Step away from the lighter fluid and drop the instant-light bag down on the ground.
Nothing stinks things up quite like a backyard cookout fueled by excess chemicals and sub-par charcoal. Not only does it reek like a trash fire in Hades - it's also fouling up the taste of your food.
We're here to save the scent and savoriness of your summer.
Simmer down now, guys. Yes, it'd be dandy if every single summer meal were sizzled atop a heap of hand-foraged fruitwood and hickory. The temperature can be higher, the smoke adds distinctive flavor and the scent can practically be worn as perfume, but the vast majority of Americans are cooking with gas in the great outdoors.
According to the 2011 Weber GrillWatch Survey, of the 71 percent of Americans 21 and older who own a grill or smoker, 67 percent are using propane or natural gas. And why wouldn't they? The method is quick, clean, starts at the push of a button, and provides uniform heat - but the lack of smoke and the comparatively lower temperature may rob the fire-kissed food of a little extra flavor.
It's easy to add a little bit of it back by grabbing your favorite smoking wood, available in bags at your local hardware store. Just soak a few chunks or chips in water or beer for 30 minutes, pop them in a packet out of heavy-duty foil, poke a few holes and place it on one end of the grate when you're ready to cook.
The smoke will infuse the food with flavor, and the scent alone makes the extra step worth it. Just toss out the packet when everything has cooled back down.
If you find you like the extra smoke kiss it adds, invest in a small, perforated smoker box (usually under $20) and experiment with different kinds of woods. Apple, mesquite, cherry, pecan and hickory chunks and chips are readily available; mix and match to find your favorite formula.
We're also big fans of planking. Nope, not the face-down internet meme, but the age-old technique of cooking food atop or wrapped in wood. Not any ol' slab of timber will do; opt for an untreated piece of pecan, cedar, maple or fruitwood (we like Elizabeth Karmel's version) and soak it ahead of time so it doesn't burn. The meat, fish or vegetables will pick up fabulous flavor and you get a killer plate to present.
If you do opt for charcoal (which you really ought to if your outdoor space and local regulations allow), resist the siren call of the quick-start fire. Chemically-treated briquettes and lighter fluid may get the fire blazing faster, but the acrid taste of chemicals and extra carcinogens are added to your food, and generally stink up the neighborhood.
Maximum fire flavor comes from hardwood lump charcoal. It's generally not treated with extra chemicals and it's a cinch to light, once you know the trick.
That'd be a chimney starter. It's a vented, metal, handled cylinder with a shelf inside. Just grab a sheet of newspaper and start folding the long end in on itself, until halfway up. Then bring the shorter edges together in a ring, and crumple the unfolded portion of the paper into the center until it looks like a little hat. If you'd care to double down on your firepower, crumble in some additional paper and swab it with a touch of vegetable oil.
Tuck that into the bottom of the chimney starter and pour the coals into the top portion. Make sure you're in a cleared area – outside, always outside – with no ambient, flammable branches, grass, untucked sleeves, hair, children, dogs, etc., around. Then light the paper through the bottom vents. It will catch fire, igniting the coals from below.
Once the coals are no longer glowing and have a light layer of white ash, pour them – carefully, as they tend to spark – into the bottom of your grill. If you feel like getting a bit fancy, throw in a few sprigs of water-soaked rosemary or a handful of those wood chunks or chips.
It'll all just taste better - and your nose will know the difference.
For those keeping score, many chefs we've interviewed swear by the Weber Smokey Joe, but Eatocracy has long been loyal to the Char-Griller Duo. This is not a paid endorsement - they've never given us a thing other than hours upon hours of contented grilling. It's got gas on one side for hectic weeknights and charcoal (with optional side firebox) on the other for an all-day brisket or smoke-soaked ribs. Kinda like a mullet haircut - but with even more flavor.
Got a favorite grill model or fire starting method? Sing its praises in the comments below.
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