Grilling with fire

May 1, 2009 at 9:30 p.m. ET

Put some real flavor into summer grilling with a real fire. We're not talking gas grills or lighter-fluid-soaked piles of coals here, though. Here's how to play with fire tastefully.

Fire on Grill

Learn about your fire-grilling options

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 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.

Fire up

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.

Three tips for grilling with fire

  1. Have the right tools. Cooking over fire is hot, to say the least, so make sure you have the proper tools. Kitchen versions just won't work here. So what do you need? Start with gloves, grilling spatula and tongs, and a good grill brush.
  2. Use indirect heat for larger foods. Although grilling on direct heat is good for searing in the flavor and juices of red meat, indirect heat (not directly over the hot coals), is good for foods that take longer to cook. "You can grill items that take a long time, such as a whole chicken, by using the 'indirect' method. Create a channel that's 6 inches to 1 foot wide in the embers or coals, and cook over that channel. The food will be cooked by the heat generated on the sides of it and will cook more slowly," says Houk.
  3. Get more flavor with wood chips. Wood chips of many types are available and can add nice, smoky flavors to your food. "Add soaked wood chips (hickory, mesquite, apple, etc.) just before grilling," suggests Frohlichstein.

Recipes for the grill