Sunday, August 13, 2006

Cowboys ain't easy to love and they're harder to hold

What's more primal than food cooked over fire? Well, food eaten raw, I suppose. But this isn't a post about salad or sushi. This is a post about that ancient desire to master fire, to use our intellect to enrich our bodies.

For our anniversary, Alison and I bought ourselves a Lodge cast iron grill grate. Not that we're unhappy with the steel grate of our Weber grill... only that it can't store heat or make grill marks the way big strips of cast iron promise.

It can only deliver on that promise if it's properly preheated, and that was my first lesson. I probably preheated the grill directly over the coals for 20 minutes or half an hour, and that just wasn't enough. From the last issue of Cook's Illustrated, I had thought 20 minutes was plenty - but on review, they were talking about a gas fire, not charcoal. So, bigger fire, longer time.

The Lodge grill has beautiful long bars, 3/8th of an inch high and 1/4th inch wide. (This design may be retired; I notice the current pictures include frequent crossbars where our grill has none.) This makes it something of a pain to clean. Lodge says to use a "stiff-bristled" brush. I've got brushes too hard (the brass-bristled brush I use on the Weber's steel grate) and too soft (a vegetable cleaning brush), but nothing just right. A nylon scrubby did fine on the top and bottom of the grill, but I had to get in between with paper towels. What a pain that would be with a crossbar every two inches.

There was another variable last night. I finished my bag of Kingsford briquettes and opened up a bag of Cowboy Brand lump hardwood charcoal. If you're wondering to yourself whether the look and sound of real wood on fire is manlier than the silent glow of identical preformed briquettes... yes. Yes it is.

(I am fully aware that women can enjoy fire as much or more than men. I will let a woman say what that feeling is called. Either way, if you're looking for that Tom Hanks in Cast Away "Look what I have created!" moment, lump charcoal is the thing for you. But this was my fire... pronounced "mah fahr"... and the feeling was distinctly manly. As I sat next to it typing on my manly Apple laptop and sipping my manly vodka and lime juice.)

The Cowboy charcoal bag claims that it "cooks better" than briquettes, allowing you to "use less and cook faster." Certainly it lit faster, and its irregular shape means that less lump charcoal fits in a chimney than easy-to-pack briquettes. Unfortunately, "lights faster" is functionally equivalent to "fire dies sooner" - an unfortunate thing if you're trying to roast a chicken with indirect heat, like I was.

My poor 45-minute chicken recipe took almost an hour and a half before we lost daylight and gave up to finish with a few minutes under the broiler. If you've had experience with lump charcoal, I'd love to know if this is a standard problem. Does it call for a bigger fire, or a more frequently fed one, if I really want to barbecue?

(Culinary note: I was following Rick Bayless' recipe for Mexican roadside chicken, except that I accidentally used about 1/3rd cup of orange juice instead of 1/4th. Even that tiny difference in volume seemed to make a huge difference in the concentration of the spices, which suggests a little about why my turkey brine was kind of bland.)

The great thing about a "not quite right" cooking experience is that it does create its own excuse to try again.


Blogger tommyspoon said...

Joe, let me break this to you as gently as I can: Cowboy lump sucks. I learned this the hard way, same as you. Now, if you really want the good stuff, then get yourself some Wicked Good Charcoal. I guarantee this will do you good.

9:01 PM, August 13, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

And a couple of more tips:

1. IMHO, indirect grilling in a Weber is best accomplished by having two piles of coals, each pile pushed to the side of the grill with your target food over the space between. Sometimes I use an aluminum baking pan to serve as a divider between the two piles of charcoal. Makes grill cleanup a snap, too!

2. Use a grill brick to clean your grill grates. (The following link is a sample product. You can find smaller models for sale just about anywhere.) Grill brushes (which are nice because of their long handles) should be used for spot cleaning before you put your food down.

3. I always keep another chimney's worth of coals on standby for long grilling or bbq'ing sessions. If I see the temperature begin to drop, I'll fire up the other chimney and within 20 minutes I can add more fire. (Or should I pronounce that "fahr"?) If I had an outdoor outlet, I would be tempted to buy an electric charcoal starter. They're a bit safer than using wadded up newspaper and oil, but they can take longer to do the job.

11:15 AM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger dan2bit said...

"manly Apple laptop" hahahahah

3:42 PM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger GrigorPDX said...

I have had very good results with Lazzari. Nice big chunks of mesquite charcoal. Never noticed much trouble keeping it fed, but whooee does it get hot! My BBQ has an LP gas igniter that I use instead of a chimney or electric starter, so that may make a difference.

4:45 PM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

My BBQ has an LP gas igniter

Pardon me while I geek out with GrigorPDX....

So what kinda cooker do you have? Did it come with the igniter or did you buy that separately? I've got one of these, and it serves my purposes for the moment. Someday, I'd love me one of these. But I'd have to convince my Sweetie to let it take over the driveway.

6:36 AM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger Joe said...

Tom, I think you have psychically diagnosed another problem with my technique. I went with a one-sided fire for this chicken... because it was you who taught me how well that works for chicken parts. (I learned it from watching you!) But for a roast, the two-sider does make more sense.

Do you think a grill brick will really work for a quarter-inch thick bar? And won't it scour off the cure on my cast iron?

I'm not going to admit that I've been adding unlit charcoal to my fires when they look a little low...

Thanks for the recommendations on the charcoal, and I'm coveting the offset smokers.

8:35 AM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...


1. Yeah, I told you wrong. Happens sometimes... ;-) I think I used a one-sided fire that time because the parts were on the thin side. And I recall that they took a bit longer to cook then I expected. So, there you go.

2. Grill bricks work on every kind of grilling surface, period. You may have to reapply a bit of oil to the grates once you're done, but that's no big deal. And you should always reseason your cast iron once a year. For my cooker, I'll typically strip off all the crap off the grates, coat them generously with oil, and then load up the firebox and just let the sucker burn for a few hours. Works every time.

3. Always try to add lit coals to your fire. Unlit stuff just robs your fire of its already dwindling energy.

10:44 AM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger Alison said...


I think the concern about the grill brick is less how effective it would be on the top surface and more how effective it would be on the sides and gaps between the bars, where it won't fit. There's pretty much enough space for a human finger in there, but nothing else.

12:22 PM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...


The grill brick will get in the crevices between the grates. It sort of "deforms" as you use it, so you'll get all the nasty bits outta there.

1:21 PM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger Mick said...

Heresy, Heresy, Heresy,

But I love my Weber Genesis gas grill. If you are using indirect heat for a long recipe, Propane is the thang. Ribs for two and a half hours with mesquite chips over a low flame are awesome.

If you want to get pure, get a smoker.

My friend who is a 4-star chef modified his smoker for proper temp control (very anal retentive, chefs- almost as bad a surgeons).

10:00 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger tommyspoon said...

Mick, Mick, Mick.

Hydrocarbons are NOT flavoring agents!


6:55 AM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger Mick said...



1:40 PM, August 22, 2006  

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