July is National Grilling Month. To celebrate, "Low & Slow" co-author Colleen Rush will be offering up vital bits of barbecue wisdom every Thursday throughout the month.
Forget what you think you know about barbecue. It is not a catchall word for any food cooked outside or drenched in a sweet, sticky sauce. Barbecue is a method. It is a noun, not a verb or a sauce. It is a cooking technique that requires the interaction of wood smoke, charcoal, fire, and meat. Just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no gas in barbecue. There's no boiling, baking, Crockpot-ing, or foiling and steaming, either. Charcoal vs. Gas
The strict definition of barbecue isn't just a matter of tradition. It's about the flavor. A fire fueled by charcoal and wood naturally creates the smoky, earthy, charred-fat flavor that is the essence of great barbecue. Natural gas or propane is neutral and sterile by comparison, and no amount of burning wood chips in a box will produce the same taste or texture in meat as a glowing bed of hot coals.
Yes, charcoal is messy and difficult compared to the push-button simplicity of a gas or electric cooker. It takes time to light a chimney of charcoal, your hands will (gasp!) get dirty, and there's a good chance you'll burn yourself once or twice. But in the words of Barbecue Life Coach Gary Wiviott, gas versus charcoal is like a blow-up doll versus the real thing. "The former might be fun and moderately satisfying, but the latter is ever so much better," says Wiviott.Learn the finer points to firing up your grill, after the jump.
Briquettes Are No Match for Natural Lump
Regular briquettes are noxious little nuggets of anthracite coal, borax, sodium nitrate and other crud that makes them burn slower, hotter and more evenly. Hardwood or lump charcoal is a natural charcoal made by burning wood. Unlike briquettes, this charcoal is not ground up, blended with filler and reformed into neat little squares. It actually looks like a burned piece of wood. Lump charcoal burns clean, has no chemical additives, and produces less ash and residue -- all of which adds up to cleaner smoke and better barbecue. Lighting a Chimney Starter
If your idea of starting charcoal involves lighter fluid and a match, you may as well cook on gas, too. After the lighter fluid burns off, it leaves an acrid, chemical residue that will taint the taste of your 'cue. A chimney starter
, three sheets of newspaper and a match are all you need to light a batch of lump charcoal. Here's how: Step 1.
Roll three full sheets of newspaper into loosely crumpled, concentric circles (think: paper doughnuts). Place the paper rings in the bottom of the charcoal chimney, leaving enough space and looseness between the sheets to allow air to flow around the paper. Step 2.
Set the chimney on a grate or any other fireproof surface that allows air to flow under the starter. Fill the chimney almost to the rim with lump charcoal. Step 3.
Strike that match and light the newspaper in two or three places. Step 4.
Open a beer, sip and stare at the chimney for five to 10 minutes. At first, thick swells of dirty, white smoke from the lit newspaper will pour out of the top, sides, and bottom of the chimney. Lump charcoal also crackles and pops as it engages. Step 5.
When you see red-hot coals glowing from the holes in the side of the chimney, clear flames shooting from the top, and a gray-white ash edging the charcoal near the top of the starter, the charcoal is ready to pour into the cooker.
Click here for Colleen's previous column on marinades and brines.