Archive for the ‘Charcoal’ Category

Mesquite-os. Blech.

Mesquite-os. Blech.

Mesquite is an innocent, plain looking tree that can grow in really dry climates. Mesquite is also a corporate patsy, wrongfully associated with salty, sugar bombs in the snack aisle that claim to be BBQ.

A quick note to any beginners: Mesquite isn’t a powder on your chips, it’s a type of wood. Once you finally graduate from cooking with despicable grocery store briquettes in favor of quality lump charcoal, you’ll find cooking with just plain wood (mixed with lump or entirely) will be your next milestone.

I don’t know how Mesquite got confused with that very artificial flavor of barbecue. If I were a botanist, I’d be outraged, Lorax style. What did Mesquite trees do to deserve this kind of treatment? Well, besides plaguing the interior of Hawaii, proving to be nearly impossible to eradicate, and producing creepy, practically poisonous bean pods?

And what’s especially confusing: I’ve always thought Mesquite kind of sucks. There are so many other, better choices of wood. Hey Frito Lay — Why go with Mesquite?

But this is one of those questions that you keep to yourself. Barbecue people can be so judgmental. Not me of course. OTHER barbecue people. I’m very, very, very open minded all the time. Like a bear trap.

So thank goodness for Cook’s Illustrated.

The editors of Cook’s Illustrated did a wood smoke taste test pitting (ha!) eight different types of wood against each other in a cook-off. They tested each on pork, fish, chicken and beef.

Of the eight woods tested, only one was unanimously disliked: Mesquite. Our favorite label-friendly wood, Mesquite wasn’t just bad, it was by far the worst. They described it as “harsh” and “acrid” and “reminding some of burnt rubber.”

I finally feel vindicated.

Their favorites (a tie) were Apple, which I do use regularly, and Cherry, which I confess I’ve never tried. And my personal favorite, Hickory, came in third place, which the editors described as “generic, but good” and “balanced.”

A note to Locals: You can get large bags of Apple wood at the Golden Steer butcher in Bellevue. I’ve used Apple off and on over the past year or so, and I do really like it. But my only complaint is it’s over-powering when used by itself. I think it really needs to be mixed with ordinary lump charcoal.

I don’t know if Cook’s Illustrated wields enough power to put an end to the Mesquite Madness. And maybe it doesn’t matter. If you’re scarfing down Mesquite flavored Pringles, chances are you either don’t care about barbecue, or you’re partying in Washington or Colorado, if you know what I mean.

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This lump did NOT sit alone in a boggy marsh. That I know of.

I checked the mail bag today, and noticed more questions about charcoal.  Two were about how to light charcoal properly, to which I say, um … have you tried matches? 

But I think what folks are getting at is how does one get charcoal to the right temperature, and then how do you get it to stay there.

When I wrote about How to Use a Kamado, someone commented on this issue, too. It can be tricky, especially if you’re a beginner to either a ceramic cooker or quality lump charcoal.

As with most of my ramblings, there’s the right answer, and then there’s my answer.

The right answer: Use a charcoal chimney. To be clear, this is something I’ve never  personally used, never owned, and don’t even want.  But most die-hard barbecue lovers use them. So, consider doing as I say, not as I do.  A charcoal chimney is a metal canister that you operate separately from your grill. You pour your charcoal into it, it heats the charcoal quickly and evenly, and then you pour your charcoal into your grill.   This solves two problems at once. First, it helps you get a hot grill faster, but second and more important, it gives you even, predictable heat. 

Or so I’m told.  I will never know, because I don’t intend to own one. My back deck is already cluttered enough with barbecue stuff.

So, if you’re like me, and don’t plan on having a charcoal chimney, here are my five tips when it comes to taming your charcoal.

1)      Pick a brand of quality lump charcoal that you like, and stick with it. I’d say 75% of the battle is just getting to know the coal itself, because there’s a lot of variation between brands. Some burns hot, some burns slow, some lights quickly, some doesn’t, some starts cool then gets hot, and so on.  So, it’s a really good idea to get used to something, and then stick with it. The brand I use is Lazzari Hardwood Lump Charcoal    …  I don’t know if it’s the best, but I definitely like it, and am very accustomed to it.

The only brand of lump charcoal I don’t recommend (aside from the horror that is grocery store briquettes) is the Big Green Egg charcoal.  This is not a comment on BGEs, which I’m sure are great. But the BGE charcoal I found is relatively hard and slow to light, then suddenly gets lava hot.  So, too moody for me.

2)      Make sure you’ve cleaned out your ashes.   Per my post about how to use a Kamado, cooking on a ceramic cooker is all about air flow.  A big pile of ash at the bottom of your grill is like a stuffy nose to a fire.  If you block the airflow, you’re going to get weird results.  So, even though it’s a pain, and you’re hungry, get those ashes out of there on a regular basis.

3)      Get the coals hot, then cool them down.  I hate this, but it’s the right thing to do. You’re hungry, you’re impatient, you have a dinner to serve. So when the grill hits your target temperature, you can’t help but want to get to cooking.  Well, don’t.  You’ll be happier and you’ll get more predictable results if you let the grill heat up and let the coals get going more evenly.  Go over by 50 to 100 degrees. Then, when you starve them of oxygen, the temperature will drop back down to your target temperature, and you’ll have a smooth, stable ride from there.  This is especially useful when you’re doing a long, slow cook, and you don’t feel like checking your thermometer ten times overnight

4)      Mix up the sizes of your charcoal.  Unlike briquettes, lump charcoal comes in all sizes, and irregular shapes. So you can’t just pour from the bag.  It’s a little more like building a campfire than your run-in-the-mill barbecue.  I generally put on a pair of gloves, dig out a few of the bigger pieces, then surround them with handfulls of the smaller pieces.  (This also makes lighting easier, because the smaller pieces will get fired up first, then they do a great job heating up the big logs).

5)      Per my other charcoal post, I use 3 to 5 sugarcube sized pieces of Firestart or similar sawdust-based product to get the coals going.  I’ve never had any issues at all getting coals started this way, and it’s nice not to use gas or artificial lighter fluids.

Ok, now here’s what I don’t know.  A lot of pro barbecue types either mix in a lot of plain wood, or just use wood exclusively.  I’ll be giving that a try soon, so I can make some comparisons.  But for all I know, all this advice is the same – or, completely different – if we’re talking about just plain wood.   I’ll let you know.

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Charcoal for beginners

Charcoal for beginners…

The single easiest thing you can do to get a great barbecue dinner is come over to my house. But the SECOND easiest thing you can do is change the charcoal you’re using.

Remember, I have done all the dumb things a person can do to ruin a barbecue, so you don’t have to.  And believe me, perhaps the single dumbest thing I did back in my chump barbecue days was to use cheap, grocery store briquettes (e.g. Kingsford) when I could have been using high-quality lump charcoal.

Let me make this simple: I’d sooner burn the bags that good lump charcoal comes in before lighting another grocery store briquette.  But if you’re like I was, you may not even be aware that there’s a choice.

What’s the difference? The way it looks, the way it lights, the way it burns, and most important, the way it makes your food taste.

Here are some details…


Hey, that wood looks like ... wood. Go figure!

The way it looks:

 If you’ve only ever used briquettes, you’ll be pretty surprised when you open a bag of quality lump coal.  It’s wood.  Amazing, eh? Logs, branches and wood chips, blackened into coal.  You’ll see the knots and the wood grain, and even the occasional twig floating around in the bag. And the pieces are all different sizes. There will be pieces as big as your shoe, or even bigger. And golf ball sized pieces, and everything in-between. Ahhh, chaos!

The way it lights: Not with a single match, to which I respond, so what? Lump charcoal is easy to light with a little help from sawdust bricks (e.g. Duraflame Firestart), which you can get at almost any grocery store these days.  These bricks are hunks of sawdust held together by a flammable wax, and are more eco-friendly than lighter fluid.  Tear 2 or 3 pieces off, place them strategically in your pile of charcoal, and sure, with a single match, you can light them. You’ll have a hot fire in about 30 minutes. In a hurry? Tear off 5 or 6 pieces instead.  Two weeks ago, I cooked chicken wings at 450 degrees, and I was able to get the grill to that temperature in about 15 minutes. No gas, no lighter fluid, and no loathsome briquettes.

The way it burns: Longer, and with less waste.  Once you start barbecuing more often, you learn to covet charcoal that can burn for 8 to 12 hours at a time, and that won’t deposit huge piles of ash at the bottom of your grill. Ash inhibits oxygen flow, screws up the temperature, and ultimately makes it harder to cook. Not to mention, ash means waste. I have slow-cooked pork butts for 15 to 20 hours using a single pile of lump charcoal. (The low flow of oxygen keeps the wood from burning up, like a wood stove).  So, don’t get sticker shock when you go to buy lump charcoal. It costs more, but in addition to all the other advantages, it will last you 5 times as long.  Think of it like ‘green light bulbs.’ The value is actually there, as long as you remember to cut off the oxygen once your cook is done.

There is some variation in how lump charcoal burns, however. I’ve used some brands that get really hot, really fast.  I’ve used others that seem to never get too hot, unless you really open up the vents.  My advice: Pick a brand, get used to the way it heats up and burns, then stick with it. Familiarity is probably more important than how it actually behaves.

The way it makes your food taste: Well, this is what really matters, right? As soon as you get your barbecue going for the first time with a quality lump charcoal, you’re going to smell the difference right away.  Those horrible grocery store briquettes, you realize, smell like burning glue. That real wood smell goes right into your food and translates into flavor.  I remember the first time I cooked a chicken over a hickory fire. I was mumbling, this is the best chicken I’ve ever had after each bite. But it wasn’t just the chicken, it was the smoke.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that you get what you pay for. But keep in mind what you paid for the food you’re grilling, too. 

What should you buy?

I’m not a charcoal expert, but there are people out there who are.  The best I’ve found is nakedwhiz.com, and yeah, that is one regrettable URL, eh?  First time I heard it, I was like, “um, you sure?”

Lazzari happens to be the brand I use. But there are plenty of choices.

Nakedwhiz has detailed reviews of many different brands of lump charcoal, and I’ve found that the reviews have been pretty accurate.  (They’re really harsh on Kamado charcoal, which I found to be ok.) What I’m not sure of is when, if ever, they update their site.  It has looked the same to me for more than a year.

The best charcoal for me is whatever kind I can easily get, and am accustomed to using.

Again, my advice is to just get really familiar with a good brand, rather than agonize between brands. I live near a fish market that sells Lazzari Lump Charcoal year round. Is it the best lump you can buy? I have no idea.  But I’ve really learned how to use it, e.g. how fast it heats up, how long it lasts, how much ash it creates.   (For folks in Seattle, I’m referring to Mutual Fish Co.).

So, hopefully now you’ll never buy terrible charcoal again.

BTW: The only lump charcoal I’ve purchased that I truly didn’t like was the Cowboy brand at Trader Joe’s.  Sorry, TJs … but I’ll stick with the Joe Joe’s and cream cheese.

More on charcoal: Lighting your Lump here :  https://bluestatebbq.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/lighting-your-lump-more-charcoal-for-beginners/

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