A Chef’s Secrets to Grilling Over Charcoal
This section from the new book ‘Charcoal,’ by Los Angeles chef Josiah Citrin, gives you his tips and tricks for cooking over, you guessed it, charcoal.
I’m a firm believer that grilling brings people together. Much like carving the holiday turkey, the ritual is typically deemed a man’s job and has an innate sense of communal gathering and loving family. One of my earliest memories growing up was hanging out at my neighbor’s house for Sunday barbecue after Little League games and watching my friend’s dad, Frank Jimenez, tend to the grill with a Miller Lite beer in one hand and a king-size spatula in the other. Frank brought the neighborhood together with his grill. To this day, when I get a whiff of drifting smoke from someone grilling in a yard nearby, the smell triggers fond memories and takes me back to way back when. Grilling is about summertime and cooking outdoors; grilling is also fundamentality about time and attention.
I’m not one to overcomplicate the marriage of food and fire, so I keep it simple by relying on only direct heat grilling, instead of setting up two hot and cool heat zones. Two-zone grilling is when you set up two areas of your grill by piling more coals on one side of the grill (high direct heat), and then fewer coals on the other side (low indirect heat). The hotter side is typically preferred for searing thinner cuts of meat, such as skinless, boneless chicken breasts and flank steak, while the cooler side is preferred for cooking larger cuts of meat without burning the exterior before the center is cooked, such as pork shoulder, or to finish cooking meats after searing on the hot, direct side. Honestly, I find a simple, even hot zone throughout the grill perfectly fine. What I do encourage is to turn the meat often and rest it periodically to prevent the outside from burning, and control the internal temperature from getting too hot and potentially overcooking. So basically, by constantly flipping the meat and taking it off the grill to rest, it has the same effect as indirect cooking. I’d rather harness the flame of the coals by opening and closing the air vents and lid, to avoid flare-ups and to keep the cooking temperature constant. Working the vents allows you to control the airflow and subsequent heat, and not the other way around! Plus, grills come in various sizes and it’s often challenging to set up two-zone cooking areas in an everyday Weber kettle grill, for example, that is only eighteen to twenty-two inches in diameter; there is simply not ample space to achieve the direct/indirect cooking method successfully, in my opinion. One-zone direct heat cooking does require you to mind the grill a bit more, but that’s part of the grilling experience!
Grilling over direct heat and constantly flipping what you’re grilling moreover creates a lot more flavor due to the meat juices and fat drippings trickling onto the hot coals to produce epic, aromatic steam, as the vapors rise and are reabsorbed into the meat to keep it moist.
Remember to always keep your grill grate clean by using a dry grill brush to scrape off any charred bits stuck to it. When getting ready to grill, many recipes require you rub the grill grate with oil when hot to create a nonstick surface.
Cooking on a grill adds an unsurpassed smoked, charred depth not only to meat but also to everyday breakfast, (Huevos Rancheros and Grilled Quesadilla with Tomatillo Sauce) and it transforms ordinary vegetables into something especially unexpected.
When building a fire for your charcoal grill, I recommend using an ample amount of natural hardwood lump charcoal so you don’t risk the coals dying out during the cook, filling your grill halfway up from the bottom to the top grate. I prefer a hickory and oak mix, and always organic when possible. You want an even layer of coals all the way to the diameter of the grill, so be sure to spread them out. Before you even light your grill, make sure to open the vents. The fire will need oxygen to keep going. To light the grill, I’m a fan of natural fire starter sticks; they’re inexpensive and easy to use with no special chimney starter required (although you may use one if so inclined). With the lid off, stick four fire starters in the charcoal with one in the center and the other three around and light them with a kitchen lighter. After you light the coals, allow them to burn for about 10 to 15 minutes until you see a nice fire going and some of the coals turning red. Check to see if the coals are glowing evenly. If not, rake with a large grilling spatula and mix them around so that the dormant coals catch fire. Carefully secure the top grate in place with gloves and tongs, cover with the lid, and open the top vent fully so air properly circulates in the grill and smoke can escape. Leave the lid on for 10 to 15 minutes until the flames die down and the coals start to ash over. Uncover the grill and get ready to cook.
Charcoal gives you high, dry heat, but it doesn’t impart much flavor. I like having subtle hints of wood flavor in my cooking but find it overpowering to strictly grill over wood alone. So, I combine the best of both worlds and often add a few wood chunks to the coals when grilling. When building your fire, simply add 5 to 7 chunks of unsoaked applewood, oak, or hickory and mix them into your coals so they burn evenly with the charcoal.
From CHARCOAL by Josiah Citrin with JoAnn Cianciulli, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, A division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Josiah Citrin. Photographs © 2019 by Stan Lee.