For Grilling, Wood Is Good

The heat is on -- or will be come Saturday afternoon, when Memorial Day weekend is in full swing. If you have lost all sense of time, all you'd need to do is open the window and take a big whiff to know summer has arrived. The smell of burning charcoal will enter your nostrils just about everywhere you go, from sea to shining sea, suburban backyard to city park, beach cottage to camp site.

But let's face it, the smell in the air doesn't really go away after the holiday. Basically, for the next few months, we grill-loving Americans are all about eating fire and inhaling smoke.

As the cook in the family, I often don't accept much kitchen advice from Mister Mighty Appetite, but I must admit, ever since we met a few years back, he's taken the lead on grilling, and I like what he's done.

Early in the relationship, it was clear that we were both partial to charcoal grills, and I must now say, I am relieved. This should actually one of the many questions asked of a prospective mate -- Kids? Blue or Red? Coffee or tea? Charcoal or gas? Imagine how many dating disasters could be avoided if all this vital data were retrieved before it was too late.

That first summer, we stuck to what we both knew -- briquettes out of a bag and lighter fluid. For years, I'd wanted to change up that odiferous, toxic combination, but frankly it was at the bottom of the to-do list. By the next grilling season, Mister M.A. asserted his grilling prowess and procured a chimney. (Link is for illustrative purposes only.)

A grill chimney looks like a big flour sifter. You dump the coal inside, and light a match. Lighter fluid suddenly becomes irrelevant. Once the flames have died down, you pour the contents of the chimney into the bowl of the grill, and you're ready to cook.

I was blown away. No more fluid. What a concept. I've wanted to get that stuff out of my life for years.

Gearing up for grill season number three, Mister M.A. decided to push the envelope just a wee bit further. Rather than loading up on a bag of briquettes, he chose a bag of lump charcoal instead. What that means is 100 percent hardwood, without fillers, which sometimes are petroleum-based, sometimes wheat-based (which is something to keep in mind if you have celiac disease).

So we try the stuff, using a pound of ground sirloin that we bought at The Organic Butcher of McLean, an interesting little butcher shop selling meat from Virginia farms. We add little to the meat -- one teaspoon salt and a few teaspoons of olive oil only. He mans the fire and does all the flipping.

My word. Why had I waited so long? The wood isn't just good -- it's imperative. It's so good your brain receptors eliminate all references to briquettes and store lump charcoal as the only way to grill a burger or whatever else is on your menu this summer. Yes, I know it's more expensive (starting at 10 bucks per 10-pound bag), but I'm telling you, a few extra bucks will take your grilling to a whole new level.

Go. Find. Wood.

You'll thank me next Tuesday, I guarantee you. Actually, you'll thank Mister M.A. I'll tell him to be on call.

Check out today's Food section for some great tips on making burgers and a fun recipe for making your own buns.

By the way... did you know automobile magnate Henry Ford invented the charcoal briquette? It all got started around 1920 in Kingsford, Mich., which is how the famed Kingsford Charcoal Briquettes got its name. To make things even stranger, the Kingsford line is a subsidiary of the Clorox Company. Yes, that Clorox.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 23, 2007; 7:45 AM ET Flames
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Do you still use the chimmney with the lump charcoal?

Posted by: J | May 23, 2007 9:04 AM

I'm pretty sure that TJs and WFs both sell lump charcoal. It's amazing stuff I have to say.

Here's the easy recipe for perfect BBQd chicken:

Soak a whole chicken in a large (10 qt) pot of water, with 1/4 cup of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar, and 2-3 Tablespoons of pickling spice. make sure the chicken stays submerged in the water and do this the night before.

The next day put 1 lb of hardwood charcoal on one side of your kettle grill. After the flames die down, place the whole chicken on the opposite side of the grate, NOT over the fire. Put the cover over the grill. Come back in an hour, check with a meat thermometer, and you'll have perfect grilled chicken.

Posted by: G man | May 23, 2007 9:46 AM

Does the type of wood used make a difference? I know that when salmon is grilled on cedar planks it makes a difference. Also, in response to yesterday's blog, have you decided how to spend your gift card?

Posted by: Anonymous | May 23, 2007 10:10 AM

Hard wood lump charcoal is great. You can also go with grilling over REAL wood. Try hickory and mesquite as they provide some nice flavors for steak. I've also cooked/smoked a turkey over lump charcoal and added cherry woodchips for flavor.

It does matter which wood you buy as certain woods provide different smoke flavors. Some woods provide a very strong smoke flavor, such as Hickory.

BTW - I usually buy 20 lbs bags of lump charcoal from Barbeques Galore for about $15 each.

Posted by: JTR | May 23, 2007 10:34 AM

J -- you can light any kind of charcoal with the chimmney -- you only need some wadded paper.

I think the hardwood burns hotter than bricks, which is what I want when I'm grilling. I've found that some brands of hardwood burn longer than bricks, some burn up faster, but the flavor with hardwood is just better.

Posted by: Rita | May 23, 2007 11:07 AM

Another tip for the use of a chimney: before you wad up your 2-3 sheets of newspaper, lightly drizzle some cooking oil on each sheet (type does not matter). This helps the paper catch fire and deliver more flame to the lump charcoal.

Posted by: tommyspoon | May 23, 2007 11:36 AM

We've been using Cowboy Charcoal (found at Trader Joe's), but I find it doesn't burn out enough. Any other recommendations for lump charcoal and where to find it? Cowboy is ready to go in about 15 minutes using a chimney.

Posted by: RF | May 23, 2007 12:05 PM

Been a fan of hardwood charcoal for 18+ years. I'd avoid Cowboy Charcoal (sold at TJ's) or any other brand whose wood has been sawed into sticks are aren't uneven wood chunks (last time I tried it a few years ago the WF house brand fell into this category). Reason: the sticks burn and lose heat too quickly which is especially an issue if you do indirect method for things like Beer Can Chicken. Barbeque Galore carries a couple of brands which are good; if you can find New Braunfels wood charcoal, it's the best (used to be carried by Home Depot and is packaged in paper box).

Also--when using a chimney starter, avoid using newspaper pages with color print--dyes are reputedly problematic.

One fun gadget for grilling--a fish holder, hinged, oval at one end in the shape of a fish with long handle--allows you easily grill a whole fish slathered with olive oil and lemon, with some herbs and onions in cavity or tucked into gashes in the flesh. Almost as good as being in Greece/Italy. Got mine at long gone Woodward & Lothrop, is teflon coated and has foldable "feet" on each side so it sits level on top of grate.

Happy Grilling!

Posted by: FLT | May 23, 2007 12:19 PM

My husband and I loooove grilling on charcoal. TJ's Cowboy Charcoal has been good to us so far -- we even used it to smoke our Thanksgiving turkey last year. Here's a cheat that we especially like to use weekday evenings when we're tired, hungry, and want our dinner ASAP: Before filling your charcoal chimney with the lovely, natural lump charcoal, put a few briquets only of Match Light at the bottom. The mushroom cloud produced by the Match Light in the charcoal chimney just gets the lump charcoal that much faster...

Posted by: Aimily | May 23, 2007 1:15 PM

Outdoor grilling will be banned soon in California and the rest of the nation will follow. Think about all the pollution and CO2 you putting into our air! Kim how could you grill. Save the Earth! And then eating meat! And gas and wood fireplaces and stoves will also be banned soon. Go green adn save the earth.

Posted by: treehugger | May 24, 2007 8:31 AM

Well, I have to put up at least one shout out for gas. I love my Weber Q as it is the perfect size for this condo dweller who didn't want to forego grilling. I hemmed and hawed and hemmed and hawed over gas vs. charcoal and when I read Bobby Flay's arguments for both, I at least felt like I had one heavyweight who doesn't totally disdain gas. It is easier to control the temperature after all. I just have to be very creative with marinades and ingredients to maximize flavor, and no one has turned up their noses thus far!

Posted by: Sean | May 24, 2007 5:38 PM

Most local jurisdictions ban any type of grill gas or charcoal from condo or apartment decks or patios. Its against the law and you can be ticketed and fined. Also if something should happen your homeowners insurance is null and void!

Posted by: treehugger | May 24, 2007 5:45 PM

...with a different take. All types of cooking require energy, either electrical or gas. Cooking inside using electric energy - where does electricity come from? In many places, coal. In others, nuclear reactors. In others, hydroelectric plants. None of these are perfectly clean, whether due to pollutants released (coal) or the need to store waste (nuclear). I'm not going to take the time to do the math, but I can't imagine the pollution differential between a summer's worth of grilling versus cooking indoors over high heat is that much to worry about in comparison with the larger issues of industrial and automobile pollution. A cooking blog isn't the best place to get into it, anyways. And as far as condos go, it really does depend on the development (mine allows them).

On topic, I've been doing fine so far this summer with a gas grill, but I do enjoy a simple Weber charcoal grill when I have access. I'll have to try the hardwood. Growing up, my dad would always put mesquite chips in a pan of water over the coals to flavor meats, but using hardwood sounds like it would skip that step altogether. Thanks for the information, Kim.

Posted by: another treehugger... | May 24, 2007 6:58 PM

If you really want to go crazy with lump charcoal (which I highly recommend!) check out

They review different brands for heat/ash production/quality, etc. Great fun!

Posted by: Sarah | June 14, 2007 12:21 PM

Hey you guys, I've got yet another way to do the "Q"-- My wife & I got tired of the mess and the flare ups, etc. (probably because I never could figure out how to control the heat?) so we decided several years ago to try the Electric Char Broil Patio Caddie. Cooking long and slow, or fast and hot, it really has proven itself on everything from burgers to chops, and I just plain don't burn anything any more. The flavor of outdoor cooking stays with the food, and if I want some extra smoke I use a few chips of mesquite in a metal box that can be set directly in the unit on top of the element. It has yet to flare up (even with pork or beef ribs), and is surprisingly roomy. We can cook several steaks or burgers at a time with ours. Best of all, it uses a standard 110 volt plug and has never flipped a breaker! Most apartment/ condo/townhome operators have banned the gas and charcoal units, but they will still let you do the electric, and with good reason. NO FLARE-UPS! The unit has a drain system that siphons off any flammable liquids and ceramic briquets under the element generally eliminate any liquids by vaporizing whatever falls on them. (That also provides a certain amount of self basting moisture back into the cooking area when the lid is kept on while cooking.) We have been so impressed that we have given them as gifts to family members that have enjoyed cooking out at our place. This is one thing that I can honestly say has more than satisfied us for the money we spent. A new one of these is actually cheaper than most gas grills we see today in stores. We used our last one for several years and finally gave it away to a friend in need and bought us another one this spring. Enjoy!

Posted by: Gene | June 15, 2007 9:42 AM

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