Get the Best from Your Charcoal BBQ
Everyone will always tell you charcoal is the best for outdoor cooking, over hot coals, lump wood or briquettes, today with modern gas barbecues it's not necessarily the case, but we have to admit that charcoal does give off a great atmosphere, with an odd spit, crackle a flare, you know when a charcoal BBQ is on the burn.
Now the best style by far is the "Kettle" proven since the birth of the charcoal grill by Weber the kettle is simply two bowls one upside down over the other, but the capabilities are endless, this design is simply the only one in our opinion to go with, the lid mirrors the shape of the fire bowl to create the perfect heat distribution for cooking almost any meal from starter to desert.
Today the Kettle BBQ is the most popular in the UK; available in a range of sizes, perfect for any garden and when buying a Weber you can even choose your colour! Accessories are also available in almost as many variations as with gas, from rotisseries to frying pans, so you can do the works on a charcoal grill.
Like gas there are two main ways to cook on charcoal, direct and indirect, direct cooking is where your coals are placed equally over the entire area of the fire bowl, this method is ideal for fast cook food like the trusty burgers etc. Indirect is where the coals are set to each side and the food is placed over the centre so not directly over the coals, this is a more common method of cooking large cuts of meat, low and slow for the perfect pulled pork and even ideal for baking. In line with these direct and indirect cooking you can use a variety of fuels, from lump wood to briquettes.
When burning fuel for barbecuing there are two main types, Lump wood and briquettes, both offer a great source of heat and do the job well, but there are variations between the two that are more suited to your particular requirements:
Lump Wood: Non uniform sized pieces of hardwood charcoal, they are made from wood and nothing more. Lump charcoal will burn at a higher temperature than briquettes, this type of charcoal is often best for cooking steaks, chops and burgers. When buying lump charcoal take the time to look at what is in it, some cheaper options will be full of additives and could also be softwood, this will not get hot enough and additives are never good for cooking with! Try to stick with restaurant grade where possible.
Briquettes: A completely uniform shape and size, often pillow shaped. Briquettes are produced from left over product when producing lump charcoal; the pieces are ground into a consistent size, then using wheat, potato or corn starch as a binding agent they are produced into the same uniform size. Briquettes burn at a lower temperature but last longer than lump-wood, and so are ideal for low and slow cooking, some brands also have wood chips pressed in making them ideal for smoking meats.
When buying any form of charcoal, try to avoid cheap, these will often substitute the use of natural ingredients for chemicals, never a good thing when cooking. When lighting your BBQ use a Chimney Starter rather than liquid fire lighters, most BBQ fire lighters are small blocks that are completely odourless, however if you use a chimney starter you can stick to newspaper and the coals will be ready with no help in under 10 minutes. Always make sure the coals are burning white before placing food on to cook.
Many people are convinced that the authentic BBQ flavour actually comes from the charcoal, this is a myth, charcoal is used in water filters, particle masks and a load of other areas, if it gave off even the slightest taste or smell as a natural product it wouldn't be suitable for anything other than burning on the BBQ. The flavour actually comes from the food itself, the juices and fats from the cooking food drip down onto the white-hot coals and are vaporized into a smoke packed full of concentrated flavour, with the lid on the BBQ this smoke infuses with the food to give the ultimate authentic barbecued flavour we all know and love.
The modern charcoal barbecue offers two standard cooking surfaces and one professional option, the standard entry kettle will have nickel plated cooking grills and depending on what model grill some will be single plated and some triple for extended life and performance over higher temperatures. Moving up to the higher end the cooking grills will be heavy gauge Stainless steel, perfect for long life, better heat retention and ease of maintenance. Upgrades are also available to convert all or part of your cooking grills into cast-iron, this offers the ultimate cooking surface for searing meats like steak for a true restaurant grill marked dish, some manufacturers like Napoleon offer all-cast-iron cooking surfaces on their charcoal barbecues, these surfaces do require careful care and maintenance and must be kept oiled at all times.
For more information on flavouring food using wooden planks or chips why not take a look at the Flavouring Food with Wood article.