This weekend the Picky Epicurean and I had fun with grilled pizza, which we documented thoroughly and about which I will produce a writeup shortly. In the meantime, here are the basics to getting your charcoal grill up and running, should you need to get paleolithic on some meat or… uh… pizza crust.
I won’t go into any philosophical exposition on the whole charcoal vs. gas debate. Each certainly has its advantages, but for general purpose outdoor cooking, I’m a big fan of the carbonaceous action, though I won’t begrudge anyone their petrochemicals.
Without further ado: How to light your charcoal grill.
Step one: Pictured here is a chimney starter. It is your friend. You want one of these. If you do not have one, and you are cooking on a charcoal grill, go to your favorite grill supply shoppe and get one. (This one cost me under $8 at the hardware store.) In addition to the chimney starter, you will need some newspaper, some vegetable oil, and a source of fire. (Yes, and a grill and some charcoal. Sheesh!)
Chimney starters use convection (the driving force in a fireplace chimney, hence the name) to light charcoal quickly and reliably. Charcoal aficionados swear by them because of their speed and reliability, and also because they don’t require the addition of accelerants like lighter fluid, which some people believe imparts a chemical taste to food. Likewise, there is no need for any “fast light” charcoal with a chimney starter (which is shunned by experts for the same reason). There are other “fire and forget” systems for lighting charcoal, but this is likely the cheapest and most effective.
Step two: Drizzle a little bit of oil on one full sheet of newspaper. The newspaper gets crumpled up and stuffed into the bottom of the chimney starter, where it acts as the ignition source for the charcoal. The oil will act as an additional source of fuel, and will ensure that the newspaper does not burn out before the charcoal is adequately lit.
Step the third: Crumple the newspaper and stuff it loosely into the bottom of the chimney starter. Do not use more than one sheet. Do not crumple the paper too tightly. Doing either will not allow adequate airflow around the newspaper, which might cause your fire to go out before the coals are fully lit.
Having done that, set the chimney starter upright on the coal grate of your grill, and fill the top portion of the starter with briquettes or lump charcoal.
Step number four: Light the newspaper in three or four spots through the holes around the bottom section of the starter. Now, relax with an ice-cold beverage of your choice for about 15-20 minutes.
Your chimney starter will shortly start erupting smoke from the opening at the top. This is normal and healthy. It happens to all chimney starters at some point in their lives. Don’t be embarrassed. You may notice your chimney starter’s voice breaking from time to time as well.
In about a beer or a beer and a half, the coals at the top of the chimney starter will begin to ash over. You will also notice an eerie red glow emanating from deep within the coal chamber. Fear not the Balrog; this is a sign of coals well-lit.
Step 5: Grasp the chimney starter by the handle and turn out the coals onto your coal grate. There are many different ways one could configure the coals, and pictured here is a pretty standard “two-level” fire–the coals are piled up on one side, providing a hotter region, and one side of the grill is bereft of coals, to make a cooler area. This way, items can be seared over the hotter part of the grill and moved to the cooler part to cook through. If some of the coals do not fall where you want them, just use some long barbecue tongs to arrange them where they should be.
Step six and the last: Place your cooking grate in position, and using a rag or some paper towels dampened with cooking oil, wipe down the grate. This will clean crud off the grate and prevent the food you’re cooking from sticking to the grill.
That’s all there is to it! Enjoy the primitive expression of humanity’s might that is fire!
PS: As this is the first “instructional” post, as well as the first post with pictures, any feedback on layout or other such commentary would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!