Everything You Need to Know About Charcoal

Let’s ask the question: What’s the best form of charcoal? Wood embers? Hardwood lump charcoal? Charcoal briquets?

Let’s answer the question: For most cooking, it is charcoal briquets. And please, all you lump charcoal devotees, read on before you start cursing me in the comments.

Let’s look at the facts: A lot of hot shot cooks swear by one fuel or another, but I’m here to tell you, it is much ado about little. The quality of the raw food is far more important. The seasonings are far more important. And without a doubt, getting meat off at the right internal temp is far far more important (see my meat temperature guide). You can spend a lot on expensive charcoal. Save your money and get a good thermometer (see my buying guide to thermometers).

finalproductsThe secret to successful cooking, indoor or outdoors, is controlling variables, the most important of which is heat. Charcoal from a major national brand like Kingsford is very consistent from batch to batch in heat output and duration. As you gain experience you will learn just how hot your cooker will get with a measured amount of charcoal and just how much more to add when they burn low. But other fuels have their strengths at weaknesses. Let’s look at them.

About hardwood

In the beginning barbecue cooks dug a trench in the ground, threw in dry twigs, threw logs on top, and then lit the twigs. They quickly learned the temperature was easier to regulate and the flavor better if the logs burned down to coals before the meat was placed above.

Do not try to cook with logs. It is very hard to control heat with logs. Logs can produce meat that is too smoky, pungent, bitter, and reminiscent of an ashtray. If you want to cook with wood, burn it down to glowing embers first. Clear a bare patch of dirt, sand, or concrete, set a bunch of well-dried logs on fire, let them burn down to coals so there is no bare wood or bark showing, and then shovel them into a grill. That’s how purists such as Cooper’s in Llano, TX, do it as follows:

Starting charcoal fires

The only way to start a charcoal fire is with a chimney. Never use charcoal that says self-igniting because it has an accelerant in it. I can taste it in the meat. Never use charcoal fluid for the same reason. But chimneys work great. They allow you to measure the correct amount of coal, get it lit in a hurry, and they don’t taint the meat.

Here’s how they work: First you stuff newspaper or a ice cube sized block of paraffin into the bottom compartment, pour charcoal into the top compartment, then you light the paper or paraffin, and in about 20 minutes the coals are white and ready. No chemical aftertaste, no solvent smell in the air, and it’s a lot cheaper and safer than using lighter fluid. The Weber brand of chimney is my favorite and lasts longer than the cheaper model shown above.

If you use newspaper, don’t stuff too many in there or you will choke off the air flow. I use three sheets exactly (that’s 6 pages), and I try to leave a small hole in the center so air can flow up. In other words, make a donut in the bottom of the chimney. Some folks splash a little vegetable oil on the paper but I never need to.

Charcoal briquets should be coated with white ash before you start cooking. The reason is not for flavor, it is because when coals are white they are at max heat. If you start cooking sooner they will get hotter as they sit. The key to good cooking is temperature control, and if the coals are not white you are not managing the fire, it is managing you.

OK, there is one more way to light charcoal. Some competition teams take a propane torch, mound up the coals, and letter rip. White coals in a flash.

Adding coals

For long cooks you will need to add more charcoal. It is best to light the charcoal first and add white coals. Cold coals added to the fire will cool the oven. Some sensitive tasters say they can taste the additives when unlit briquets were added. Yet another reason to use lump charcoal.

Stopping charcoal fires

You can extinguish a charcoal fire by dousing it with water, but beware of the steam that generates and the hot water that pours out of the bottom of your grill. If you have a ceramic grill, never use water to douse the fire or it might crack. I prefer to suffocate the fire by closing all vents. The coals can then be shaken to sluff off the ash, and used again.

Never cook with charcoal or gas grills indoors. They produce carbon monoxide and that can kill you.

Mesquite or hickory charcoal?

Because charcoal is mostly pure carbon plus additives, the wood from which it is made will make little noticeable difference in flavor or burning temperature. To get wood flavor, you need to add wood to the fire. Read my article The Zen of Wood for how this is done.

The article source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-goldwyn/charcoal_b_858606.html