The quality of the charcoal you use is essential.
Not all charcoal is the same. There is a vast difference in quality. Most of us are familiar with buying charcoal for the BBQ in the summer from our local supermarket or garage. The price might look good but is the fuel as good?
If it's imported, it may well have chemicals added to stop it from catching fire in transit, and it might even originate from a rainforest. Charcoal is a surprisingly unregulated commodity.
And these added chemicals in some imported charcoals and in most briquettes are the origin of that old adage of waiting for the coals to go white before cooking. This is because those added chemicals need to burn away first. Most of us can conjure up the memory of the acrid smoke fumes which die out once the coals turn white. Throw in a bit of lighter fuel to get things started, and you are a long way from the restaurant flavours we long to create at home.
But this is far from the whole story. If you choose the right charcoal, it's very, very different. No chemicals, no fumes, no waiting. Just the alchemy of fantastic flavour and aroma. Charcoal imparts flavour. That's where the flavour magic lies. Think of charcoal as an ingredient.
So, read on!
What is charcoal?
Charcoal is a biofuel made from wood. The process of making charcoal is to heat wood without oxygen. When wood turns into charcoal, a lot of the volatile gases are removed, and what’s left is a fuel which is burns in a stable way.
Charcoal burns at high temperatures, consistently, with very little flames, for a very long time and with little smoke. It burns in a very different way from wood. Wood produces a lot of smoke and flames, gets to a high temperature very quickly, and then burns out quickly.
That’s what makes charcoal perfect for cooking.
What are the differences between lumpwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes?
You can buy charcoal in two primary forms: lumpwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes. (You can also buy “ready to cook” bags of briquettes, where you put the bag and all into the BBQ or oven … but we won’t mention that! Unless, of course, you like the aroma of burning accelerants and cardboard in your food).
Lumpwood charcoal is the better of the two forms. By miles. It’s just wood, nothing else, heated to a high temperature without oxygen. No additives. When you look at a piece of lumpwood charcoal it looks like, well, wood: you can see that it was once part of a tree, with the characteristic rings and layers. If you’re an expert, you can even determine the species of tree.
Common species used to make lumpwood charcoal are ash, oak, beech and birch. Each species will have its own characteristics and distinctive aroma. The density of the original species is important: denser wood equals longer burn. It’s lovely to experiment and see what works for you. Rather like wine tasting. As a rule of thumb, a single species charcoal will give you confidence in its provenance and quality.
Typically, the sizes of the lumps will vary from species to species, producer to producer, tree to tree, batch to batch, and even within each bag. Fewer, bigger lumps tend to burn for longer (think surface area to volume ratio). Small lumps and flakes tend to burn out pretty quickly.
What does “restaurant grade” charcoal really mean?
Many charcoal bags are marked “restaurant grade”. Nice words, but they don’t actually mean anything. There is no independent standard of “restaurant grade” … so anyone can just print that on their bag of charcoal.
What you should be looking for is where it's made and what's the species.
Is charcoal a sustainable fuel?
Charcoal is a natural biofuel, that can be completely carbon neutral across its entire growing, production and cooking lifecycle.
But it varies dramatically from brand to brand. The only way to be sure you’re cooking sustainably is to check out where your charcoal comes from and how it’s produced.
In short, ensure it’s locally sourced from a manufacturer that practices sustainable forestry management. This means the management of forests to encourage new growth of trees, by selective felling and clearance of naturally fallen trees. The new growth offsets the carbon footprint of the heat required to produce and then burn the charcoal during cooking. And locally sourced also means many fewer miles in transport.
The do’s and don’ts of charcoal grilling
Now you know what charcoal to use, let’s focus on how to use this glorious fuel.
How to light charcoal for beginners.
a. Use a plumber’s torch directly on the charcoal, or use natural firelighters.
With good quality, natural lumpwood charcoal, you can simply light the charcoal directly using a plumber’s torch directly applied to the charcoal itself. Just get the charcoal around the bottom of the pile in your oven to glow red around the edges. Only for a few seconds. That’s it: then it’s lit!
b. Or you can use natural wood-wool firelighters:
c. You do not need to use a fire chimney to light your charcoal if you are using the Charlie Oven.
d. Build a small pile of charcoal with sufficient gaps for airflow:
Once you are 10 degrees below your chosen temperature, push the top and bottom vents in by the same amount to leave just a finger’s depth behind the vent pulls. The oven will continue to rise by approximately another 10 degrees Celsius and then settle and stabilise at the temperature you’ve selected to cook at.
Should I use a fire chimney or not to light the charcoal?
No, not with a Charlie Oven, a fire chimney is not necessary. The structure of the oven with its height and top and bottom vents creates a natural chimney, without the need for any additional steps or devices.
Should I use lighter fluid or chemical firelighters to light the charcoal?
When the charcoal is ready to start cooking?
The simple answer to this question is when the oven temperature is hot enough. With good quality charcoal you don’t have to wait until the charcoal goes white – there’s nothing to stop you getting cooking immediately. Waiting for your charcoal to go white is solely about burning off the horrible chemicals from briquettes or inferior charcoal.
How to control the temperature of the charcoal?
The fire relies on oxygen to burn. More oxygen, the quicker and hotter the charcoal burns, and the quicker it will burn out. With open fire cooking, you cannot control the fire with airflow, the charcoal will need to be topped up regularly during the cooking process. Luckily with a Charlie Oven, you have complete control over airflow, and therefore the temperature, by adjusting the air vents. Its heavily insulated construction means that the temperature will stay constant (exactly where you’ve set it) for hours, while the charcoal is barely smouldering. When you’ve finished cooking, just close down the vents completely and the fire will die out, saving the unused charcoal for your next cook.
Can you add more charcoal when grilling?
Yes, you can, if you use good quality lumpwood charcoal. With the Charlie Oven it's easy, as you have ready access to the fire in the oven. You don’t need to move cooking racks, grates, or any other paraphenalia out of the way.
How to cook with lumpwood charcoal and wood chunks together.
Wood can complement charcoal (think 90:10 or 80:20 charcoal to wood), to add smoky notes. But wood on its own is rarely a good way to cook: too smoky, too much flame, too unpredictable. Simply add a couple of small chunks of wood when the oven is 60% towards the temperature you are aiming for. The purpose of adding wood is for the lovely aroma, not as a heat source.
Why is my charcoal grill is not getting hot enough?
We can only speak from the point of view of using a Charlie Oven to answer this question. The main reason this happens is not using enough fuel for the job. If you are looking to reach 200-250 degress Celsius then the equivalent of half a football is perfect, but if you are looking to go to 350-400 degrees Celsius then start with more fuel: a couple more handfuls should do it.
Another reason you can’t get to a high temperature is that your charcoal may be damp. If in doubt, try a new bag of charcoal to make sure.
Why won't my charcoal stay hot for very long?
If this happens with the Charlie Oven, it is usually to do with failing to shut down the vents when the oven reaches temperature. If the air vents are left completely open the oven temparature will continue to rise … and then the temperature will drop, as the fuel burns through. By closing the vents, the oven will keep the heat in for the maximum time possible. You may also lose heat if you keep opening the door.