Fire: A Different Way to Cook

By Ben Eisendrath
Eisendrath_Flame_12-24_post.jpg

Courtesy of Grillworks


Through thousands of years of science, of labor saving, of PROGRESS, we've succeeded in becoming a civilization lacking everyday contact with fire. This is a loss. A sacrifice of our connection with what brought us here in favor of efficiency and convenience. And in few places is our estrangement from fire more apparent than in our gleaming, modern kitchens.

But this old relationship—truly man's first love affair—can be rekindled without giving up any of the new. The setting for the grand reunion?

That civilized flame is really the canned soundtrack of grilling, lacking personality and certainly possessing no flavor you would want coming in contact with your food.

A grill.

When truly grilling, over live fire—you participate. You're immersed in the process. You conduct a little crackling orchestra of flame to cook your masterpiece. You truly do—it—all. Really, no one can call themselves a champion of organic, local, or sustainable cuisine unless they know how to prepare a feast over the most organic, local, and sustainable heat of all: fire. Natural fire.

To regain your connection with fire you must accept at the outset is that it is your lead player, your set of instruments. You are conductor, it is your temperamental symphony. Your skill set must begin and end with fire management. Try to muscle it and the most expensive porterhouse is rendered forgettable. Make the flame your star and a humble grocery store cut will be talked about for weeks.

One thing to get out of the way—if you're using gas you aren't allowed at the podium just yet. That civilized flame is hardly fire anymore. It's really the canned soundtrack of grilling, lacking personality and certainly possessing no flavor you would want coming in contact with your food.

Skip pressed-sawdust briquettes and practice with chunk charcoal, which is at least recognizable as wood. Stay away from bags vaguely labeled "hardwood" and look for those that tell you what varieties (hickory, oak) you're getting so you learn the flavors.

Get a feel for how long it takes for the charcoal to settle into a cooking bed, and how much heat it will throw off.

No gauges. Learn the art of measuring heat in the seconds your hand can remain two inches from the surface. More than three seconds—too cool. Fewer? Too hot. Take your time. This practice could easily take a full season of grilling. Or two. So what? Savor the process. You're ready for the next step when you find yourself rearranging the coals instinctively. When you linger in front of the grill, eyes glazed, moving one coal an inch to the right, another to the back.

Snag yourself some oak or hickory chips from your local hardware store, or even better from a lumberyard. Try lighting your coals and adding a few chips. Pay attention to how they burn, how much flame they produce, and most importantly to the flavor they add to the fire. Wave the smoke to you. Taste it with your nose. When you're ready, cook over the burning chips and note the difference in the food you've grilled over them.

Eisendrath_Flame_12-24_inpost.jpg

Courtesy of Grillworks

Each kind of wood you put on top of those coals will generate flame and smoke that tastes different from the others. Prepackaged wood chips are designed to add quick flavor to charcoal or gas grills, and so many printed instructions encourage wetting the wood to produce more smoke. Don't. Add dry chips slowly, allowing them to burn rather than smolder. The flavor developed by a long cook over dry wood is subtler and truer than a dousing in a steam cloud. You're grilling, not smoking.

Practice makes perfect, and lucky for your friends and family these rehearsals, if done right, will look more like a series of sooty jam sessions than practice. And they'll taste wonderful.

Ready for the real thing? Then this is your point of departure from the equipment that has become the U.S. norm. It is a lesson in frustration (or lawsuits) to attempt a full fire on a grill that isn't designed for it—so don't try. But don't run out and buy a wood grill just yet either.

Instead go camping. Use your rekindled relationship with flame to build a killer campfire. Tell ghost stories. Bring a $10 camp grill surface and some top-notch steaks. Grill them over the firewood you drag out of the woods. Let your orchestra completely dominate the stage for once.

You say that this scene isn't a fair comparison with grilling at home; everybody knows the atmosphere, camaraderie, and warmth ... it's just so different.

It shouldn't be.

Fire is a star. Let it make one of you.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/01/fire-a-different-way-to-cook/68527/