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The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

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Losing My Charcoal Phobia

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As an almost life long gas grill user, it was rather shocking to me that I bought a charcoal fueled grill this past year. I’m going to talk about what cured me of my charcoal grill phobia, and what my first 6 months of using charcoal in my smoker have been like. You will not see me bashing gas grills either. My gas grill is still my “Go To” Grill for many types of cooks. Having flexibility and options is what it’s all about.

Until I was in High School, my parents owned only charcoal grills. We would cook on it on weekends and bring it with us on vacations. I used to “help” my father with the grilling chores. In retrospect that help probably helped contribute to him losing his hair: “Dad, how come it didn’t light?” or “Dad, when is this thing going to be ready so we can eat?” Perhaps my use of a gas grill all these years explains why I still have most of my hair 20 years after my father lost most of his. To this day I still remember the awful smell of the lighter fluid being squirted on the coals. We got out first gas grill when I was 16. While I was allowed to use the charcoal grill on my own at this age, I never wanted to. The gas grill was a different story. Here was something that was easy and predictable. I started taking over some of the family grilling duties when we got our gas grill.

With a busy weekday schedule and getting home around 7:30 PM, the gas grill was the definite way to go for me. Plus I was afraid of the unpredictability of charcoal: will it REALLY light this time and when will it be ready? With the gas grill you push some buttons to light it, set some dials to the desired temperatures and in 15 minutes you are ready to go. So what got me to jump into the charcoal camp?

I’ve told this story in another blog entry: it was the desire to get a smoker (see
WHY A SMOKER?) . I’d started getting serious about my grilling, I’d joined the BARBECUE BIBLE DISCUSSION FORUMS where the charcoal grillers do outnumber the gassers & I’d attended a smoking class. We were told at the smoking class that the only way to do this type of cooking was on a dedicated charcoal fueled smoker. BTW before I move on: Let me just say everyone is welcome at the Barbecue Bible forums., gassers and charcoal grillers alike. The day of the smoking class my checkbook was out and I changed my mind at the last minute. One reason was the long times required and the other was fear of charcoal.

My charcoal phobia had deep-seated childhood roots. In the Barbecue Bible forums and on Steven Raichlen’s BBQU TV show they talked about this wonder device called a Charcoal Chimney. It is a metal cylinder about a foot high with a metal grill about 3” up from the bottom that hold the charcoal up in the air. Before filling the charcoal chimney with coals, you turn it upside down and insert 2 sheets of newspaper to serve as “kindling” You turn the cylinder right side up and fill the main portion with charcoal. There are holes in the sides near the bottom of the cylinder allowing you to light the newspaper. You light the newspaper in the bottom and fifteen minutes later you have nice hot coals. It really is as simple as that.

Well nothing is ever that simple right? Wrong, this pretty much is just that simple. The only two times the I had trouble was when I didn’t use enough newspaper or I didn’t use enough charcoal. I now know that the charcoal has to completely cover the bottom of the chimney plus on row higher. I use about 25-30 charcoal briquettes to fire up my CharGriller and these do just cover the bottom plus one level higher. The thing is like clock work: light it and 15 minutes later your coals are ready to go. The charcoal chimney takes all of the drudgery out of lighting charcoals. If you need a larger quantity of lit coals, buy more chimneys.

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My second concern was controlling the temperatures. With a gas grill you have a knob you turn to set the desired temperature. With a charcoal grill you are dealing with one or more vents to let in more or less combustion air. My experience has been with the right grill it is a bit tricky at first, but with a few cooks under your belt you get the hang of it. The CharGriller is definitely the right grill. It seems to be tuned to hit the magic 225 (110 C) degree temperature used in smoking. The technique used with the smoker is to place 25-30 lit coals at one end of a larger basket filled with unlit coals. The lit coals ignite the adjacent unlit coals, and a long slow time release type burn is created. This is called the Minion method after it’s inventor, a competition cook named Jim Minion. I have been using this method with Kingsford briquettes because they are said to be very predictable. This is due to the consistent size and composition of the briquettes. Real charcoal or lump charcoal has some advantages, but it is trickier to manage. I’m experimenting with lump charcoal and I haven’t decided whether I like it or not. A blog topic for another day perhaps.

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What I have found is you need a few cooks under your belt. Then you can anticipate when to open and close the vents to hit your mark or make corrections. You need to react, not over react. One advantage of a gas grill is if your temperatures are too, open the lid to let out some heat and turn the burners to a lower setting. with a charcoal grill using the Minion method it is easier to raise temperatures than lower them. That is because if you get more coals ignited than you need, they are going to burn hotter than the right amount would have. Yes you can open the lid and let some heat out. You can also prop the lid open to help lower the temps, but this is wasteful. On a long cook this may mean more “in-flight refueling on you part.

So the trick is to close the vents at the right time to coast up to the desired temperature. Err on the side of caution: if you settle in too low, crack open the vents a little and try again. Keeping a cooking log helps with this task (see previous
KEEPING A COOKING LOG). One of the things I record is the vent position. In the remarks column I record any unusual Temperature Events. A temperature Event is my PC way of describing temps that were too high or too low, usually due to human error. Leaving the lid open too long to mop or add food, letting the temps get too high are two examples. I record what triggered the problem and what it took to correct it. I make mistakes, but I pride myself on not repeating my mistakes. There are plenty of new ones for me to make. If you play it safe and sneak up to the right temperatures from the low side, you should do all right. Raising the temperature is definitely easier than lowering it, plus you don’t waste fuel in the process. Don’t use real expensive cuts of meat for your first few cooks so you can relax a bit. You’ll be surprised how quickly you learn the nuances of the grill.

So am I ready to throw out my gas grill? No way!! Weeknights during the Summer, the gas grill is my Go To Grill. Lighting the charcoal grill is now almost as easy and takes around the same amount of time, but I don’t have time during the week for the extra cleanup required using the charcoal grill. For indirect cooks NOT involving smoke, the gas grill is my weapon of choice. I also like the infra-red rotisserie burner for roasts on the gas grill. Setting a couple dials is still easier than managing vents. So what I’m saying is: DON’T throw out your Gas grill, but DO Consider a charcoal grill. You love the flexibility and I think I have the best of both worlds this way.


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