Propane grills are a pretty straightforward affair: They’re clean-burning and fuel-efficient, and you can get the grill ready at a moment’s notice. It’s the most stove-like of the backyard cooking arsenal. Charcoal grills, on the other hand, need a bit of TLC to cook at their best.
First, you have to pick your fuel source. Usually, it comes down to natural lump charcoal or charcoal briquettes. Practically speaking, the primary difference between the two is temperature: The natural lump charcoal burns hotter, and will burn longer as well, if you are diligent with the air intake for your grill or smoker. A good burn that lasts longer is essential when used in a controlled environment such as a Big Green Egg, an American-designed “kamado” grill (which is, in turn, a stove typically fueled with wood or charcoal, first developed by the Japanese and in use for centuries). Lump charcoal is made from 100% hardwood, with no additives.
Charcoal briquettes, on the other hand, are not natural, but were developed with the environment in mind. They were invented in the early 1900s as a way to recycle all the scrap wood from the manufacture of Model T cars in Henry Ford’s assembly lines. The idea for such a product was concocted on a camping trip taken by Ford, Thomas Edison and Ford’s relative, Edward Kingsford (for whom the famous Kingsford Charcoal is named). Briquettes are cheap, versatile and, best of all, you can use them to build a fun little pyramid, douse it with lighter fluid and ignite a flame they can see from the International Space Station.
For style points, however, never use a charcoal lighter fluid to start natural lump coal. I mean, you can do it — you could set your car on fire with lighter fluid, too — but my parole officer tells me that’s not what it’s made for. Lighter fluid is the exclusive domain of charcoal briquettes in a regular barbecue grill. Lump coal has its own special needs. Rouses sells natural starters that use paraffin wax to get a natural lump coal going, and you can adjust the ventilation of your grill to do the rest.
HOW TO MAKE FIRE HOTTER OR COLDER
Regardless of which type of charcoal you use, once you get a good flame going in your grill, ventilation is also how you regulate the temperature before or during cooking. After the coals get good and hot, the first step is to use a metal grill spatula to spread the charcoal in an even layer. If your grill is large enough, it’s a good idea to leave a little spot somewhere in the pit with no charcoal beneath that portion of the grill. That way, if you find you are overcooking a piece of meat, you can move it to a “cool zone.”
After your charcoal is evenly spread and smoldering, you’re going to want to track how hot it is. When reading recipes, keep in mind that the surface temperature of a grill is not the same as the internal temperature of your meat. (Again, it seems obvious, but half of you are going to blow yourselves up next Thanksgiving by deep-frying a frozen turkey. I’m trying to save you, reader.) Eventually, you’ll develop an instinctive feel for how hot a grill is based on the ambient and radiating heat and the condition of the coals, but until then, a grill thermometer can take a lot of guesswork out of the equation. Medium heat is about 350ºF. High heat is 450or higher. If you want to get your grill hotter, open the vent at the bottom to increase its ventilation. If you want it cooler, close the vent at the bottom. (One of the advantages of propane grills is the ability to be very precise in your heating. To make a propane grill hotter, turn the knob to “high.” To make it cooler, turn the knob to low.)
Cook times and temperatures are going to vary based on what you are cooking and how thick it is. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, steak, lamb and pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145ºF. Poultry should be 165ºF. A meat thermometer, which is usually stabbed into the interior of meat, will take the guesswork out of all this, and can save you from the bracing thrill of botulism. As for choosing the meat you plan to cook, Rouses team members who work in the meat department are trained to help you find the perfect cut of the perfect animal at the perfect price, and can give you advice on seasonings, sides and cook times to turn out the best backyard grilling experience imaginable.