As a home griller you’ve taken everything to the next level. You’ve customized your grill, perfected the most delicious recipes, and you’re apron shouts, “Grill Master!”
What could possibly be next? How about making the very charcoal you grill with?
That’s right, the pride you take in making things from scratch can be amplified by crafting perfect fuel for your fire.
When it comes to charcoal cookery, the grill you choose is equally as important as the fuel. There are several options available, but the one that has most recently caught my eye is the Viking C4 Outdoor Cooker. It’s in the same league as ceramic grills like The Big Green Egg, and Cypress Ceramic Grills, all of which provide the heat retention and large cooking surface I look for in a grill.
Charcoal for home grilling comes in two forms. Lump and briquette Purists insist that lump charcoal, often called natural, is the only real option. Briquettes, famed for their easy lighting and even heat, are suitable for many cooks. However, briquettes are made from charcoal that has been pulverized and mixed with chemical binders. These additives, which make for longer burning and consistent heat, can occasionally impart unpleasant flavors. For my money, lump charcoal is the way to go. You can buy lump charcoal in several varieties, most commonly hardwoods like hickory or oak. There is a reason for this, which we will get to later. For now, rest easy knowing that you can make your own charcoal, from the wood of your choice, for the best tasting barbeque of all time!
The science behind charcoal production is simple. You must remove all the hydrogen and oxygen from wood, leaving behind pure carbon. This is made possible when you heat wood to 500 F, at which point chemical bonds begin to break down. Don’t waste your time trying to make charcoal with green wood. Moisture evaporates at 212 F, which means too much energy will be spent on burning off the water before the wood can be heated to a high enough temperature. Aim for wood with a moisture content below 20%. This is easily achieved by letting your woodpile dry for one year.
Making charcoal at home is a great springtime activity, when you’ve got yard waste to burn. It takes a big fire to make charcoal, so be sure you have enough material to burn for at least five hours. The fire should be built in a burning barrel with air vents cut along the bottom. The wood you will be converting to charcoal must be very dry, free of bark, and absolutely free of paint, stains, or other treatments. You can use any variety of wood you like, but the denser the better. A bushel of hickory will produce 25 lbs of charcoal, while the same bushel of pine will yield only 13 lbs.
The easiest method I’ve found is to pack the wood tightly into metal paint cans, (well cleaned) will a two inch hole cut in the lid. When the can is as full as possible, tamp the lid down firmly and place it in the middle of the burning barrel, where the fire will be roaring. Build your fire around the can. It is important that the hole in the lid of the can be free of debris, so don’t stack cans directly on top of each other.
When you’re ready, start the fire, (through the air vents at the bottom of the barrel,) and let it burn for at least five hours. After about 30 minutes you will see a bright plume of flame coming from each of your paint cans. These gasses escaping from your charcoal indicate that things are progressing the way they should.
Allow the fire to burn down completely. Carefully remove the charcoal cans, and set them aside to cool.
That’s all there is too it! You will find satisfaction in producing your own charcoal, and will certainly reap the benefits found in cleaner and better tasting barbeque.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Sanders is a professional chef and freelance writer who lives and works in British Columbia. She received her culinary training in Vancouver, and went on to work in some of the city’s finest establishments as a cook and pastry chef. Her primary area of expertise is dessert, but she has a deep affinity for any food that can be consumed with a good glass of wine.
After several years of intense restaurant work, Katie decided to pursue a quieter life in the country. She now lives and works in Canada’s most prestigious wine country, the Central Okanagan.