Getting Better All The Time - Pt. 2
05/16/14 - 13:31 Filed in: Grilling | Lessons Learned
This blog started out life when I noticed I was suddenly having a string of successes of late. Some of these have come despite some technical issues I was working through. I don’t consider myself a natural cook or a well trained cook. Some folks seem to just come at this naturally and can throw things together and get great results. Others are formally trained. I am able to take someone else's great recipe and by following the directions get great results. I recently realized I have been able to work around some issues that might have resulted in a crash and burn for me in prior years. I decided to try to document some of the things that I have picked up along the way. This might help some other folks just starting out or who are having issues. As I started organizing my thoughts, this entry spiraled out of control. What I envisioned as a single part entry, it now looks like it will be 4 parts. The first entry, PART 1, is on general topics related to getting started and some things that will help you along the way. This entry, PART 2 will cover items specific to grilling. I owned gas grills for years before I bought my lump charcoal-powered BGE nearly two years ago and I will discuss items related to both. PART 3 will cover smoking and PART 4 will cover Baking, specifically as it relates to doing it on the Big Green Egg. The first 3 parts will cover both general/universal topics and grill specific topics. So even if you don’t own a Big Green Egg or other kamado style grill, the first three parts will have useful information.
FIND OUT MORE:
As I mentioned above, I have written one or more times in my blog on many of the topics below. At the bottom of these 4 blog entries, I will included links to these blogs, organized roughly in the order I have discussed them here. The reason I am doing it this way is some of these other blog entries touch on several of the topics referred to in this blog. Rather than have the same entry appear multiple time in the main body of this blog, it will appear once below. So if any of these topics interest you and you might be interested in reading more about them, scroll down to the links below.
GRILLS & GRILLING - General:
What is Grilling: I am defining grilling here as cooking at temperatures of 325 degrees or more. This can be Direct Grilling, where the food is located directly above the fire, or Indirect where the food is located away from the fire. Indirect grilling is almost like using your grill as an out door oven.
What Type of Grill Should I Own: My personal reaction would be to say I think the Big Green Egg is the finest outdoor cooking tool I have ever used. No contest. You can find Blog Entries here on this site where I described my learning curve and my discoveries about the BGE. But everyone is different and has different needs. I am not going to take back one thing I just said. But that is my opinion and while I think I have made a good case for the Egg here over the last nearly two years, others think differently. What I am going to say is do some research. Go to sites where people make cases for the type of grill they use. Just keep in mind what these folks biases are. Me, I have come to love my Big Green Egg and other kamado style grills share the same virtues. But read the comparison where folks compare different types of grills to see what the plusses and minuses are. Me, I tend to give more weight to positive comments about an item and give less weight to comments where they are dumping on another product they may or may not have actually used. A great way to evaluate a grill is if you know someone who owns one, ask them to cook you some food. This is one of the reasons for the Eggfests run by Big Green Egg dealers and distributors, you get a bunch of dedicated Eggheads together who cook food on the Egg for others to sample. Just be sure the person cooking for you actually knows what they are doing, because you can use any grill to make bad food.
Read the Manual-Preferably Before You Use the Grill: I know this sounds boring when you have a bright shiny new grill out there ready to use. But there could be some valuable time saving or in some cases life saving tips. The proper startup method for a gas grill may mark the difference between a non-eventful cook and you being blown into the neighbors yard. Or it may tell you the proper amount of coals to light for a given temperature in a charcoal grill. the manual may tell you the damper settings to use for your desired temperature. For kamado grills it will tell you about flashbacks and how to burp the grill lid to avoid them. No matter how bad the manual, there is usually some good advice in there somewhere. If you know yourself well enough to say you are going to want to fire it up the second you get the grill home, there is an alternative. The manuals for many grills are available online in downloadable PDF form on the manufacturers web site. You can read them BEFORE you BUY the grill. This may also help you make the final decision whether this is THE grill for you.
Use Online Resources: There is a wealth of information online to help you buy or use a grill. There are often reviews of various grills online. These may be in the form of articles or videos and can help you make your decision. There may also be promotional videos from the manufacturer about their grill. There may also be You-Tube videos put up by regular folks who are users of the grill. In the case of my Big Green Egg there are hundreds if not thousands of videos. Just keep an open mind and keep the source of the info in mind. There are some videos on YouTube by an online seller of grills, who used to sell Big Greens Eggs, but lost that right. They now have videos for other kamado grills they sell that tend to put the BGE in the least favorable light. While the info they present may be accurate, it may also be self-serving. Videos by the manufacturer are certainly going to be all positive, but knowing this you can see the features the manufacturer deems important and see if they are also important to you.
User videos can be a real mixed bag. Some are quite good and some are put up by totally clueless people. You will need to decide whether these people have useful opinions. Retail sites selling the grills will often have user/buyer comments. These can vary between highly useful and totally useless and stupid. You can probably ignore (or not give much weight to) comments from people that have had the grill for a week or two. If they DON’T like the grill after a few uses, that would be the only surprise. My brother was looking at a popular grill that shall remain nameless. But it was a popular model by a well known company. It turns out the great price was because they used a cheap grade of stainless steel. This lesser grade stainless steel would start rusting almost from the moment you got it. The new owner reviews where the grill was 1-2 weeks old were all positive. The reviews from a month onward all started mentioning rust issues. One professional reviewer, writing for an outdoor magazine, said his review model was already starting to rust when it came out of the box. You will also need to filter out reviews I will summarize as: “When I used this grill in a manner totally different than the manufacturer designed it for, it failed.” Gee there’s a surprise! If there are one or two bad comments about something, it is probably not a typical problem. Sure it is a problem for the people that had it, but not necessarily indicative of the product’s performance for most people. On the other hand, if most of the long term owners mention something it is probably a valid issue.
Learn How Your Grill Performs in All Types of Weather: If you plan to use your grill to make the Thanksgiving Turkey or Christmas roast for the first time this year do some practice runs. Do some test cooks to see how you grill performs in similar types of weather. You won’t want to find out on the day of the big event that either you or your grill aren’t up to the task of cooking in this type of weather. More Info
Learn to Use the Right Cooking Method: Thinner foods, less than say an inch (2.5 cm) thick, are best suited to high heat direct grilling. The outside will be nicely seared and the inside is easily cooked to your desired level of doneness. Thicker food are more suited to indirect cooking often at a lower temperature. If you put a piece of meat thicker than 1” (2.5 cm) directly over the flame, the outside will likely end up charred and overcooked before the inside of the meat is cooked through.
Hybrid Method - Direct / Indirect: Larger pieces of meat can not be cooked directly to the desired doneness. When the inside depths of the meat are medium rare, the outside may be petrified. The solution to this is to give large pieces of meat a quick, high temperature, direct searing for a few minutes on each side. Then the meat is moved off the direct flame and finished indirectly, often at a lower temperature. When using this method for cuts like thick Cowboy steaks, filet mignon, tri-tip etc. I will insert a remote read temperature probe into the meat when I move the meat over to the indirect area of the grill. There is also a method called Reverse Sear where you start off indirectly and finish off with a quick high temperature sear. I am not a fan of this method because it involves a bit of guesswork. When searing first and finishing indirectly, the meat has received it’s sear initially and you pull it off the grill when your thermometer says it is done. With the sear at the end you have to guess how much ahead of time to pull the meat. If you guess wrong you are faced with either doing a full sear at the expense of an overcooked piece of meat, or a lighter than desirable sear to avoid overcooking the meat.
It Pays to Have Your Grill Stabilized to Temperature Before Starting: Resist the temptation to put food on the grill before it has been stabilized at your cooking temperature. The extra 5 or 10 minutes you give it will make for a smoother cook. First off if the grill hasn’t quite reached the desired temp this will affect your cooking time and how well the food cooks. The cooking time the recipe gave you, which is an estimate on the best of days is now totally invalid. Not knowing how long your food will really take can impact things like side dishes which you are trying to have finish up together with the main course. Also if you put a large massive item like a roast on the grill before the grill is stabilized it will take far longer for the grill to recover. A stabilized grill tends to return to its original temperature after the food is added and the lid is closed. If the grill was not stabilized and was merely passing by the desired temperature when you looked is a different animal. It may have been rising or falling to some other temperature and you just looked when it happened to be where you wanted. As mentioned it will try to return to what ever temperature it was going to end up at before you interrupted it to add your food.
Know Whether the Lid Should be up or Down: While there are exceptions, the general rule of thumb is smaller pieces of meat are cooked at higher temperatures (often directly) with the lid up. Larger pieces of meat are cooked with the lid closed (often indirectly or direct/indirect) at lower temperatures. Your recipe will usually tell you whether the lid should remain up or down. Kamado style grills like the Big Green Egg are an exception to this rule of thumb. Generally the lid is kept closed for everything but wok cooks or certain processes in a Dutch oven. See the additional remarks below.
If the Lid is Supposed to Stay Down Keep it Down: Every time you raise the lid you are releasing hot air and moisture and letting in cold dry air. Gas grills already have vents on them as a safety feature to avoid the possible buildup of gas inside the cooking chamber. So even with the lid closed you are losing moisture. Why loose more? Charcoal grills are usually a bit better sealed, but not as good as the Kamado style cooker. Once again why loose moisture? You may have used a water pan to add moisture to the cooking chamber, so don’t throw it away unnecessarily. For all types of grills opening the lid in the cold weather will lower the temperature inside the grill. Each grill type will recover a bit differently. Also you may be able to lift the lid a small amount to take a quick peek. Keeping the lid closed also can help reduce flareups significantly. This is particularly true on the Big Green Egg which is such a tightly sealed environment. If you are doing a high temperature direct cook and raise the lid, you will often see flare ups. The second you close the lid, the flareups go away.
Always Cook to Temperature NOT Time: The final doneness temperature of your food is what matters. The time just gives you an approximate time you can expect to achieve this temperature. Variables like weather, grill temperature, the specific piece of meat and its fat content can all affect cooking time. As mentioned in Part 1 of this Blog Entry, buy a good instant read thermometer and check your food with it. Also if you meat is thick enough, use the food probe of a remote read thermometer to help you keep track of the progress. Just be sure of the temperature ratings of your food probes. A high grill temperature or a flareup right below the probe wire can quickly burn out a probe.
Do NOT use the Lid Thermometer EVER: You are cooking your food at the grate level. The lid or dome thermometers are are 8 to 12” (20-30 cm) above this height and their readings can have little to no relationship to the temps at the grate level. Every grill is different, every cook is different due to different weather conditions. The ONLY way to assure accurate and repeatable results is to measure the temperature at the place in the grill where you are going to cook the food - at the Grate Level. This is true even on the Big Green Egg as I found out this past Winter. More Info
Give it a Rest: Most recipes these days call for a rest time, 5 to 10 minutes for small thin items and 15-30 minutes for larger items like roasts. Two things happen while the meat is resting. There is carryover cooking going on where the meat continues to cook, rising another 5 to 10 degrees while it is resting. Recipes that include a rest time have taken this time into account when they suggest a target temperature for doneness. The food is pulled at a lower temperature, knowing it will rise to the desired temperature while resting. failing to rest the meat may end up in your eating undercooked meat. Secondly and just as important is some of the meats natural juices, which have been drawn up near the surface of the meat while it cooked, are allowed to be drawn back into the interior of the meat. This allows the meat to be moist and juicy when you slice into it. If you were to slice into the meat fresh off the grill, these juices would be sitting near the surface and would spill out onto the cutting board. After the rest these juices are re-absorbed into the meat.
Do NOT use BBQ Forks: Anything you poke into the meat while it is grilling, is going to allow these juices I just talked about in the “Give it a Rest” item above to escape. So don’t use those two prong BBQ forks to turn your meat. A meat temperature probe for a remote read thermometer does poke a hole in the meat, but it stays in the meat and is self-sealing so to speak. An instant read thermometer pokes a hole in the meat, but this is a necessary evil. Also this is done near the end of the cook. One of the things I like about the Thermapen’s temperature probe is it is smaller in diameter than other brands.
Learn How Your Grill Works in Your Climate: Unless you plan to be a fair weather griller, you will be grilling in the heat and cold, wind and rain, snow and sleet and any other conditions your local climate will throw at you. If you plan to grill something for Thanksgiving or Christmas, try some practice cooks so you learn if (you) and your grill are up to it. This way you won’t find out with a house full of guests waiting for you to come in with the perfect Thanksgiving turkey, that you can’t pull it off. Grill in all kinds of weather, even if you don’t have to. Then you will know if you can grill in that weather if you do have to. More Info
Keep it Clean: Get in the habit of cleaning & oiling your grill grates twice during every grilling session. The first time is once your grill is warmed up and then again when you are done cooking. You will get nice grill marks and more importantly your food won’t stick to the grill grate. More Info
GRILLS & GRILLING - Specific
Take Time to Learn Your Grill - Gas Grill: Every grill is different. They each have their own plusses and minuses and quirks you need to know. Gas grills will often have hotspots and cold spots. The better gas grills will have less of these and more even cooking. Hotspots and cold spots aren’t all negatives. If you know where these areas are you can sometimes use them to slow down or speed up the cooking of items that are behind or ahead of schedule. These ares will change depending on the time of year. In cold weather you will need to move the food in away from the edges of the grill grate.
Air Temperature & Propane Pressure & Grill Temperature - Gas Grill: The other factor with a gas grill is in cold weather your propane will have lower pressure, in the summer it will have higher pressure and this will affect the temperatures you will achieve. On hot days in the summer my gas grill with all the burners on knobs set on high, could hit temps over 800 degrees (425 C). In the winter I would be lucky to hit 450 degrees (230C). This is something that is very important to know for obvious reasons. The other propane pressure related issue is in the winter I needed to stop using the tank when it was about half full. Once the tank got to 50 percent full, there was not enough pressure to achieve a fire providing adequate cooking temperatures. There would be a flame, but it was a very cold flame relatively speaking. I observed this first-hand in the middle of a cook one December day. I was cooking some chicken wings and they were sizzling away and suddenly the sound stopped. I opened the lid and held my hand 3” (7.5cm) above the grate. While I saw a flame, I felt little heat and with no sizzle the wings had obviously stopped cooking. The tank on the grill was half full and when I swapped it out for a new full tank I was back in business. I was back to a flame AND heat again.
The Marks on the Control Knobs are Totally Irrelevant - Gas Grill: The last entry about Air Temperature vs. Propane Pressure is responsible for this. There may be marks for Low, Medium or High, or numbers 1 thru 10, but they are relative and not absolute. Low in the Winter may be in the 200 degree (95 C) range, whereas in the Summer this same setting gives you 300 degrees (150 C). In the Winter High may be 450 degrees (230 C) and in the Summer High is 800 degrees (425 C). At a given air temperature a gas grill can be very predictable and repeatable. But the trick is, the air temperature needs to be a constant. One way to achieve some consistency and predictability is to make an Air Temperature / Grate Temperature chart. You can do this two different ways. You can have a chart where you say at an air temperature of 10 degrees (-12C) Low = X degrees, Medium = Y degrees, Hot = Z degrees. At 20 (-6 C) Low = X degrees…, 30 (-1 C) Low = X degrees… The second approach is to have a chart where you record the knob settings needed to achieve say 325, 350, 375, 400 (160, 175, 190, 205 C) cooking temperatures at the various air temperatures. They are telling you the same thing but presenting the information in two different ways. The first you are saying if I set the knob here what temperature do I get at the various air temperature. The second method is showing you where you must set the knobs to achieve a particular grill temperature at a certain air temperature.
Learn Your Startup Time - Gas Grill: The issues with air temperature affecting propane pressure will affect start up time. Every grill is different. You will need to know how your grill performs in all of the types of weather you plan to cook in. I used to allow 10-15 minutes in warm weather and 20-25 in cold weather.
Learn Your Startup Time - Charcoal Grill: Though the performance of the fuel (charcoal) isn’t affected by the air temps in the same way as propane under pressure, you are still going to need to raise the temperature of your grill an extra 70 or 80 degrees due to the lower ambient air temperature. So you need to learn the start up times in all kinds of weather. See the entry about charcoal differences.
Know Your Charcoal - Charcoal Grill: There are two types of charcoal: Briquettes and lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is natural charcoal without any additional materials added in. Briquettes are charcoal mixed together with other ingredients, such as binders, fillers,ignition aids, appearance enhancers to form a uniform rectangular shaped piece. There are also natural briquettes which use natural products such as vegetable oil for their binders. Briquettes are what most people see in there mind when they think of charcoal. They are the rectangular cubes of charcoal with rounded edges. They are formed in a mold and have eased (rounded off) edges. Kingsford in the US is what most people think of when they think of hardwood briquettes. Regular briquettes are charcoal pieces and partially charred wood that were left overs from various manufacturing processes. They are processed in special furnaces where the amount if oxygen is carefully controlled. To this charcoal material various binders, fillers and other items are added to improve the performance or manufacturing process of the briquettes. For example there are additives to help the charcoal be easier to light. Release agents are used to help the briquettes release from the molds. The more non-natural material is in the charcoal, the more ash tends to be produced. All natural briquettes are strictly made from wood charcoal, with other natural ingredient used for binders, releasing agents etc.
Once I started using all natural briquettes I never went back to standard briquettes. The all natural briquettes, though harder to light, could go to a higher temperature when lit. They tend a bit more fussy to control, but way more stable once you learn how to control them correctly. They burn longer and make less ash than conventional briquettes. Me I never use regular briquettes. Period. The other total no no for me are the charcoal briquettes, like Kingsford Match Light, that have lighter fluid included within the charcoal. Natural Lump charcoal is 100 percent charcoal. It is pieces of charred wood. There are differences between various brands of lump that involve the species of wood used, size and consistency of the pieces. Also they can vary in the amount of smoke they produce, highest temperature they can reach, amount of ash produced and the presence or lack of foreign materials. The Naked Whiz is a website that reviews lump charcoal and is a valuable resource. The bottom line here is the brand and type of charcoal you use has major affects on your cook. Startup time, cook time, flavor of the food, refueling times, and ash production. Take the time to learn the various charcoals you try. They can have a major impact on your cook. More Info
Every Live Fire is Different - Charcoal: There are a lot more variables using charcoal with the end result that every live fire is different. For some people this is the attraction of charcoal grilling and for others that is what scares them away. Different brands of charcoal, different types (briquettes vs natural lump), differences in sizes of the pieces of lump charcoal in a particular bag, different weather all can affect your cook. You need to be aware of this and that it is just a fact of life. Your fire will often have hot and cold areas based on one or more of these variables. In time you will get good at positioning and moving your food around to suit the variables of this days fire. As for me I don’t get excited about the challenge of dealing with these variables. I am aware of them and I know the steps I must take to work with them, so I no longer shy away from charcoal grilling. I do now think charcoal grilling has some advantages over gas grilling, so I am willing to deal with some of the variables in order to get the end results.
Ignore the Dome Thermometer - Even on the Big Green Egg: For some reason the BGE company and many users of the Egg rely on the dome thermometer. This made no sense to me, but I decided to go with the flow. I recently suffered a rash of temperature related issues which turned out to be caused by huge temperature differences in the readings on the dome thermometer vs the grate level. Why it took me this long to be tripped up by this is anyones guess. What I discovered when I finally added a grate level probe, was I had a 150 degree (115 C) difference vs what I expected. This difference can be greater or lesser depending on the air temperature. But once again, measuring the temps at my cooking level straightened out every issue. The other thing that to me is crazy about trying to rely on the dome thermometer is the difference is variable over time. The longer the Egg is cooking for the closer the temps at the dome level and grate level are. So this difference isn’t even a constant within the same cook. There is an easy answer: Always measure the grill temperature at the level you are cooking on. More Info
Startup Method Affects Startup Time - Charcoal Grill: The method you use to start your charcoal grill impacts your startup time. This affects your overall cooking time and needs to be taken into account. It also can affect the type of fire you get, which I will discuss in the next section below. You may use several methods by choice or by temporary circumstances. I recently had to go back to paraffin starters because I was not able to use my Looftlighter that day. You need to take these differences in to account when calculating your cooking times.
- Charcoal Chimney: You have two variables here. How long it takes to light the all of the coals in the charcoal chimney and how long it takes for the fire to be ready once the coals in the chimney are added to your grill. There can be a wide variation in startup times, I have used charcoal that was ready for use in 10 minutes and others that took 30 minutes. The brand that took 30 minutes actually took 40 on cold Winter days. Keep mental or written notes of the times and performance of the various types and brands of charcoal. You will also find you need to use different numbers of newspaper sheets in the chimney to light the charcoal. Some charcoal is harder to light than others. The right amount of newspaper will affect how fast the coals will light or if they light at all. More Info
- Paraffin Starters: These combustible squares of paraffin and paper products are placed in the fire in one or more places.You light the corner of the starter and you get a controlled burn that lights the adjacent coals, which in turn ignite addition coals next to them. You start the fire with the dampers wide open and as you approach your desired cooking temperature, you start closing the dampers down. This restricts the airflow to the fire. The paraffin starters I use burn for 9 minutes before burning out. Then there is a time involved for additional pieces of charcoal to catch and the fire to spread. The length of time also depends on the temperature you wish to cook at. I use anywhere from 1 to 4 fire starters depending on the temperature I wish to cook at. Once again keep some good paper or mental notes of what you have learned.
- Looftlighter: I have started using an electric fire starter called the Looftlighter and it can make quick work of getting the coals lit. In less than two minutes you can have a decent sized pile of burning coals. Obviously this kind of speed can have a big impact on your startup time. I am going to leave it at that for now, because I am still learning myself how to best use this tool. But like everything else I do in this hobby I am keeping notes about what I have learned. More Info
- Other Starters: There are other methods of lighting the coals. This includes other types of lighters such as weed burners, propane torches, paper towels soaked in cooking oil. There are others, but I will stop there because I am only going to write about them in the most general sense. I have no hands on experience with any of them and I won’t write about things I have no business talking about. That said, some of the same general principals I’ve already discussed apply here. The specific tool that you are using will affect the start up time and you need to take that into account. So as you are learning these alternative tools be observant and take good mental or paper notes.
Startup Method Affects Type of Fire - Charcoal Grill: The method you use to start your charcoal grill also impacts your fire, how it spreads, where it exists, temperature rise and ash production. This affects not only your overall cooking time, but how you cook and needs to be taken into account. I will talk briefly about the methods I am familiar with and be aware other startup methods will produce different results which you must take the time to learn and understand.
- Charcoal Chimney: This is the most straightforward method. Typically you light a chimney full of charcoal, usually briquettes but may be lump. Sometimes a recipe will have you light say half a chimney or two chimneys. The amount of coals lit in the charcoal chimney will affect the maximum temperature that you achieve. It can also affect the length of time your fire lasts before you need to add more coals. For single zone direct cooking, the coals are spread out across the grill in an even thickness. A two-zone fire is created by raking the coals so the layer of lit coals is thicker on one side than it is on the other. A direct/indirect fire is created by banking the coals up so there are none on one side of the grill and a bank of coals which are thin in the middle and increase in thickness as they get closer to the side of the grills. Because the lit coals are added on top of the unlit coals, this fire resides on the top surface of the charcoal bed. The fire spreads down and into the unlit coals below. Since the lit coals are on the surface, raising or lowering the lid can have a quick and large effect on the temperature of the fire. This is because the coals are fully exposed on their top side and the oxygen added when the lid is raised can have an immediate affect. In other cases where you will be grilling with the lid open or off you control the temperatures via the bottom dampers and active your desired temperature with the lid off.
- Paraffin Starters: Paraffin starters are placed in one or more spots nestled into the charcoal. You want them partially covered and exposed at the top for lighting. Lighting multiple starters can allow you to achieve a higher temperature fire. This fire spreads by the paraffin starters igniting adjacent charcoal, which in turn lights adjacent charcoal. This can sometimes be problematic because you may run into a situation where enough coals will light so the interior of the grill is hot enough, but the lit coals are in clusters and you don’t have a nicely lit layer of lit charcoals spread a gross the entire grilling area. Worse, there aren’t enough lit coals to try to rake around the grill and even things out. This can often happen with kamado cookers, like the Big Green Egg which are so well insulated that is doesn’t take many lit coals to get the interior of the grill up to temperature. The trick I have found is you must keep the overall temperature down and let the grill warm up longer. This will let more coals ignite slowly and to a lesser degree. You want to end up with more coals lit and reaching a lower temperature spread across the grilling area. This as opposed to several areas of glowing coals centered around where you lit the fire with the paraffin starters. On the plus side: This fire responds quickly and as I would expect to opening the upper and lower temperature controls (dampers, draft doors etc.). These are the things that you must pay attention to and that you need to quickly learn about your grill. Take good mental or physical notes and you may also want to take some photos as I mention below.
- Looftlighter: I have been discovering the Looftlighter is an entirely different beast when it come to the fire it creates. I understand in a big picture form what is going on, but I am still not 100 percent sure I have controlling it down pat. Now I am specifically speaking about using it with lump charcoal on a Big Green Egg. I have no idea what happens when used on other types of charcoal grills. What seem to be happening is this: In addition to lighting the coals on top that the Looftlighter makes direct contact with, some of the Looftlighter’s hot air is deflected around the upper coals that initially light. This deflected hot air is often in a large enough quantity to also ignite coals deep into the pile. In fact sometimes the coals on top of the pile that were initially flaming gradually extinguish. You are left with a deep fire which can can be both steady and very difficult to control. Let me explain this apparent contradiction in terms. These fires are just like a massive freight train. They take a long time to get up to speed and then takes miles to stop when the engineer applies the brakes. This is my current working theory. Because the fire is deep down in pile it takes a long time to seem to get going. It is burning deeper into the charcoal pile and the layer of unlit charcoal on top isolates this heat from registering initially on the grate thermometer. Before you know it there is a large amount of cowls burning at the bottom of the charcoal pile. Because so many coals are lit, it takes a long time to slow down and it can take a while to raise the temperature too. Everything seems to happen slowly. But you need to be careful because once the air gets to it in sufficient quantities and more coals start to light, this fire can totally runaway on you. And once it has risen too high it can be very difficult to stop. It is also very easy to start chasing your tail, where the temps of the fire rises too high and keeps rising after you start trying to knock the temps back down. You finally get the temps heading down but then they go too low. It is amazing how this fire performs.
- The first few times I had these issues the fire got away from me because it was both slower and faster than I expected. Initially it took 5 minutes to really start registering on the Maverick ET-733 grate thermometer. Then it took 3 or 4 minutes to rise to 40 degrees. It reached 70 degrees 5 or 6 minutes later. The problem was 2 or 3 minutes later it had rocketed up to 275 and I was shooting for only 235. I have been allowing a longer startup time now to make sure the Egg is truly stabilized at the desired temperature. I try to never let the temps overshoot. When I am 50 degrees away close the dampers down to the setting I usually use when stabilized at my desired cooking temp. This often ends up stopping the rise and often the temps fall initially. As long as the fall isn’t too rapid I usually let things go for 5 minutes. Generally the temps begin rising again and when they are within 10 or 15 degrees of my target cooking temp, I make another tweak to try to slow them down and stop them at my desired temps. The trick is keep a constant eye on things. I am still learning the amount of adjustment I need to make with this new type of fire, but that is this whole thing I mention where you must observe carefully and learn the amount of adjustment required to achieve your goal. I had this down for fire starters, I will soon have it down for fires started with the Looftlighter.
- Other Starters: As I mentioned above, there are other methods of lighting the coals. These other devices will create unique types of fires depending on where the device is placed in your charcoal bed. If you want predictable and repeatable results you must take the time needed to pay attention and learn the quirks and variables of the fires created by these starter tools.
PART 3 of this blog will cover items specific to Smokers & Smoking.
Related Blog Entries: Here are some blog entries which take some of the items covered above and expand on them:
COLD & BAD WEATHER GRILLING: DIRECT GRILLING IN THE WINTER: (2008 Blog Entry) Some discoveries I made which allowed me to continue direct grilling right through the winter months.
WINTER WISH GRANTED: (2008 Blog Entry) More cold weather grilling experiences.
CURE FOR THE UNCOMMON COLD: (2008 Blog Entry) Why you’ll want to do some practice sessions to see if you can still grill on a holiday in spite of bad weather.
WEATHER INDEPENDENCE: (2009 Blog Entry) Some keys to cooking in all kinds of weather.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS - GAS GRILL: (2011 Blog Entry) Describing some weather where I pushed the envelope as far as what was possible on the my gas grill.
WINTER DIRECT GRILLING - 2011: (2011 Blog Entry) My latest thoughts on direct grilling on a gas grill in the winter. This was the last winter before I switched over to the Big green Egg
THE NAKED WHIZ - Lump Charcoal Database - Great information on lump charcoal with detailed reviews of 75 types of lump charcoal. There is also a lot of useful information about ceramic (kamado) style grills:
Other Links: Visit my LINKS page for some other helpful links which are more for the intermediate level griller.
STAYING IN GREAT SHAPE: (2009 Blog Entry) Some keys to cooking in all kinds of weather.
STARTERS: Here is some information on starters used for charcoal grilling.
YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE: (2009 Blog Entry) Using a charcoal chimney.
FLAME ON - THE LOOFTLIGHTER: (2014 Blog Entry) Describes my first impressions of the Looftlighter electric fire starter.
THE LOOFTLIGHTER LESSONS LEARNED: (2014 Blog Entry) Describes some things I have learned after using the Looftlighter for several months.
TEMPERATURE CONTROL: GETTING BACK ON TRACK II: (2014 Blog Entry) I had started running into problems on my Big Green Egg when I relied on the dome thermometer instead of a grate level thermometer. This blog describes the old lesson I had to relearn on my newest grill.
OTHER ENTRIES IN THIS SERIES: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 1 (General)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 2 (Grilling)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 3 (Smoking)
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME - PT. 4 (Baking)
BACK TO BBQ BLOG 2014
ARCHIVE OF BLOGS: 2014
INDEX OF BLOGS: ALL YEARS