Don’t you hate that situation where you have people over for a BBQ, it’s time to start cooking and the coals aren’t ready! I remember back in the late 80’s when my parents first bought a charcoal BBQ and the anticipation around it. I think we’d been pestering our parents to get one for ages because our neighbours loved a good BBQ and at that young age, I knew there was something I loved about the taste of food cooked over live fire.
So there we were, BBQ built, setup in the middle of the lawn, and we were trying to light this bag of lumpwood charcoal. Yes there was a flammable lighter fluid involved, and I’m sure there would have been plenty of fire lighters strategically placed on, around and inside this massive pile of coal, that I’m sure could have propelled a rocket into space, let alone cook up a few tasty morsels for our dinner.
We didn’t know what the vents were used for. We were using that well-known technique of the pyramid to light this fuel, but it wasn’t working. Daylight was dwindling, a few spots of rain could be felt, and the sense that we could do it quicker if mum just went to switch on the oven was beginning to creep in! Back then we had no idea about a simple little device called a Chimney Starter, and heaven forbid we asked someone at the local garden centre where we bought the thing, how best to light it!
The Chimney Starter works on the simple principle that heat rises. Sounds silly simple when you explain it in that way, but it’s true. What this device does that a simple pyramid of fuel cannot, is place the flammable lighter blocks directly underneath the fuel, which to all intense and purpose is held directly above the rising flames with nowhere to fall by the wayside. Lumpwood or briquettes both work the same and with a good lighter cube you can get about 5 minutes of constant flame, which is sufficient time to light the base layer(s) of coals. Once these are lit, it’s simple a case of time to allow the heat and flames from the bottom coals to rise up through the stack until all of the fuel looks like those in the photo.
There is an extra, lesser known piece of information that I use every time to light a BBQ that helps me take control of temperature. Think about this for a second. If I light a lot of fuel I’m going to achieve a higher temperature in my BBQ than if I light half that amount. Therefore, if I want to cook on my BBQ, whether grilling, roasting or cooking Low ‘n’ Slow, would it make sense that I use a predetermined amount of fuel? The answer is, “it would!”
For the given size of your charcoal BBQ there is an amount of fuel required to reach a given internal temperature for cooking. Example: a 47cm kettle won’t need as much fuel to reach 180-200oC of roasting temperature as a bigger 57cm kettle. Similarly on a day when the weather is cold and wet, your BBQ will require slightly more fuel to achieve a set temperature than on a hot sunny day. This isn’t meant to confuse, it’s intended to point out some basic factors for controlling the heat in your BBQ.
A consideration often overlooked is burn time, i.e. how long you can expect a fuel to last. For me this is how long a BBQ will maintain its working temperature (with lid on and vents open) before dropping off and you lose cookability. Generally speaking traditional lumpwood charcoal won’t last as long as the compressed briquette fuels. That said, not every lumpwood or briquette fuel works the same.
What some manufacturers fail to say on their packaging is how long you can expect the fuel to last under normal conditions. Traditional lumpwood charcoals will last on average, between 45 minutes and 2 hours. To save on the fuss of refuelling I would therefore not use traditional charcoal for longer cooks such as roasting or Low ‘n’ Slow. Briquette fuels on the other hand tend to last longer than lumpwood fuels because the fuel is compacted and you get more calories per piece.
Finally the role of accelerants. For me this is a no brainer. If I don’t want the taste of petroleum products on my food then I don’t use them. They have no place in cooking but somehow they are deemed acceptable, “because that’s what BBQ food tastes of!” I disagree! Lighter fluids will soak into your fuel before you light and take time to burn off. It’s also the case that some of the lighter fluid or gel doesn’t land on the fuel and instead falls to the bottom of your BBQ, where for the duration of cooking it emits a really unpleasant aroma that circulates around your food. Yum!
Take note of the aroma of your chosen fuel as it’s lighting. Some give off particularly pungent clouds of smoke as they light, and cheaper brands are known to be treated with accelerants during the manufacturing process (aimed at helping them light easily) but result in a slightly unpleasant aromas and taste to the food!
See if your manufacturer recommends a specific fuel or ask your local stockist. In time for Spring I will be reviewing the commonly available products so watch the blog for updates.
If you have a gas BBQ then you don’t have this worry ☺ Just be sure to buy the gas bottle as recommended by your particular manufacturer.