Instant-light briquettes are not a good idea. Neither are briquettes doused with lighter fluid. Although it will be safe to eat, the food you cook over fuel-started briquettes can pick up a chemical taste. Instant-light briquettes are made from pulverized charcoal and mixed with additives to make them easy to light and to keep burning. Hardwood charcoal, or charwood, lights faster and burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes. That means whatever you cook over it tastes better, too.
The easiest (and healthiest) way to ignite a fire is with a chimney starter―a large can open at both the top and the bottom. A wad of newspaper is packed into the bottom; a grill-load of charcoal goes on top. Put one match to the paper and in about 15 to 20 minutes you're ready to cook. The can, available at hardware stores, has a sturdy handle that makes it easy to pour the ash-covered coals into the grill.
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Lighting a Gas Grill Safely
Always open the lid of a gas grill before you turn it on or you risk starting a mini Bruckheimer-style explosion, caused by gas accumulating under the lid.
To get the gas grill nearly as hot as a charcoal grill, preheat it 10 minutes longer than the manufacturer's recommendation.
Federal safety regulations now mandate that all propane tanks come with an OPD (overfill protection device). If the valve handle (the part you turn to start the flow of gas) is triangular, your tank is a newer model with an OPD. If the valve handle is round or star shaped, you have an older model and the gas service won't fill it; you'll need to trade it in for a new tank.
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Is the Grill Fire Ready?
To gauge the heat of a fire, hold your hand about four inches above the grill grate and start counting: "One Mississippi, two Mississippi." Over a hot fire, you'll get to two or three Mississippi before you're forced to move your hand; over a medium-high fire, four to five Mississippi; over a medium-low fire, eight to ten Mississippi.
4 of 6Quentin Bacon
Aluminum Foil as a Grilling Helper
Really hot grill bars equal dramatic grill marks on your porterhouse. To concentrate the heat and keep it from escaping, lay a sheet of foil over the grill for 10 minutes. Peel the foil off just before cooking, scrunch it into a ball (it cools fast), and use it later to scrape any residue or ash from the bars.
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How to Set Up Direct and Indirect Heat
Direct grilling involves cooking the food directly over the fire, usually with the grate four to six inches above the embers. This method is best used for relatively small, thin, tender pieces of food that cook quickly, such as steaks, chops, chicken breasts, fish fillets, vegetables, tofu, and pineapple slices.
Charcoal: The challenge of direct grilling, especially over charcoal, is making sure the grill isn't too hot. To control the heat, build a three-zone fire. Use a garden hoe to rake half the lit coals into a double layer on one side of the grill, covering about one-third of the bottom. The remaining coals go in a single layer in the center. Leave the last third of the grill coal-free. This gives you three heat zones―a hot zone for searing, a medium zone for cooking, and a cool or "safety" zone, where you can move the food if it starts to burn or to keep it warm after cooking.
Gas: To control the heat on a gas grill, set one burner on high and one or two on medium. Leave one burner off. Or, if your grill has only two burners, use the warming rack as the safety zone.
If you are grilling brisket, a whole chicken, or a pork shoulder, indirect grilling is the best cooking method. It allows you to cook large or tough cuts of meat on your grill without burning the exterior. To indirect-grill, place the food next to (not directly over) the fire, covering the grill to hold in the heat. This turns the grill into a sort of outdoor oven.
Charcoal: Rake the coals into two piles on opposite sides of the grill and place an aluminum-foil pan in the center. The food goes on the grate directly above the pan, which will catch the drippings.
Gas: On a two-burner grill, light one side and place the food on the other. On a three- or four-burner grill, light the outside or front and rear burners; cook the food in the center. Most gas grills have built-in drip pans, so you won't need to place a foil pan under the grate.
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Avoiding Grill Flare-ups
Flare-ups are an inevitable part of grilling, even when you trim the fat and drain oil-based marinades before cooking. When these little pyrotechnic displays occur, move the food from the hot zone to the medium zone (or even the safety zone) until the flames subside.
You can also try putting down the lid. (If you're working on a charcoal grill, close the top and bottom vents.) This deprives the fire of oxygen, which eventually extinguishes the flames. The downside is that the food can end up tasting sooty.
A few squirts of water from a spray bottle can also dampen a flame. But use the technique sparingly. The water may stir up loose ashes or even spread the fire.
In the event that a flare-up turns into something more like a bonfire, transfer the food from the grill to a platter. As a last resort, sprinkle salt or baking soda over the fire to extinguish it.
Adding More Coals
Charcoal, like romance, sometimes needs rekindling. A large chimney of charcoal allows for 40 to 60 minutes of grilling. If you toss fresh coals on the fire, they will take 10 to 15 minutes to light. An alternative is to start a fresh batch of charcoal in a chimney 20 minutes before you need it (you should do this on a nonflammable surface, such as brick or concrete). When the coals are ready, add them to the hot zone.