be prominent on the labeling. It’s not a sales gimmick. It’s chemical and coal-free.
Named wood charcoals will cost more than a hardwood mix. A factor that may not matter much as you head into connoisseur grill master territory.
The burn is different too. With briquettes, you have to wait a while for them to reach the proper coal stage. With lump charcoal, you can have a hot bed of coals ready for grilling in 5-10 minutes, but unless you’re cooking something fast, you’ll need to feed your fire. Remember, it’s partially-burned natural wood. That makes its life as high-heat coals shorter than briquettes. Lump charcoal can drop from high temperature cooking to medium hot in 30 minutes or less. However, it also creates less ash and burns cleaner.
LIGHT IT RIGHT
How you start the fire will also affect food’s flavor. Don’t use charcoal starter fluid. Nothing like adding petroleum to your pricey natural hardwood charcoal! Electric charcoal starters work great to get a chemical-free set of coals going. Too far from an electrical outlet? Look for a battery-powered model, but the chimney charcoal starter powered by a twist of paper is even better. Both are great for getting the grill going anywhere.
Now you know how to have the best tasting grilled meats, seafood, and garden vegetables ever. Try some roasted garden salsa – everything in it is grilled, and it’s awesome.
Sources & More Info:
- King of Fire (page 28)
- Charcoal Fuel Types (Weber Co.)
- Lighting Charcoal the Right Way