So, what’s the big deal about lighting charcoal? Easy. While grilling is somewhat archaic and even primeval, it can benefit from modern technology.

I use an electric charcoal starter. Some folks like the “tower” method whereby you put some newspapers in what looks kinda like a flour sifter with holes all in the sides of the bottom and pile charcoal on top of that. Once the whole mess gets hot enough, you lift the sifter-looking can up and pile charcoal on what is burning. This is better than using lighter fluid but leaves some flaky ash from the paper that can get on your food. It is also not as convenient as the electric starter.

The electric starter is basically a 120 volt tubular heating element formed into an open elongated oval with a handle on one end. It has a piece of stainless sheet metal where the handle and element meet to act as a stand-off so that when you set the unit on a flat surface, the element doesn’t touch the surface but hovers above it a couple inches.

You put the starter on the fire grill, and pour charcoal on it. The stand-off will allow some of the charcoal to get under the element, some will be inside the oval, and most will be over it. You plug in the starter and let it do its thing for six to eight minutes. At the end of that time, you lift the starter out of the pile and stack the charcoal over the hot spot. It won’t look like you’ve got much going on there as only a few pieces will be hot. But trust the charcoal; you have introduced enough heat to push it past the “break-over” point. Those few hot coals will have the rest of the pile going in about 10 to 15 minutes – depending how you stack your charcoal. Meanwhile, lots of tasty smoke will issue forth like white wispy columns of God’s love. Now is the time to show your meat some of that love.

Put it on there! While the rest of the pile is getting good and hot, there is good clean smoke coming from it and it will cold smoke your meat for you. Remember, though – you are going for smoke at this point – not heat. So put the meat away from the charcoal and close the grill. Putting the meat over the charcoal right now is a mistake. There will be one little hot spot surrounded by a big cold spot. Some of your meat will start cooking, but not even one whole piece. This sux on many different levels. Grilling should be about even cooking. And one hot spot is NOT even cooking.

After the center of the pile is going good, then you can spread your charcoal out to how you want it. And by “how you want it”, I mean ”how it needs to be for what you’re cooking”.

There are four legitimate heat forms for grilling:
1) Direct heat
2) Muted direct heat
3) Indirect heat
4) Cold smoke
We’ll get into what all that means later but the two main types in a regular grill are direct and indirect.

Direct is for fast grilling. This means you want all your meat right over the heat and don’t really care how long the heat lasts since it’ll be longer than it takes to cook anything you can throw on the grill anyway. This is how most people grill and it works for hamburgers, hotdogs, brats, steaks, and most veggies and thin cut meats. For this type of operation, you want to spread the charcoal out to the area your meat will take up on the food grill. It’ll be hot and burn out relatively quickly but not before you have a chance to burn the hell outta everything there if you don’t pay attention and do stoopid stuff. DON’T DO STOOPID STUFF!

Indirect heat is for hot smoking and slow cooking. It is for parts of the animal that you can say, “Hey, I think that came from about here!” while pointing to inaccessible parts of your own body…or someone else’s  – that’s your business, leave me out of it. It’s also for things that take smoke better than sear. It is my preferred method of grilling.
For this, you can leave the charcoal piled up on one end of the grill while the meat is on the other end. In a kettle type grill, you have a choice as to spreading the charcoal around the edges and putting the meat in the middle, or keeping the charcoal in the middle and spreading the meat around the edges. Either way, the heat and the meat should not meet.
Ha! Did you see what I did there with the rhyme and alliteration?!? That, folks, is why I’m an unpaid professional and also why YOU should not try this at home.

Next time, we’ll talk about grills and smokers and junk.