Before you can become a true Grill Master, you need to know how to build a really good fire. The fire is the heart of the grilling process. Without a proper fire, you’ll always be fighting inconsistent results. Even if you use a gas grill, it is an essential skill that will make you a better griller.
Building your charcoal fire is more than just opening up the bag, dumping in the charcoal, dousing it with lighter fluid, and throwing on a match. Yet, that is how many people do it. Then after 15-20 minutes, they shake the grill to settle the coals and go to grilling. Do it this way, and you will probably end up with burned burgers or raw chicken, but sometimes you might get lucky, and your food will turn out okay. Wouldn’t it be better to know how to get good food every time?
The foundation of good grilling is to have an even fire. The only time you should have any variation in heat is when you plan for it. If you just dump your coals in randomly, you’ll have hot and cool spots. If you evenly distribute the coals, you can minimize variation and get good, even grilling heat. This gets even more important when you’re cooking a large amount of food on the grill.
The number of charcoal briquettes to use depends on the size of your grill. It is also affected by the amount of food you’ll be making, cooking time, and even weather conditions!
As a general rule of thumb, plan on using about 30 briquettes to cook one pound of meat. A standard five-pound bag contains 75 to 90 briquettes. You want to make sure that you have enough briquettes to cover the grill’s pan in a single layer and extend out about 2″ beyond the area of the food on the grill.
The first step is to place the briquettes in the grill’s pan to determine the quantity needed, then stack them up in a rough pyramid shape to light. Soak the briquettes with approximately 1/2 cup of lighter fluid and let it sink in for a few minutes before lighting.
After the coals have begun to burn and ash starts to form, arrange them with long-handled tongs into a single layer below the cooking grate.
Once you’ve mastered even heating, it’s time to step up to the professional level. A Pro likes to have a controlled temperature variation, a hot area, and a not-so-hot area. In grilling, this is called a two-level fire. The advantage of this is that you will have one area to sear foods and another area to cook them through.
If you have a dual burner gas grill, just set one burner on high and the other on medium.
For a charcoal grill, you should set up half of your fire grate in a single layer of coals and the other half in two or three layers of coals. This gives you the hot and medium areas to do your cooking. This method is also useful if you are cooking different types of foods at the same time.
For instance, if you’re grilling fajitas, you can sear the steak over the high heat and cook the peppers over the lower heat.
Once you master the two-level fire, you’ll never want to grill without it again.
The other type of fire you need to learn how to build is the indirect fire. The simplest form of this method is to put all the coals on one side of the grill and no coals on the other side. For a gas grill, this is equivalent to turning the burner of one side on, and leaving the other off. With a charcoal grill, you can do much more.
The ring of fire is an excellent strategy for an indirect fire if you are using the kettle style of grill. To build this type of fire, after you have hot coals, push the coals to the outside of the coal grate, leaving the middle empty. This method gives you an even heat around the entire grill and a good indirect cooking space in the center.
One of the most common problems of building indirect heat is having the fire on just one side of the grill. If you are using a gas grill, there isn’t much you can do to avoid this. The problem with this is that the heat will be uneven and one side of the food you are cooking will get more heat than the other. This will require you to turn the food often to have it cook evenly. When you use a charcoal grill, you can build the fire everywhere except under the food you are cooking, and this gives you more even heat.