Labor Day 2010: The Proper Way to Light BBQ Grills
Labor Day is coming. While that marks the unofficial end of summer, it is for many the official end of BBQ season. If you are hosting a barbecue or even if you are just attending, it's important to know how to light the fire. Knowing how to get the charcoal going can mean the difference between a good time and food poisoning.
What's that? You have a gas grill? Well, why don't you just cook the steaks in your oven and the burgers in your George Foreman grill? If you're going to barbecue with a gas grill you might as well just move your oven outside or cook in the kitchen with the windows open because, without real fire and its less predictable nature, you aren't really BBQing.
Although Katie has previously waxed rhapsodic about throwing a BBQ grill party
and Annika has shared the many options available when cooking on barbecue
, I'm here to talk about the nuts and bolts of properly operating a barbecue grill.
First things first: you need a grill. If you are reading this on Tuesday, you'd better hurry--you've got less than a week till Labor Day. I have been using a traditional Weber kettle
grill for years. The shape and the depth help airflow get to the coals, so the fire burns better. Just about anything will work though. I once improvised a barbecue out of an old file cabinet drawer, with a grill cut out of an old shopping cart. Just make sure there are vent holes in the bottom for air to get in, and that they are clear of old ash and coals from the last BBQ.
Next you need the charcoal. I'll admit, I too have used the Matchlight in moments of weakness and haste. But for the best flavor, you want to avoid lighter fluid all together. I'm not a coal snob though. I like Kingsford for its classic American backyard connotations and the fact that the bag still looks like it's 1955. My favorite has a good amount of mesquite mixed in with the other wood and fillers, to give your meat a real smoked flavor.
Better yet though, pick up some real wood lump charcoal and get ready for a flavor explosion. It used to be hard to find. I remember having to go to the last coal and ice vendor in Boston to buy the stuff back in the 1990s, but now you can buy it at most home improvement stores and the nicer grocery chains. Regular charcoal briquettes are made of sawdust and fillers, but lump charcoal is all wood. It burns hotter, longer and more delicious.
Now you have to get it hot. Like Bruce Springsteen said, "You can't start a fire without a spark." He's the Boss: that's not a suggestion, that's an order. We already know how I feel about lighter fluid, so best to use a charcoal chimney. Not only is lighter fluid bad for the environment, depending on how many beers you've had, it's bad for your eyebrows as well. Crumple up several sheets of newspaper and loosely pack it in the bottom of the chimney. (This and puppy training currently accounts for 25% of newspapers sold today
.) Don't put too much paper in there or the air won't be able to get to the fire. Flip it, and fill the top of the chimney with charcoal. Light the paper in several places, and go get a beer to kill time.
About ten minutes later the coals should be nice and ashy all the way to the top of the chimney. Dump out the coals. Spread them out evenly around the grill, wait another five minutes and you should be ready to go. If you are cooking chicken, wait a few more minutes, otherwise you will burn the outside before the inside is done. The inside of chicken is done when the juice coming out is clear and not pink. To be certain, sacrifice one drumstick by cutting into the fattest part of the meat. The meat should be white or tan, but not pink. Here's some more guidelines on cooking chicken
Alright, now don't eat too much. Just because there are five kinds of meat, doesn't mean you have to eat one of each. I think the FDA recommends you never eat more meat than you can curl with one arm--or 10 pounds, if you have been working out. And remember, don't fill up on bread!
Are you sending off Summer and celebrating Labor Day by barbecuing? Share your BBQ tips with me in the comments.