Charcoal Barbeque: Five Common Mistakes
Here's five common barbeque mistakes, and how to prevent them.
Every year, thousands of would-be master barbecuers break out their grills and pile on those little black lumps of fluid-soaked charcoal. After the initial fire is brought under control, the chef carefully arranges a tempting array of steaks, hamburgers, chicken and hot dogs on the grill and inevitably reduces them to more charcoal. If this sounds like a typical cookout scenario at your backyard picnic, you'll want to consider these five common barbecuing mistakes and how to fix them before the next neighborhood conflagration/fire drill comes around.
1. Not nearly enough/way too much charcoal in the grill. Consult your charcoal bag for the manufacturer's recommended level of product for your particular grill, but in general you don't want a single layer of charcoal lining the bottom of the grill, nor do you want a heaping pile of charcoal extending past the top of the container.
Many of the self-starting types of charcoal recommend no more that three pounds of their product in an average grill. You want enough charcoal to form a two or three level pyramid, and arranged loosely enough to allow air to reach around each piece. Charcoal will not automatically 'reduce' in size, so it does not pay to pile too much charcoal in hopes of creating a sustained fire. Once an average supply of charcoal has had enough time to reach its ideal cooking temperature, there should be plenty of heat to sustain a long cookout.
2. More fluid, captain, we must have more fluid. We all know that unique kerosene flavor that can only be achieved with an overdose of charcoal lighter fluid. None of your guests are going to ask for extra, that's for sure. If you can afford the extra initial expense, go for the self-lighting variety of charcoal. You won't need to add any additional fluid, and the amount of fluid already contained in the briquets is minimal. If you are using the traditional untreated charcoal briquets, give them a good soaking once they have been arranged in a pyramid, but resist the temptation to add more. Obviously there will be times when a little more lighter fluid may speed things along or jumpstart a slow burning area, but there are more times when too much is too much. Patience is a virtue when preparing charcoal for grilling, so instead of using lighter fluid as an accelerant you may want to get started a little earlier. Your guests will thank you.
3. Just the way you like it, raw in the middle and burnt on the outside. This problem has defined the state of most backyard food today. The problem is that the cook was too eager to slap the burgers and steak on the grill. Specifically, the charcoal had not reached its maximum effectiveness when the food was place on the rack. Charcoal sometimes looks more ready than it should, and the result is a sear, not a slow grill. When charcoal first turns white, it is very hot on the surface, but still cool in the middle. This extremely high heat will burn a nice coating on the outside of the hamburger or steak, but this process also prevents heat from reaching the inside portion of your food. Thus, you get the schizophrenic hamburger effect- burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. It's best to wait for the charcoal to burn down to an even temperature before placing food on the grill.
4. "How long has this potato salad been out here, anyway?" One side effect of a poorly planned cookout can have serious consequences for your guests. Food at a picnic is usually left out of safe temperature range for hours at a time. You may have cooked the chicken and beef long enough to have killed any e.coli bacteria, but that mayonnaise-based potato salad may not be so lucky.
Food poisoning is a real possibility with most outdoor eating events, so don't assume you are invulnerable. Keep any food you plan on serving below 45 degrees or above 140 degrees for as long as you can. That means keeping salads and fruits in the refrigerator until mealtime, and making sure the chicken and beef on the grill has been fully cooked and served hot. Wrapping food may protect it from outside pests and debris, but will not protect it from salmonella and botulism. Elderly guests and very young children are especially susceptible to salmonella, and it only takes one contaminated hamburger to cause a serious condition.
5. "I thought all the coals were out, Fire Marshall Bill..." Forgetting to extinguish a charcoal fire can be easy, considering all the other activities surrounding a barbecue. But you must make a sincere effort to fully dowse the coals with water or allow them to burn out in an approved area. Small children may stumble into your cookout area while playing, or the wind may carry sparks into the dry brush next door. Always keep a metal bucket ready to receive the old coals, or a supply of water to fully extinguish the charcoal. Saturate the coals thoroughly, to prevent restarts.