Labor Day, summer's last big grilling holiday, is rapidly approaching. To help you be the master of the flames this year, I've come up with six of my favorite grilling tricks and hacks that I think every working a grill should know. Learn these, and you' ll go from average backyard burger flipper to fire-taming badass in no time.
Start a Fire Without Light Fluid or a Chimney
Longtime readers probably already know of my distaste for lighter fluid. Sure, in moderation it can be useful, but the common practice of dumping it all over your charcoal is counterproductive—it takes a long time to burn off and if you start grilling before then, you'll find yourself with a plate of food laced with a distinct chemical flavor. So I always opt for a chimney starter—a cylindrical device with a compartment for the charcoal on top and an area to crumple newspaper directly below it: when the newspaper is lit, enough heat is produced to rapidly ignite the charcoal, and before long the whole thing is blazing.
But what if you're in a situation without a chimney and either don't want to use lighter fluid, or don't have it on hand?
I've tried a wad of newspaper or other kindling with a pyramid of charcoal built up around with varying success. A more fail-safe way, though, is to build your own mini-charcoal chimney.
To do this, take a tin can and remove both ends. Using a church key, punch some holes in the bottom half for better airflow. Place a small piece of crumpled newspaper in the bottom and pile a few coals on top, then light. Those coals should ignite pretty quickly, and once burning, can be dumped out (using very well insulated gloves or tongs, of course). Pile the rest of your coals over them and you'll have a fire going before you know it, little fuss and no lighter fluid required.
Sometimes the searing heat of a grill just isn't hot enough. There are some things that just call out for an even faster sear, which can be accomplished with a grate placed directly on top a chimney of freshly lit charcoal.
Some of you probably remember this trick from Good Eats: Alton Brown used the super hot, concentrated heat from the chimney to sear a tuna steak, browning the outside while still keeping the inside nice and rare. This method is also great for thin steaks and pork chops, where searing the outside as quickly as possible is desirable to avoid turning the inside into a dry, rubbery chew toy.
Although I have yet to try it out myself, Kenji also recommends using a chimney starter as a heat source for wok cooking.
Roast in the Coals
Not enough room on the cooking grate? Try roasting in the coals.
Certain items can withstand the high heat of being placed directly in the charcoal for roasting—I'm talking potatoes, corn, eggplant, and onions. These can all be nestled right into the embers and roasted until done, letting you cook food both in the charcoal and above it simultaneously, if desired.
I personally like to wrap most things that will be ember-roasted in foil to avoid any messiness later on. In my early years as a griller, my friends and I placed a set of yams, naked, right in the coals; what came out will forever be known as (brace yourselves) "ashy yam turds." Sure, they were soft and creamy inside, but the outside didn't exactly shout, Eat me! Since then, a quick wrap in heavy-duty foil has given me both attractive and delicious ember-roasted spuds, sweet onions, and more.
Add a Second Rack
Although I'm a charcoal man, gas grills have a few advantages of their own. Beyond the obvious convenience, most gas grills come with a warming rack that's pretty uncommon on charcoal grills. Luckily, you can upgrade your charcoal grill with just a little ingenuity.
Take three or four empty cans of the same size and remove both ends and their labels. Then place them on the grill. Set a small grill grate on top of the cans and voila—a second rack, elevated from the intense heat of the grill.
The extra distance from the fire makes this great for toasting buns without fear of burning them, or keeping finished food warm. When the grill is covered, this rack gives you additional roasting space that's perfect for corn, butterflied chickens, and more. Just remember, heat rises, so when your grill's covered, that top rack may actually become pretty darn hot.
The Brick Press
Sandwiches have become a favorite thing of mine to grill in recent years—I love that the grill can cook all parts of a sandwich, form the fillings to the toasted bread, in one go. And while I've done quite a few grill-pressed sandwiches, I have yet to invest in a true cast-iron press. Instead, I opt for bricks I grabbed from my downstairs neighbor's garden (shhh, don't tell).
Bricks may not be as great a retainer of heat as a legit press, but they warm up well enough and have enough weight to press a sandwich well. After wrapping them in foil—to avoid any cleaning work—I let them heat up over direct heat for 5-10 minutes. Then, I simply place them on top of whatever sandwich I'm making that day, cover the grill, and in another 5 minutes or so, I'll have a beautifully pressed sandwich.
Bricks are also a great for flattening butterflied chickens to ensure more even contact with the grilling grate.
Smoking Hot Skillet
Just like setting a wok on a chimney starter, I like nestling my cast iron skillets right into the coals to get them scorching hot. Cast iron can take the heat of the charcoal with little-to-no ill effects, which makes it great for this type of extreme high-heat cooking.
I use this technique often for vegetables that won't grill well, like sliced onions and peppers for fajitas. After grilling some delicious skirt steaks for the fajita meat, I'll remove the grilling grate and place the cast iron right on the hot embers. Next, I add in the fajita veggies with a little oil, and in 5-10 minutes they're softened and browned, which just so happens to be the same amount of time the steak needed to rest before being sliced and piled into homemade, lard-laden flour tortillas.
Bonus Hack: Smoke Low-and-Slow on Your Kettle Grill
I've covered how to convert your kettle grill into a smoker in depth before, but it's the question I'm most frequently asked, so I figure it bears repeating.
Most barbecue needs to be cooked low and slow to properly render the fat and break down chewy connective tissue so that tough cuts like ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket end up tender and delicious. Although not designed for it, a watchful eye and a little persistence is all that's needed to run your kettle grill at around the 225°F mark that's ideal for this type of cooking.
Assuming you don't want to invest in a Smokenator—a device whose primary purpose is to convert your kettle into a smoker with ease—the best way to do this is to place all the coals on one side of the charcoal grate and add a chunk or two of smoking wood on top. Then place an aluminum tray filled with water on the other side of the charcoal grate. Next, cover the grill and adjust the bottom damper to restrict airflow into the grill to a bare minimum. The temperature will then drop to the mid-to-low 200s, at which point you can place the meat over the water pan and re-cover the grill, with the top damper over the meat to ensure the smoke rolls over it.
Continue cooking until the meat is ready, but keep a watchful eye on the temperature, adjusting the airflow with the dampers to keep it low. A kettle grill will need a fresh batch of charcoal about every 90 minutes or so to keep the fire alive.
This works, but I can't end this without making a plug (again) to invest in a smoker if you really want the best barbecue—the results speak for themselves.
Happy grilling to all you Serious Eaters!