Saturday, June 04, 2016

Cleaner, hotter, blacker, better... Charcoal

Humans have been making... and cooking with... charcoal for thousands of years.

It was literally our first processed fuel technology, making a much hotter, cleaner, and more manageable fire than wood, with MUCH lighter and easier to pack fuel.

...In fact, charcoal is STILL the most common cooking fuel in much of Africa and parts of Asia and south America even today.

We've come up with hundreds of ways of cooking, since we started cooking over charcoal... None of them taste any better, and very few nearly as good.

Sadly.. Lots of people thing cooking with charcoal is a hassle and a mess. They prefer propane, or just using their ovens or broilers.. or maybe cast iron preheated in the oven, then used over really hot burner...

... all of which can produce good results of course, especially cast iron....

... and if they've only cooked with "charcoal briquettes"... which aren't anything like actual charcoal (more on that later)... I can certainly understand why they would (mistakenly) think charcoal was not that great, a mess, and a hassle...

Because they've never ACTUALLY cooked with charcoal.

Cooking with natural lump charcoal, is one of the most efficient, quickest, easiest, and least messy means of cooking there is... And of course, one of the tastiest.

Wood, natural gas, and propane (and some types of mineral coal), all make for medium temperature, and very "wet" heat, with lots of, sometimes unpleasant, residues (and odors).

Natural lump charcoal makes for a cook fire, so hot and dry, (because it burns very efficiently and nearly completely), that it lets you get a hard sear, or even char on the outside, while still staying juicy, tender, and medium rare inside.... Even for very thin cuts of meat, or very small pieces like steak tips.

Propane can't do that, nor can any home oven or most home ranges... even with thick cast iron. In fact, it's basically impossible to get anywhere near as good delivery of heat into your food as natural lump charcoal can give you, without very expensive specialty restaurant equipment.

... and if you like cooking in cast Iron, you have no idea how great it can be, until you cook with cast iron and proper charcoal... Propane and natural gas can't hold a candle.

Now... if you're cooking with briquettes, that's another story entirely... They're awful...
Briquettes really ARE a high effort hassle for poor results...

They don't smell right, sometimes food doesn't taste right with them, they're heavy and messy, they are difficult and take forever to light and usually need starting fluid (sometimes even with a chimney starter), they make for low and uneven heating... they can even choke off their own fire and end up going out... and most of all, they can take 30 or 45 minutes before you're ready to cook.

And of course, with propane... or even with an oven or a range and cast iron, you've got to pre-heat for 10 to 20 minutes as well...

Real charcoal is nothing like a hassle...
With a chimney starter, and natural lump charcoal; going from nothing to ready to cook, is very quick, and takes almost no effort.

Literally 20 seconds of trivial effort to load the charcoal and light the starter, and 10-15 minutes of waiting for the coals to get ready...

...and then you're cooking, at a FAR higher temperature than any home oven or burner can get.

How hot can it get?

A natural lump charcoal fire, in a chimney starter, can easily get to over 1400 degrees.

If you use enough charcoal, and let it burn a few minutes longer and hotter, it will get to the point where it is generating its own blast draft, just like a furnace.

When it's blasting like a furnace, that fire can get steel to cherry red, which is over 1500 degrees... even up to a bright cherry red as high as 1700 degrees... (leave it long enough, with enough airflow, and enough charcoal, and it can go even higher, and melt the thin sheetmetal of the chimney starter. With a bellows or blower, you can easily get a charcoal fire hot enough to forge, and even to smelt, steel).

Ok... but how hot can I actually cook with it?

After dumping the chimney into the grill, when the charcoal is glowing bright red on the grate; with good airflow and proper insulation under the fire, you can see a temperature at the grill surface of 800 to 1100 degrees easily... sometimes higher (I've regularly measured 1200 with a non contact thermometer).

... Which means cooking faster, which means getting better texture and flavor, without overcooking.

In fact, if you're just cooking a couple of steaks, burgers, breasts etc... you can just take a grill grate, and cook right on top of the chimney starter, using much less charcoal.

You cook right on the starter, it takes about 3 minutes total to cook a 1" thick steak to medium rare... 90 seconds a side.

It only takes enough charcoal to make the chimney work properly... a few ounces, a few inches, and some waste paper. I light it with a blowtorch to make it even faster and easier... and more fun... When the charcoal is fully ignited... you don't have to wait for an orange hot jet of flame but you can if you like... you're ready to cook.

When you burn it that hot, charcoal burns almost completely... Almost no cleanup... because it's REAL charcoal. No pan, no oven, just a little bit of ash... and really, it's only a little bit.

... and it's not all about the fast and hot...

If you want a lower and slower cook, get your starter to the point where all the charcoal has caught, but not where it's generating its own updraft blast furnace...

Then dump on the grate, and restrict the airflow into the firebox. Everything will slow down, and smolder, for quite a long time.

You can easily sustain a low and slow, or a medium heat, for hours... anywhere from 190 degrees in the grill box, to 400-500 degrees... adding new charcoal as necessary.

With a well insulated hot box, this dry controlled heat is ideal for pizza and certain kinds of bread baking. In fact, it's likely the only way most home cooks can actually get an oven hot enough to make proper pizza (though using a combination of firebrick and a thick piece of pizza steel, and preheating for a long time, can get you close).

... and of course, you can smoke meats this way, with seasoned smoking wood added to the charcoal.

It really is just better...

When I have the gear, and the space, I cook with REAL charcoal year round, rain, shine, snow (just rig an awning)... doesn't matter.

It can actually be much LESS hassle, and much LESS cleanup, than using your kitchen.

It's not like cooking with "charcoal briquettes"...which... and this is the importan't part... aren't even actual charcoal.

Wait... Briquettes aren't charcoal?

No... really... they're not. Not even much like it at all actually.

"Charcoal briquettes" are actually mostly sand or clay, and binders, with a little blackened sawdust, and coal dust mixed in.

Kingsford, the %1 brand in America lists the following as the ingredients of their briquettes:

Wood char (partially charred sawdust and wood flour)
Mineral char (partially burned coal dust from processing of soft brown lignite coal... often high sulfur coal)
Mineral carbon (unburned coal dust from soft brown lignite coal)
Sodium nitrate

Even the "wood char" isn't really charcoal, it's blackened sawdust and wood flour (often left over from paper and saw mills, which is good), but it hasn't really been pyrolized as proper charcoal.

Basically, they're over 90% stuff that isn't anything like charcoal, and less than 10% of stuff that is sort of like charcoal... but no actual charcoal.

That's why they can't cook worth a damn, why they take forever to heat, and why there is so much mess. They don't light well, they don't burn well, and they don't cook well.

Thankfully, you can get natural lump charcoal almost anywhere now (including walmart), and given how little you actually need, for how much you can cook with it... it's actually LESS expensive than briquettes.

Good natural lump charcoal runs between $1 and $1,50 a pound. "Good" briquettes run between $0.50 and $1.00 a pound.

Initially, that may seem significantly MORE expensive, however, with lump, you never need to use starting fluid ($4 a bottle, which lasts what... 20lbs?) and you don't waste 80% of your heat "waiting for the coals to be ready".

More importantly, because it cooks so much hotter and so much faster, and because you start cooking in 10 minutes not 30-45...

...You can cook more with 1lb of lump, than you can with 5lbs of briquettes...

Yes, really, it's about 5 to 1.

... And of course, because lump burns much more completely and cleaner, and briquettes are literally more than 90% "nothing like charcoal"...when you're done with that 1lb of lump vs 5lbs of briquettes... the briquettes end up making about 10 times the ash, and nasty residues.

So... yeah... grilling with briquettes is a high effort, expensive, messy hassle...

Which, of course, is why you should grill with... you know... actual charcoal.