I love grilling with charcoal. It sears beautifully. Charcoal burns hot enough that it is cooking primarily with infrared radiation; gas grills can't generate that much heat, so they cook food by heating the air inside the grill, resulting in less browning.
Thank you, Harold McGee, for explaining that.
A $89 Weber kettle has as much searing power as even the most expensive gas grill. Now, don't get me wrong, I own a gas grill, and love it. Gas is easy and convenient. Charcoal is temperamental, with a short window before it starts to burn down and lose heat, but the results…oh, the results…
And, don't get me started about trying to use smoking wood in a gas grill. You can do it…but the smoke flavor is anemic. A fist-sized lump of oak or hickory, nestled in charcoal, is the best way to add smoke to grilling.
What kind of charcoal do I use? Kingsford. The stuff in the red, white and blue bag. It's cheap, consistent, burns hot and long; I have about a half an hour of high heat to sear with, and an hour for indirect cooking before I have to add some more coals.
Now, I'm a grilling fanatic. I should be using lump charcoal, right? Lump is pure wood charcoal. It has no binders. It burns hotter. It is recommended by my grilling heroes. Well, here's where I confess my secret shame.
I never have any luck with lump charcoal.
I tried to use it. Oh how I tried. I kept failing. It would always burn up too quickly. A blaze of lump would pour out of my chimney, leaving the grill extra-extra-hot. I had to flip the food early to keep it from burning. And then…the heat would be gone. After I flipped the food, the lump would suddenly be medium-low heat and fading fast. I fought this for years. I would start out the summer determined to master lump charcoal. Occasionally I would turn out a perfectly seared steak, just often enough to get my hopes up. Mostly I would be microwaving grilled chicken to get it to cook all the way through. Or serve steaks that were black on the outside, but so rare they went "mooo!" when poked with a fork.
Every year I turned back to my old friend, Kingsford. Suddenly, I was in charge of the fire again, not the other way around. Sure, it has a burn-down time, but unlike lump, it gave me a peak of heat followed by a slow, gradual descent. I had an hour of heat before I had to add more coals. And, I use that burn down to my advantage. I sear protein right away, while the coals are blazing hot. Later I cook easily burned vegetables, once the temperature has eased down.
Finally, I realized that lump was just not for me. I stuck with Kingsford, and never looked back. Why should I? Kingsford is cheap* and widely available.
I watch for memorial day sales, and stock up for the summer. Big-box hardware stores use Kingsford as a loss leader, so I start each summer by loading the back of my van with bags of charcoal.
I've heard that lump has a "cleaner" taste, due to the lack of additives. Kingsford has a funny smell to it when it lights, but once it is burning, I've never noticed a difference in the taste of the food that cooks on it.
Unlike lighter fluid, or (shudder) match-light coals, which give food a hint of gasoline flavor.
It is consistent, too. Every bag works the same. (Unlike some bags of lump, full of large coals, and others, full of tiny shards). A chimney full of Kingsford is high heat for direct grilling, every time. Half a chimney, set to one side of the grill and replenished with twelve coals every hour, gives me low and slow for barbecue.
Sure, they have some fancier versions of Kingsford now. I've tried Kingsford competition briquettes, and the hickory and mesquite impregnated coals. The wood-impregnated coals were too smoky for my tastes, and the competition briquettes seemed just like regular Kingsford. I'll stick with my old friend in the red, white and blue bag.
*PS: Please, whatever you do, don't use match-light coals. They are soaked through with lighter fluid. Guess what the food will taste like? I wouldn't use lighter fluid either, for similar reasons. In theory, you can burn off all the lighter fluid; in practice, I can still taste it. A charcoal chimney lights coals quicker and doesn't leave a funny taste in the food.
What do you think? Questions? Other ideas? Passionate defenses of lump charcoal or match-light briquettes? Leave them in the comments section below.
Special thanks to Chris Allingham over at VirtualWeberBullet.com for inspiring this post. Looking for more charcoal information? Check out his All About Charcoal, and read about his trip to Kingsford's R and D Lab.
*Enjoyed this post? Want to help out DadCooksDinner? Subscribe using your RSS reader or by Email, recommend DadCooksDinner to your friends, or buy something from Amazon.com through the links on this site. Thank you!