Lump charcoal is a favorite among many grillers because it is quick to light, burns hot and fast, and is as close to natural charcoal as you can get. Made from hardwood that has been burned without oxygen, it has no fillers or additives. "I recommend lump charcoal. It burns hot and has no chemical additives like the compressed briquettes. Food tastes even better than with briquettes," says longtime griller Tripp Frohlichstein.
Lump charcoal can be costly, however, and you may need more since it burns off so quickly. Chris Pilko of icookwithfire.com says that briquettes are a fine alternative. "I've used lump charcoal in the past, and it isn't worth the extra cost and shorter burn time. I use Kingsford briquettes now," he says. "In fact, the food geeks at Cook's Illustrated did a study on different types of charcoal a few years ago and found that briquettes burned as hot as lump charcoal and stayed hot longer. They also cost less."
Real hardwood is another option, although it can be more challenging to use. Chef Jill Houk of Centered Chef Food Studios says that hardwood creates an even, long-burning fire. "At work or when camping, I just get a cord of wood. Make sure you don't buy the 'quick start' variety of charcoal. These are coated in lighter fluid," says Houk.
Indeed, Houk isn't kidding about avoiding lighter fluid. Although it's the stuff many people grew up on, it's now known to be very, very bad for your health. "Lighter fluid contains hydrocarbons, [which are] known carcinogens," says Lynne Eldridge MD, author of Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time: Practical Advice for Preventing Cancer. "I often recommend using a fire chimney or an electric starter. Fire chimneys are inexpensive and available online. For those who feel the crunch of the economy (like me), taking an old metal coffee container and cutting off the top and bottom can work as well. The coals can be placed over plain paper (without ink that may contain carcinogens) and lighted,"
Fire chimney starters are easy-to-use contraptions that look like black flour sifters. You place charcoal in the top and light it from the bottom. Once the flames die down, you pour out the charcoal (careful, it will be hot!) in the grill and get cooking.
If you want to forego the extra gadget, you can start the fire by creating a pyramid of charcoal and using a firestarter to get it going, says Houk, who also suggests that setting up sticks teepee-style with space at the bottom for air to circulate. Houk recommends several types of firestarters. "There are firestarters called 'fatwood,' which is natural wood that is embedded with natural oils so that it starts quickly. You can use paper (I like to use office paper that I'm recycling anyway) rolled into scrolls. Or you can make your own fire starter. Just take a used egg carton and fill each cup with a 50/50 mixture of paraffin or candle wax and sawdust. Place your firestarter in the bottom of your pyramid and light. Fan the fire to keep it going," says Houk. Once the fire is established, add more charcoal or wood, let the fire burn down a bit, and then spread it out.
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