The lure of cooking outdoors is irresistible. The days are longer, the evenings are warmer, and that sweet smoky aroma wafting from the grill makes us feel like all is right with the world. But suddenly something interrupts this reverie—the steak is in flames, the gas has run out, the vegetables have fallen into the fire. If you're like most of us who encounter these grilling frustrations all too often, it's time to take control of your charcoal or gas fire by learning a few essential tips and techniques.
Tips for charcoal grillers
A chimney starter is a charcoal griller's best friend; use a large one
By far the easiest and quickest way to start a charcoal fire in a kettle grill is to use an aluminum chimney starter, which are usually available in hardware stores for about $15.
Here's how to use it: Load the top of the canister with charcoal and stuff newspaper in the cavity below. Remove the grate and set the starter in the grill. Light the paper with a match; convection sucks the flame up the canister and lights the coals. When the coals are glowing and covered in ash, in 20 to 30 minutes, they're ready to be turned out into the grill. Put the grate back on, giving it time to get hot before you start to grill.
Tip: If you're grilling more than just a few steaks or if you need the coals hot for longer than a half hour or so, you'll need more coals than what will fit in the chimney starter. In this case, make a bed of unlit coals before lighting the starter. Dump the lit coals onto the unlit pile, which will take off and be ready a little bit later. Watch out for the handles on chimney starters—the wooden ones get very hot (use a dry towel or oven mitt) and the plastic ones tend to melt if positioned over lit coals.
Natural hardwood charcoal is the best fuel for charcoal fires
It burns cleaner, hotter, and longer than briquettes. Natural hardwood charcoal is now available in many grocery stores and by mail order (People's Woods in Rhode Island is one source.)
Tip: If briquettes are your only option, choose those labeled "hardwood" briquettes, which contain a bit more real wood than those composed mostly of fillers. Steer away from self-lighting briquettes, which are saturated with petroleum.
Flare-up? Just move the chops to a cooler area until the flames die down.
Build a two-level fire
Since charcoal fires burn very hot, you should give yourself the option of moving food to a cooler area with no coals. When you empty your chimney starter, dump the hot coals on one side of the grill. This will be your hot side when the grill grate goes on, since the grate will only be a few inches from the coals. The other side of the grate, farther from the heat, will provide you with a cooler area. Move food to the cooler if there are flare-ups or if the food is cooking too quickly.