Charcoal Grilling

Grilling using a charcoal grill

The charcoal grill is undoubtedly the most unruly medium for cooking meal, but there's nothing like it once you've learned how to tame the flame.

The first challenge is to test the fire's heat level by knowing how hot the fire is. A simple test is to see how long you can hold your hand 5" above the cooking surface. One second means you've got a searing-hot fire. Two seconds equals medium-hot. Three to four seconds is a medium fire. Five seconds equals medium-low. After 6 seconds, you've got a low fire on your hands.

Food needs to be added at the right time. Use the fire's heat level to determine when to place foods on the grill. For example, to get a nice, dark sear on a steak, you want a hot fire. Similarly, you want a hot fire for a pork tenderloin, which is best when brown and crusty on the outside while light pink and tender inside. To cook firm, thick cuts of fish, such as tuna or salmon steaks, wait until the coals are medium hot. Many firm vegetables also do well with a medium-hot fire, such as eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, and asparagus. A medium fire is best for chicken breasts in order to crisp the skin without burning it and to cook the meat through evenly. For delicate fish fillets, use a medium-low fire.

It is advisable to make a two-level fire. Like a stove-top burner, a grill would ideally have adjustable heat. When grilling over charcoal, the answer is to build a two-level fire. When the coals are hot, use a grill poker to make two piles of coals, one lower pile and one higher pile. These are your two levels of heat to work with - medium low and high. For example, if you like your steak well-done, it's best to sear it over the high fire first, then move it to the medium-low fire so that it can cook through to well-done without charring to a a black, crusty slab. Similarly, with pizza, you can crisp and toast the crust over a hot fire, but finish cooking it with the toppings over low heat.

Two levels of heat also allow you to simultaneously cook a variety of foods that might need different levels of heat. When grilling something dense, such as a pork loin, pile the coals on just one side of the grill, then cook the roast on the opposite side, where there is no flame. This form of indirect grilling helps dense roasts cook slowly and evenly.

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