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Cool Food From Hot Coals

Once you’ve invited the family and friends over for a cookout and set yourself up with a grill that suits your needs, it’s time to get cooking. But your meal will be going nowhere fast unless you understand how to build a proper fire in your grill and when those coals are ready for cooking.

Preparing a coal fire

The most effective method for preparing a charcoal fire is to mound the charcoal to one side of the firebox or to make two mounds on each side leaving the center empty. This is what is called an indirect fire. The idea is to have some part of the grill much cooler than the other so you can move food around to less intense heat.

If you are grilling food that is fatty, such as a duck — a quite tricky enterprise — mounding on two sides, leaving the center available for a drip pan, works very well. If you are barbecuing (slow roasting) you absolutely need a cool spot on the grill and you need to let your fire die down before starting, otherwise your meat burns.

Grill fire can. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Grill fire can. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Although I’m not against using lighter fuel or pre-soaked charcoal briquettes, I much prefer starting a charcoal fire with a fire can. A fire can has two compartments. The smaller of the two holds crumpled-up newspaper, which you light to ignite the charcoal sitting in the top and larger compartment.

The coals are piled into the can, which is a kind of large coffee can with a handle, and the newspaper is lit. After just a few minutes, the coals will be ready to dump into the firebox of your grill.

If you use newspapers as kindling for charcoal, make sure they are not loose because the pieces can fly about and cause fires. Roll newspapers up very tightly, like branches, before using for kindling. Or you can use lighter fluid. Liberally douse the charcoal and set it on fire at three different points. It will blaze a while, then the flames will die out. Do not add more lighter fluid when this happens; it’s not necessary because the briquettes are now lit and will burn slowly. You can leave the charcoal to burn until it is ready for grilling, in about 35 minutes, or sooner, when all of the coals are completely covered with white ash. Knock the ash off, push the coals around a bit to cover a large grilling area, leaving some room for a cool spot, and start grilling food. Do not start grilling food if any black shows or if there are any flames from the fuel.

The heat can be regulated by opening and closing vents on the bottom of the grilling well, on top of the cover, if your grill has them, and by lowering and raising the grilling grate (if your grill has adjustable grates) and by closing or opening the cover.

Preparing a wood fire

I learned to do this in Boy Scouts. At one jubilee I participated in, I had three minutes to build a fire from scratch, without newspapers or lighter fluids, using no more than three matches, to burn through a string set 14 inches above the ground. I can still do this, but you can take your time.

Starting a good fire revolves around well-seasoned wood kindling of different sizes. Kindling can be found lying around the ground everywhere. If it bends instead or snaps, don’t use it. Children, thankfully, love snooping around collecting firewood kindling. Start by building a little tepee of twigs that crack when bent and are about 1/16th of an inch in diameter.

Around this base arrange slightly larger twigs, say an ⅛ inch, then another layer of ¼-inch twigs. Light the innermost, thinnest twigs and as the fire starts to build, add one or two branches ½- to 1-inch in diameter. Do not add wood too fast because until coals form, you will have a fire that will go out. Keep adding wood as you see the need until you’ve got a roaring blaze. Now keep your eyes open for the coals forming, placing logs on top of the fire. After about an hour, you can begin grilling.

Top photo: Catalan style grilled leeks (calcots). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).