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Cooking with Fire 101

Not all fires are created equal. When it comes to grilling, it is often the part of the experience that gets the least amount of attention, unless the fire department arrives.  Many purists (and I am one of them) believe that there are several grilling methods, all of which can deliver a competition-grade burger.

Every discussion of fire should include a quick chat regarding safety. Yes, the following things may seem obvious, but every year someone’s house burns because their grill set their wooden deck on fire. And, but the proverbial “kid is burned after falling on hot grill” story is regularly repeated in the news. So for your own good and the good of your grilling guests, make sure your grill is sturdy and set up on a non-flammable surface away from where kids and animals may play. Clear the area around the grill of flammable objects, such as dry vegetation and tripping hazards. Finally, it is natural for people to congregate around a grill so set up the condiment/buffet table and the beverages a good distance away to lessen the likelihood of someone being accidentally pushed onto the grill. This article has more safety tips later.

Keep in mind that weather affects starting a fire, cooking times, and temperature. On windy and cold days, you will have to cook food longer because the wind and cold sweep swept away from the surface of the grill. Likewise, rain and snow (yes, we can grill then too) dampen charcoal and cause it to take longer to light or reach high temperature.


Charcoal Briquettes 

One of the most popular grilling fuels is charcoal — a byproduct of manufacturing rubbing alcohol. While he didn’t invent them, Henry Ford is responsible for popularizing the briquette in the 1920s. Ford’s automobile factories produced huge amounts of sawdust, which Ford sought to capitalize on by manufacturing briquettes. A distant relative, E. G. Kingsford, eventually took over the briquette business. Today when you buy your briquettes, they are probably labeled Kingsford.

Use enough briquettes to make a 2-inch layer under the cooking area. Add 2-3 inches more to the area you need. If you are using charcoal lighter fluid, form a single pile with the coals and wet them with lighter fluid. Use just enough fluid to wet all the coals, but do not drench them. Despite what the instructions on the lighter fluid say, wait at least one full minute before putting on the cooking grate and lighting the pile in several places. The coals flame dramatically for few minutes before dying down to a smolder. In about 20 minutes, the coals should be uniformly covered in a light grey ash. While they are ready for cooking at this point, wait another 10-15 minutes longer to make sure that all traces of the starter fluid have burned off.

Also available is “instant light” charcoal, basically just regular charcoal pre-soaked in lighter fluid.  I guess this stuff works OK, but I am always worried about dependability. For instance, if these instant charcoal briquettes dry out, you will have a difficult time lighting it.

Increasingly popular is lighting coals using a “Chimney Starter”.  With this method, you fill a tall can with the briquettes and stuff newspapers into the bottom of the can through small openings. The heat from the smoldering paper ignites the briquettes. This is a good system when you suddenly find you are out of fluid and for those who want to avoid lighter fluid. When packing the newspaper into the bottom of the can, don’t pack it so tight that the fire can’t breathe, otherwise you could be delaying dinner for a half hour.

Once the coals are lit, spread them out and brush any debris off of the grate. I like to leave the grate over the coals as they are lighting because this both cleans and sterilizes it.  In any event, be sure to heat the grate over the coals before cooking.


Lump Charcoal

Lump charcoal is pure charred hardwood. It burns hotter and faster than briquettes and leaves very little ash. It is ideal for using in smokers, and you can use it for grilling. I prefer using hardwood chunks in that case because it costs less and provides a woodsy flavor.


Natural Wood Chunks

Available at specialty grill shops, natural hardwood is the best way to give your food added flavor. It’s a little harder to light and you need to be more vigilant while cooking because some woods burn hotter or smoke more than others. Mesquite in particular burns very hot while the old favorite hickory imparts a strong smoky flavor. You can use just about any wood from a nut or fruit tree. I have a huge pile of pecan wood from my neighbor’s fallen tree. This wood gives great flavor. However, avoid coniferous or any soft woods because they impart an acrid bitter taste onto your prized steak.


Gas Grills

Many people like gas grills for their ease of use and cleanliness. With just the turn of a knob and the press of a button you have a hot grill ready in minutes. Temperature control is just as easy ― up, down even side to side instantly adjust the heat. In a gas grill, flames heat lava rocks which simulate hot coals. To get a “true” grilled flavor, the lava rocks need to be “seasoned” buy having fat from the meat drip onto them and burn off. A grill is usually properly seasoned after just a few cookouts. Cooking something with a higher fat content, such as burgers, can speed up the process.

Nonetheless, gas grills cannot offer the option of adding flavor by cooking with various hardwoods. You can remedy this by using hardwood chips soaked in water and then placed in a “smoker box”.  A smoker box is a metal box about the size of a bar of soap with holes in the top. Fill the box with wet wood chips and place it in a hot area on the grate. The wood chips smolder and flavor the food by filling the grilling chamber with smoke. You don’t really need a fancy box, putting wet wood chips into a crumpled piece of foil works just as well.

With a gas grill, you need to be very cognizant of your fuel level. Nothing will put the blahs on a good cookout more than running out of gas just as the steaks are put on. There are pressure gauges, but they can be a bit costly. Also, there are inexpensive magnetic sensors that sense the temperature difference on the gas container. Many people simply keep a spare gas bottle that they can easily switch out. A neighbor of mine actually hired a plumber to tap into the natural gas supply for his house and install a gas grill hookup at his patio.  He simply hooked his grill up to that and never worried about it again!  One note of caution, never store a gas bottle inside, not even in a garage. A slow leak can fill the room with explosive gas that a variety of things can easily ignite.



A fun way to cook, I would reserve this method for easy, simple foods. Many campsites and parks have fire rings equipped with grilling grates of some sort. Alternatively, folding grate stands are inexpensive and available at outdoor recreation stores. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when grilling over a campfire is to mind the type of wood used. Often campfires are built using whatever wood you can scrounge up, which may include coniferous or softwoods (see discussion above). Finally, campfires have very uneven heat and because there is no cover to choke-off flare ups, the cook needs to always be on the ready.

In my next article I will write about how to use different techniques and tem

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