Thanks to the provenance of my last name, I come from a long, proud line of people who like to eat hunks of delicious, dripping shish kebab, accompanied by perfectly charred bell peppers and tomatoes, which must be cooked over a bed of charcoal that has been lovingly brought to the perfect heat by a beloved grandchild frantically waving half the Sunday Times with her stick-skinny arms at a conflagration that gradually dies down to a sensuously flickering glow. The final perfection is then served on a bed of buttery pilav.
Oh. My mouth’s watering. I miss you, Grandpa John!
Poor Grandpa’s spinning in his grave, though, because when the time came for me to grill, I bypassed the Hibachi and went for the easier gas barbecue variety. I shouldn't have been so intimidated by charcoal grills, though. Thanks to a few innovations, I can do things my grandpa’s way and ditch the tank.
Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible ($13 at Amazon), has some great tips that’ll have you grilling the old-fashioned way in record time.
First of all, get your hands on a chimney starter ($30 at Grilling4All.com). It’s a deceptively simple device: nothing but a metal square with holes at the bottom. Throw two crumpled-up sheets of newspaper in the bottom, pile charcoal on top, light the paper, and voila: within the same 15-20 minutes it would take to preheat your gas grill, you have perfectly glowing coals. When it’s time to grill, you just dump them out (wearing a suede grill glove, natch).
If you upgrade your coals, you’ll also upgrade your flavor. “Use natural lump charcoal rather than the briquettes,” which are full of petroleum binders and other stuff you don’t want in your food -- especially the ones soaked with lighter fluid. Some brands he recommends are Royal Oak, Nature’s Own, and Kingsford, and a quick peek at Home Depot and Lowe’s tells me it’s easy enough to find at big-box stores.
And now we get down to why we bother with the charcoal: the flavor. “Charcoal gives off a higher, dryer heat than gas,” Raichlen tells me. If you’re patient, and wait, as my grandpa did, until the coal glows orange like the sun, you’ll be rewarded with better caramelization of lean proteins when you sear your meat.
If you want to get even fancier, you can buy wood chips (hickory, oak, cherry, and apple are the most popular) and soak them in water for 30 minutes. Throw them on the coals just before you put the food on the grill, and your food will take on a deep smoked flavor you cannot get on a gas grill.
If this is all making your husband give you that puppy-dog worried look, go ahead and take over. “We think of grilling as a guy thing, but in most of Southeast Asia and places like Mexico, most grillers are women, and it’s mostly over charcoal. Any woman who wants to grill has great strength in numbers.”
If your husband still needs something to do, never fear: there’s always the cleanup!
Are you ready to conquer your fear of charcoal? Which kind of grill do you use? Tell us in the comments!