The key to success in any grilling project is control over time and temp. The best way is a 2-zone setup. This gives you a hot direct heat zone when you need to brown the surface, and a cooler indirect zone where the food can cook by convection airflow when you want to gently and evenly warm the interior of the food.
Water pans are a great addition to the cooking environment. They absorb heat and radiate it back evenly mitigating temperature fluctuations, and they add humidity to the air helping to reduce evaporation from the food. The moisture also mixes with the smoke and combustion gases to create wonderful bacony flavors.
Hardwood or fruitwood adds smoky flavor and complexity. But it is easy to ruin food with too much wood. Your exact setup may be different than mine if you don’t have a Weber Kettle, but if you follow the concepts, killer barbecue and grilling are in your future. Click here for more info about meat science. Click here for more about the thermodynamics of cooking.
Now this is important: Every grill design is different. The two key temps you need to master are 225°F and 325°F. The first thing to do is to test and calibrate your grill without food so you can see how it performs. Read this article about calibration and dry runs. Once you have your grill figgered out, it will take only a few minutes to set up the next time. It is essential, required, necessary, to have a good digital thermometer since most bi-metal dial grill thermometers are next to worthless. They can be off by 50 to 100°F! You can’t cook unless you know your oven’s temp!
The best way to start a charcoal fire is with a chimney . It is a tube with an upper compartment and a lower compartment.
First you stuff newspaper into the bottom compartment, add charcoal to the top compartment, then you light the paper, and in about 15 minutes the coals are white and ready. The hot air from the newspapeers rises and sucks oxygen in through the bottom and that creates a rapid updraft that grows rapidly in heat amking the top of the chimney blowtorch hot.
Some folks have been known to drizzle some cooking oil on the paper to make it burn longer but I’ve never found this necessary. Reader “SuperDave2” writes to say he puts the chimney on the sideburner on his gas grill and “I can light my chimney with a push of a button and they are ready in half the time and perfectly evenly lit.”
With a chimney there is no chemical aftertaste, no solvent smell in the air, and it’s a lot cheaper and safer than using lighter fluid. The Weber brand of chimney is my fave and it lasts longer than the cheaper models. Rule of thumb: There are about 16 Kingsford briquets in a quart, so a gallon is about 64 briquets. A Weber chimney holds about 5 quarts, or about 80 briquets. For a Weber kettle, I put about half a chimney of unlit coals in the grill and put about half a chimney of fully lit coals on top to get to 225°F. To get to 325°F, 3/4 to a full chimney should do it. It all depends on the air temp, humidity, brand of charcoal, and other variables. You must do dry runs to calibrate your grill.
Another, slightly easier technique is to use firestarters. Weber sells small cubes of paraffin that work just fine (at right). The package says to use two per chimney, but one works just fine for me. Use a chimney. Save your eyebrows, and control your temp.
Weber and other grill manufacturers recommend a method of banking the coals on two sides with a pan of water in the center, underneath the food (shown at left). This concept is called 2-Zone or Indirect cooking and it is an essential concept in good outdoor cooking. But there is a better way that gives you more indirect cooking area and won’t get the meat too hot on the edges.
Bank the coals against only one side, not two (shown at right). This way you can start thick steaks at a low temp on one side, bring the inside up to close to your desired finish temp, and then quickly crisp the exterior over the high heat. This technique, called reverse sear is a great way for cooking thick steaks. For tough cuts like ribs, pork butt, or beef brisket, you also use the indirect side. For ribs, you can add the sauce at the end so it doesn’t burn, and move it to the direct heat to crisp it quickly (see my article on Saucing Strategies). Fill the pan with hot water so the coals don’t burn down while heating up the water. Don’t bother using apple juice or other flavored liquid. It makes no difference in flavor and just wastes money. That means they are ready.
If space allows, place another pan of hot water directly above the coals. It adds more moisture. Position the grate with a handle over the coals, as in the photo at right. This makes adding more coal and wood chips easy. Some grates have hinges to make adding coals easier. Weber sells a grate like this. With rib racks to hold the ribs on end you can get 3 to 4 slabs of baby backs on the grate. But beware of rib racks, the meat can be very close to touching and if the space is less than an inch, you should add 30 to 60 minutes to the cooking time.
Make a burnt offering
Meat drippings incinerate when they fall on hot coals and create flavor molecules that land on the meat and can really add character. So instead of the water pan on the top grate, put a hamburger, or some meat trimmings, or even fat trimmings. Maybe coat them with a flavorful sweet sauce. They will burn to a crisp, they will cause flareups, but your meat is off to the side so it won’t burn. A burnt offering may also cause a rise in temp, so you may need to compensate by damping down the lower intake vent.
With charcoal cooking there are 2 fuels: Charcoal, and oxygen. I know you don’t often think of oxygen as fuel, but it is just as important as the charcoal. Without it the fire dies. You control the heat by controlling the supply of oxygen with the intake vents and the exhaust vents with dampers.
Crack the bottom vents so they are open half way. Place the lid on so the vent holes are positioned over the meat and leave them open at least half way. That way the smoke must travel across the food to escape. Put a thermometer probe on a cable under the lid or into a vent hole on the lid to read your temp. Place the probe next to the meat, not in the dome. The temp is diffeerent there. Leave the top vents open at least half way at all times or you risk a sooty buildup on the meat, or worse, bitter creosote. Control the temp by controlling oxygen to the charcoal with the bottom vents not the top. Click here to read more about Controlling Temperature With Vents.
Don’t lift the lid unless the temp soars or dips. If it goes up, then just add more hot water to the top pan to lower the oven temp. You can also close the bottom vents a bit, but don’t shut them off or the coals may die and the wood will smolder and generate bitter tasting smoke.
If the temp drops too low, open the vents wider. After an hour or two you may need to add more coals. On a kettle, you will probably need to add six coals every 30 to 60 minutes depending on the ambient temperature and wind. If possible ad hot coals, but cold coals will catch pretty quickly. Again, do some dry runs to see how your system responds.
You may find that you need to slide the lid off partially in order to hit your target. I heve been known to remove the lid all together and put an aluminum pan over the food as a makeshift lid on a hot day and if the fire is running hot. You need to experiment to master your instrument.
When you really need high heat
For getting a really dark sear on a wet surface like a steak or burger, you need really high heat to first evaporate the moisture, and then darken the surface via the Maillard effect, a chemical reaction that browns the amino acids and sugars and amps up the flavor. On my Weber Kettle, I put bricks under the bottom grate so that it sits higher than normal, about 2″ below the food grate (at right). When hot coals are added, they are just 1″ below the meat. Ouch! That’s hot!