Over the Coals

Grilling meat, fish, and vegetables requires more than intuition


EVERY SUMMER I pretend to know how to use a backyard grill. It is a skill I should have inherited from my father, who, like every father when I was growing up, tended the grill and took no other part in family food preparation. I assumed that the knowledge of how to build a fire and cook food over it was innate, and that asking advice was somehow humiliating. After serving many pieces of food at once charred and raw and ascribing their condition to weather and faulty equipment, I decided last summer to stop proceeding on bravado. Here is what I found.

The outdoor grill of choice these days seems to be the Weber kettle grill, which looks like a plump UFO on three legs. It is said to grill, smoke, and barbecue, it is sturdy, and it is easy to use. But it is not ideal for uncovered grilling, which is what I set out to master. Barbecuing usually refers to long and slow cooking, covered, over hardwood embers, often with a sweet basting sauce. Smoking means cooking also done in a closed space, over a still lower fire, with aromatic wood, and sometimes steam; it can take several days. I think of grilling as cooking over an open wood or charcoal fire. The Weber kettle is meant by its manufacturer to be covered whenever its used, which makes it a sort of oven. Food in a Weber kettle cooks by convection as well as direct heat; it absorbs wood smoke that otherwise would be lost to the wind, and it can also stay moist. A cover is essential to hasten cooking and to keep food cooking in a strong wind, but it is undesirable for grilling, which should involve almost exclusively dry heat. Worse, the height of the rack—or grid, to use its proper name—on a Weber kettle cannot be adjusted, and it is too far above the coals for most open grilling. Pouring in enough charcoal to achieve the proper distance solves the problem but is wasteful.

If I don’t find a Weber kettle in a friend’s back yard, I usually find a gas grill, which saves the trouble of building a fire and produces reliably even and adjustable heat. The gas heats lava stones, which serve as coals. It is fashionable to deride gas grills. The only hint of smoky flavor they provide, detractors say, is from fat and juices that drip onto the stones; the stones retain remnants of what was cooked on them before; hence “you’re eating rancid, smoke-flavored fat,” in the appetizing words of George Germon and Johanne Killeen, who own the popular Providence, Rhode Island, restaurants Al Forno and Lucky’s, where nearly everything on the menu involves a grill. Germon and Killeen also point out that food cooks “evenly and boringly” on a gas grill, whereas in food cooked over a wood fire some parts are smokier and more highly flavored than others.

In fact it is possible to clean the stones on most gas grills, by turning them over and letting the residue of previous meals burn off, and you can add some wood smoke by placing on top of the stones an aluminum pan filled with wood chips that have been soaked in water for at least half an hour, so that they will smoke slowly. (If you don’t put them into a pan, the ash can clog gas lines.) Gas grills are undeniably the easiest grills to use, and anyone who enjoys grilled food in restaurants has no business knocking them: most restaurants use gas grills without even the fillip of aromatic wood.

The outdoor charcoal grill to buy is one made of heavy metal with stable legs, and with an adjustable rack and vents in the bottom to allow in air, which will fan the fire. A flat-bottomed firebox is preferable to a round one, because in the flat one it is easier to spread coals and use only as many as you need. A vented cover is also nearly essential, for intermittent use. Grills that answer this description are surprisingly rare. Meco, of Greenville, Tennessee, makes a good and moderately priced one (the company’s phone number is 615-639-1171).

What seems most widely available, though, is either a hibachi, which is admirably solid, often portable, and has an adjustable rack, although it is too small for many foods; or a flimsy brazier—an uncovered grill, usually round, with the rack shakily attached, of the kind you find cheap in drugstores and supermarkets during the summer. Although such a grill may serve well for a season, the heat of real charcoal will eventually wear out the thin metal, and it can too easily be toppled.

The Maserati of grills is the dream of Charles Eisendrath, who after working as a foreign correspondent for Time became the director of a mid-career journalism fellowship program at the University of Michigan. With the help of local craftsmen he went about perfecting a grill based on ones he had used in his travels. His grill, in essence an outdoor fireplace, is a handsome stainless steel box on a stand. The grid consists of long V-shaped channels, each about an inch wide and spaced about an inch apart, fixed at a four-degree angle to carry juices down to a long rectangular pan that spans the width of the grill. Italians, among others, set such grids in their fireplaces. The beauty of Eisendrath’s invention is that the distance from grid to flame is easily and quickly adjusted to up to sixteen inches, by means of a beautifully machined crank wheel. You can start cooking immediately, since you can raise the grid high over new flames from wood or coals. The drippings pan is for making sauces as you cook. Nearperfection is expensive: the grill costs $750. But it can be taken off its legs and set into most indoor fireplaces, and anyone accustomed to its flexibility would be loath to go back to anything else. (Grillworks is at 1211 Ferdon Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104; the phone number is 313-995-2164.)

EVEN NOW THAT mesquite on a restaurant menu seems like a quaint artifact of New American cooking, aromatic woods are still the rage. Other woods for the chic griller are coming into their own, in the form of chips sold in plastic bags. The really chic grillers are buying bags of imported grapevine cuttings and challenging their guests to identify the varietal, hinting that the wine might be made from the same one. But the use of aromatic wood in grilling is usually pointless. It is certainly possible to distinguish the kind of wood used in smoking (hickory, alder, apple, oak, and cherry are currently favored), which after all is done under cover for hours, but in grilling, grapevine cuttings, herb stems, or aromatic leaves tossed at the last minute onto the coals are only for effect. They smell good and persuade guests that real grilling is going on. “If you don’t have a smoky smell in your hair when you serve the food, it’s not official,”says Jeanne Voltz, who wrote Barbecued Ribs and Other Great Feeds. But don’t feel compelled to invest in a wood you’ve never heard of.

Do feel compelled to search out hardwood lump charcoal in place of briquets. Briquets are made of scrap wood and sawdust burned to carbon, which is then compressed with a starch binder and ground coal, as A. Cort Sinnes explains in The Grilling Book (which he wrote with Jay Harlow), the most concise and useful book on grilling I’ve found. The binder in briquets often contains chemicals that can give food an off taste, as can the coal. Briquets are efficient, because they are compressed and evenly shaped, and some are made with hardwood—but not many. Lump charcoal is the black color of briquets but comes in the shape of chunks of wood, which is what it is: hardwood left to smolder without oxygen until it turns to carbon. Although lump charcoal won’t scent the food as much as would chunks of the hardwood it was made from, it will produce a hotter, more even, and longer-lasting fire that is easier to maintain. You can always add a few chunks of hardwood, soaked in water, to the coals for smoke. Don’t use pine or other resinous woods: these are fine for kindling, but their fumes during cooking can deposit noxious chemicals in food. And don’t use plywood or any composition wood at all.

The firebox should be clean save for a thin layer of ash. The grid should be completely clean. Scrape it with a wire brush every time you use it: little bits of previous meals are not appealing and do not add depth of flavor, only bitterness. Former Boy and Girl Scouts will have no trouble lighting a fire with kindling, but those less adept can employ other methods without resorting to one that ought to be taboo: lighter fluid, which gives food a chemical taste even after the fire is ready. (Plain gasoline and kerosene can explode and should never be used.)

Newspaper can be made into very effective kindling by soaking strips in vegetable oil, which is cheaper than lighter fluid and not noxious. Or, if you have an electrical socket near the grill, you can use an electric starter, a long loop that you immerse in the coals and leave for seven to ten minutes; be sure to take it out soon after the coals ignite, unplug it, and set it on a fireproof surface to cool. The easiest of all is a chimney starter, which looks like a doubledecker can with a handle and without top or bottom, perforated around the lower sides. You set the starter in the grill and put newspaper in the bottom compartment and coals in the top; after twenty minutes the coals are ready to be poured into the grill, at which point you can add more charcoal, if you need it— use only enough charcoal to cover an area slightly larger than what you need as a cooking surface. A good idea, from Phillip Stephen Schulz’s Cooking With Fire & Smoke, is to set the chimney starter in a nearby fireproof pan and light another batch of charcoal in it, in case you need more later to keep the fire even. (Electric starters and chimney starters are available in many hardware stores.)

However you light the fire, in a regular grill it won’t be ready for at least forty minutes and could well require longer. This is a hard lesson for any cook to learn, especially one with hungry people waiting. Putting food on the fire too soon is the error most frequently made in grilling, and it results in that dismally familiar combination of thick carbon on the outside and cool, nearly raw meat on the inside. The coals should be uniformly covered with gray ash, and you should be able to hold your palm over the fire at the level of the grid for the count of five seconds. If you can hold it over the fire for only two or three seconds, the fire is very hot, and good for searing but not cooking; at five to seven seconds it is medium hot, and right for cooking most foods. Spread the coals unevenly, so that some areas will be very hot and some cool, for reasons I’ll explain. Be sure that the grid is at the right height for what you’re cooking: between three and four inches from the coals for fish fillets; between four and six inches for nearly everything else except chicken with bone, which should be about six or seven inches from the coals.

YOU CAN COOK nearly anything on a grill, even fruit (try pears, pineapples, or bananas). Fish and vegetables of almost any kind, and cuts of meat that require short cooking and have few bones, work best. Lean fish, poultry, and meat do very well with an oil-based herb marinade, which adds moisture; marinades with an acid base, such as lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt, are better for fatty meat and oily fish (when seasoning an acid-based marinade, remember that acid and salt intensify flavors in a marinade). Don’t let meat or fish stay too long in a marinade; poultry, especially, can become mealy if left for more than two hours. Trim off as much fat as possible from meat to prevent flare-ups.

Purists are uncomfortable with the idea of precooking food, but I endorse it, especially for foods such as chicken with bone, spareribs, eggplant, and potatoes, all of which are wonderful grilled but hard to cook through without bad charring. These can first be partly boiled, baked, or (better, because more flavor is retained) cooked in a microwave oven. Mushrooms, for example, become pliable if partly cooked and won’t split if you try to thread them onto skewers. Whole onions still come out sweet and smoky, and also cook through without your having to wait an hour. Leeks (the latest grill fashion, along with scallions, heads of endive, and Mediterranean vegetables such as artichokes, which must be precooked, peppers, squash, bulb fennel, and whole heads of garlic) stay together better. Slices of sweet potato and yams are also great grilled, and are easier to grill properly if partly cooked. Most vegetables need only a brushing with olive oil and light seasoning with salt and pepper to be delicious, and they are especially good tossed in a vinaigrette just after coming off the grill.

Bring food to be grilled to room temperature, and if it has been marinated, use the leftover marinade as basting liquid. An oily marinade helps solve the problem of having food stick to the rack; it is more effective to oil the food than to oil the rack, but brushing the rack with vegetable oil or spraying it with aerosol oil will also help (take the rack off the grill and spray it well away from any heat source). If you are using metal skewers, be sure to use ones that are twisted or notched, so that you can turn them without having the same side of the chunk of lamb or onion end up facing the grill. If you use wooden skewers, first soak them in water for about half an hour. Place food perpendicular to the wires of the rack, so that it will be easier to turn. Tongs and “offset” spatulas, with the blade lower than the handle, are the most convenient implements.

THE ART OF GRILLING involves keeping the fire at an even medium-hot temperature. Using bellows or opening the vents will increase the heat; closing the vents will decrease it. If you are grilling for a long time—say, for more than half an hour—you will probably need to add some more charcoal, and it will work faster if you have lit it in advance.

Flare-ups are the most persistent problem during grilling, and the healthfulness of food permeated with smoke caused by dripping fat has lately been called into question by carcinogen monitors. If you spray water on the coals, you risk giving a wet-ash flavor to the food, so instead use tongs to pull the food over to the part of the grill you have left cool or put it onto a plate and wait for the flames to die down (close the vents or use the cover). Thick food that has not been precooked will require a certain amount of cooking time during which it is covered. Cover food only after you have seared it on all sides; if your grill doesn’t have a cover, you can improvise one with aluminum foil weighted with rocks.

If your best plans fail and food seems done on the outside but not the inside, take it off the grill and finish it in the oven. (In The Art of Cooking, Jacques Pepin calls for this technique in an excellent recipe for boned leg of lamb marinated with soy sauce, honey, jalapeño pepper, ginger, and garlic.) Professional cooks test food for doneness by using their fingers to feel how firm or soft it is, which saves having juices escape. The easiest method for civilians, however, is to use an instant-read thermometer. Many books, including Pepin’s, list cooking temperatures for most meats and poultry.

Food will continue to cook after you remove it from the grill, so take it off just before you think it’s done, and let large pieces of meat rest at least fifteen minutes before cutting into them, to allow the redistribution of juices, just as you should with roast meat. Your guests won’t like this, especially if you forgot how long it takes for the fire to be ready, but you’ll have a much better meal.

The writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins once suggested that the patience required for grilling might make it better suited to women, even though it is the traditional preserve of men. Certainly experience in cooking by other means will help any griller, but no one should be intimidated. Finally I know enough to be able to mumble in reply to compliments on my technique, “I guess I picked it up from my father.”