Charcoal BBQ Basics

Nothing can beat a charcoal grill for producing the most sumptuous food that boasts the genuine and unmistakable taste of traditional barbecue fare.

Charcoal barbecues are based on a very simple design that is tried, tested and very practical. They may lack the technology of modern gas barbecues but this is more than compensated by the delicious food that they produce.

Whatever size and shape, all charcoal barbecues operate on the same basis of hot coals cooking and imparting flavour to food placed on a grill above. So choosing the correct fuel is your first consideration, and this depends on personal preference and the type of food that you want to prepare.

Lumpwood charcoal is uneven in shape, will heat up quicker and reach a higher temperature compared to briquettes but lasts a shorter amount of time. So, clearly for roasts and cooking that depends more on time than heat, then briquettes are favoured, while lumpwood is more suitable for food that benefits from searing.

In addition to the charcoal, hickory chips and similar can be added to impart their special flavour, and a good tip is to soak them in cold water for half an hour before adding to the coals.

After placing a layer of charcoal in the barbecue you could squirt lighter fuel on the coals, wait for a few minutes, and then light the coals. However, a charcoal chimney will prove a much more reliable, fast and effective method without the smell of lighter fuel.

A charcoal chimney works by placing screwed up newspaper at the base of the chimney and then filling it three-quarters full with charcoal. The newspaper is then lit and when the charcoal stops smoking after about 15 minutes, it's ready to pour into the barbecue, adding more fuel at this point if required.

Close the lid and, if necessary, after five - ten minutes, open and clean the grill with a scraper, removing any debris from the last meal. Wiping cooking oil over the grill will help prevent the food sticking to it.

Dividing the grill into two zones with the charcoal gathered to one side allows you to first sear the food and then move it to the other side so that it will be cooked more slowly and thoroughly. You can also experiment with having twice as many coals on one side than the other to achieve different temperatures, or having coals on two sides with a long gap in the middle to accommodate a cylindrical roast.

You'll find vents in the top and the base, these are opened and closed to regulate the heat that the charcoal produces. Open both to start with, then the base vent, that sucks in air to feed the coals, can be adjusted to suit the heat you want to generate for the food that is being prepared.

When using a two zone arrangement, place the top vent on the side where you've placed food to cook after searing, this will encourage hot air to radiate around it, rather than just escaping from above the searing zone.

Roasts that require slow cooking will need to be covered but remember that opening and closing the cover is never a great idea as this will cause the temperature to fluctuate and a constant cooking temperature will be difficult to maintain. Burgers and other fast food can be cooked without a cover and will take under ten minutes at 70ºC, sausages at 65ºC will take about 20 minutes while well cooked steaks need a 60ºC heat for approximately 12 minutes.