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Cooking food directly on coals?


Shalmanese
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The NYT has a piece on cooking steak directly on the coals. I remember Good Eats also did an episode a long time ago on, IIRC, skirt steak cooked directly on coals. Has anyone had any experience with this technique? It's pros & cons? Ways to improve it?

Seems too good to be true for a technique that's existed for several decades and yet has languished in relative obscurity.

PS: I am a guy.

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I use a grill basket placed directly on the coals.

 

Anyway, here's the Alton Brown video.....

 

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~Martin :)

I just don't want to look back and think "I could have eaten that."

Unsupervised, rebellious, radical agrarian experimenter, minimalist penny-pincher, and adventurous cook. Crotchety, cantankerous, terse curmudgeon, non-conformist, and contrarian who questions everything!

The best thing about a vegetable garden is all the meat you can hunt and trap out of it!

 

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It's been around for a while. I learned it from Adam Perry Lang, who calls it clinching. It wasn't new to him, of course.

If you haven't done it before, then I encourage you to try the method with pork chops. Fatty ones. Un-buh-lievable. One thing I did not see in the article is that you don't get flare-ups. Fire requires oxygen, and when you place the meat directly on the coals, no oxygen can get between the meat and the coals. Now you do get tons of smoke fro the fat. But Modernist Cuisine taught us that fat smoke is flavor.

Use only natural charcoal of course. No chemical briquettes.

The method is not just for meat. Eggplants done this way make great smoky baba ghanoush. Potatoes are awesome. Onions are super sweet.

There seems to be some worry about getting ash on your food. It can be avoided by blowing on the coals. It can be brushed off afterward. But really it is good flavor.

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gfron1,

 

Awesome video! Like Alton Brown, skirt is my favorite cut (rib eye is second), but hard to come by around here. Those are by far the thickest, most beautiful ones I've ever seen. There's not a lot of that cut to go around on even a large animal which explains its scarcity. Smart people scarf it up whenever they get the chance, and I don't blame them.

 

The only things I have ever had direct experience with cooking in coals are foil-wrapped potatoes and corn in water-soaked husks, also over wrapped with foil. I've also placed fish packets with thin sliced veggies in foil into the fire and less tender steaks with thicker cut-up seasoned veggies in campfires, also in foil, with good results in wood campfires.

 

This will be corrected after these posts, as I adore a good char on very rare meat, and so does my husband.

 

It's a little scary, but I'm willing to give it a try. I can conceive of this being the way people cooked mammoth or bison meat for centuries.

> ^ . . ^ <

 

 

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It shouldn't matter what kind of charcoal you use. Whether you use pure wood or something else, it's important to wait til they turn to coals. At that point they're chemically identical: carbon and ash. Use lump if you want faster starting and higher heat; briquettes if you want longer, steadier output.

 

I can't speak to the on-the-coals method. I wonder if imparts as much smokey flavor. It's been shown that fat flare-ups are actually the sole source of smoke flavors in grilled food (even though grilling lore says they're a problem). Does dripping fat get transformed the same way when it gets less air flow?

Notes from the underbelly

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I'm no chemist, but many sources say to avoid the briquettes because of the binders and other chemicals they use. You might be right, but I cook only on natural charcoal anyway.

For meat, I'm not sure about the smoky flavor myself. I find that it gives better caramelization and simply fantastic flavor. The fat smoke that comes off of, say, pork chops is overwhelming. I have to duck down under the cloud of smoke when taking the cover off to have any hope of seeing the meat. The difference between that and regular grilling is significant.

I don't see it as better, just a different method. One that impresses people.

I also don't remember if the article states it, but I find that usually you cannot cook the meat 100% on the coals. You'd burn the outside. So eventually I put the grate back on and use indirect heat to get to the desired doneness. Standard.

But veggies I often do cook 100% on the coals. Potatoes, onions, eggplants, etc, all come away with burned black exteriors. Cut them open, and scoop out the insides. Now these ARE smoky.

We have an outdoor fireplace and use hickory and oak. Steaks cooked on those coals are very smoky. I have cast iron and clay pots that I use to cook beans in, and those are very smoky even when the lid stays on. Black-eyed peas done like this are amazing. It's 90 degrees F, and I'm thinking about starting the fireplace!

Edit: to be clear, the bean pots are nestled in the wood coals for a couple of hours.

Edit 2: to get the steaks in lower heat in a fireplace, I use a few fireplace bricks and a small Weber replacement grill. I used to have an expensive Sante Fe grill, but it kept rusting. The bricks work great. Don't use regular bricks as they might explode.

Edited by Ttogull (log)
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...but many sources say to avoid the briquettes because of the binders and other chemicals they use. You might be right, but I cook only on natural charcoal anyway.

 

Yes, I made that point because the lore is widespread, but it's incorrect. The chemistry involved is basic. Once you've reduced charcoal to coals, it's going to be carbon and ash no matter the original source. Wood would be better if you jumped the gun and put the food on too early, but it still wouldn't be good. There are differences in density between the two that give somewhat different cooking characteristics, so the smart thing is to choose based on this rather than on worries about composition.

Notes from the underbelly

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Yes, I made that point because the lore is widespread, but it's incorrect. The chemistry involved is basic. Once you've reduced charcoal to coals, it's going to be carbon and ash no matter the original source. Wood would be better if you jumped the gun and put the food on too early, but it still wouldn't be good. There are differences in density between the two that give somewhat different cooking characteristics, so the smart thing is to choose based on this rather than on worries about composition.

 

When all of the chemical binders are gone from Briquette there is nothing left of but ash! Once the binder burns away the fun as they are made from just falls away. Because of this they also produce a lot more ash than hardwood charcoal.

 

Good hardwood charcoal also burns considerably longer. There's absolutely no reason to consider using briquettes.

 

 

 

I've learned that artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.

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There's absolutely no reason to consider using briquettes.

 

 

Well, they actually do burn a lot longer and more consistently. If you do a side-by-side test it will be obvious. This is because they're denser, so there's more stuff to burn in a given volume ... and less easy access for air. 

 

Because of this they also burn at a lower temperature, and are slower get started. 

 

It's all tradeoffs. match the qualities to the kind of cooking you're doing. 

 

I like to have lump on hand especially for if charcoal has to be added to a grill that's already going. It will be ready much sooner. I also prefer lump for searing food that's been cooked sous-vide. Just because it burns so hot. But for a casual day cooking outside, I find briquettes make life easier, just because of the steady output and longer life.

Notes from the underbelly

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I use both, but for cooking directly on hot coals ,  I would go with  lump, or  wood that has burnt down to coals.  

 

A good trick when doing "clinch" cooking is to  grab a hair dryer ; stoke the coals and blow away as much ash as possible before laying the meat on the coals.   Lump or wood coals  generally stoke up  hotter  and blow cleaner than briquettes, in the times I have experimented with it.  

"Why is the rum always gone?"

Captain Jack Sparrow

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I've done the steaks on the coals thing, following Alton Brown, but also the Iranian way of grilling corn is to put it, husked, straight on the coals, turn it frequently, then dunk it in salt water. I've done that a LOT. I put things like poblanos, and as was mentioned, eggplant straight on as well.

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