17-TIPS AND TRICKS - Cooking directly on hot coal_1

Real men don’t need a food grate

In another article I talked about cooking fish directly on the hot charcoal without putting it on a food grate. However, I want to expand on this idea as it can truly broaden your horizons on what is achievable in the realm of cooking.

What makes this type of cooking so exciting is that it is completely counter-intuitive - at least to a westerner. Well, I say that, but in fact those who live the life of the outdoorsman, or even those who have ever been boy scouts, know that cooking in the fire can be a great quick-and-dirty way to cook.

And of course, dirty is the operative word. No carefully constructing teepee, tripods and hanging pots that you have brought along from the trio of sturdy sticks. No gathering large stones to support a pot above a fire. Just wrap it up in some protective material and onto the hot charcoals.

Well anyway, that’s the theory.

It probably goes to the age of the caveman and the earliest invention of fire. But it is now making a resurgence thanks to the efforts of US BBQ expert Adam Perry Lang, who calls it “clinching”.

The reason it is counter-intuitive, is that there is a widely held belief that if the meat is in direct contact with the hot charcoal then it will burn. The truth of the matter is a little more complicated. When meat is cooked in very close proximity to hot charcoal it will indeed burn. This could happen even if you put the food grate too close to the coal bed.

However, if you put the meat right up against the charcoal, the direct contact actually deprives that side of the charcoal of oxygen. This effectively stifles the fire in the charcoal and you’re cooking not from the fire but from the heat that the charcoal retains. In a way it is just like heating up rocks and then cooking the food in direct contact with the hot rocks. But it does have one advantage over hot rocks: because smoke is caused by incomplete combustion, and because the contact between the food and the charcoal deprives the charcoal of oxygen, you get more smoke than you normally would. And this gives the food a very smoky flavor.

Having said that there are some things you have to avoid. First of all, the food that you cook should not be flimsy. Thus you can cook fish in a fire only if it is wrapped in a protective crust of salt, dough or tied newspaper. (See my article: Fish on Fire.) Similarly, you shouldn’t cook soft vegetables or thin slivers of meat.

You can cook thick, sturdy vegetables like beetroot, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes or sweet potatoes. My advice in all cases would be to keep them whole and not try to cut them into smaller pieces. And for meat you cook a whole joint, a thick steak or meat on the bone. Also you want something with little or no fat on it, as the fat in inflammable and can flare up and burn the meat.

The other thing to avoid is using standard size briquettes or indeed any charcoal that has been treated with chemicals to help it ignite. Chemical free lumpwood charcoal may be harder to light, but that is what you have to use if you want to cook by this method. Either that or use wood and wait a bit longer for it to settle down to smoldering embers.

Either way, the food will be a bit dirty and you will have to use a knife to scrape off some of the charcoal ash. In the case of potatoes and certainly for sweet potatoes, you can scoop the food out of the skin. And in the case of meat you could wrap it in certain types of large leaves. (See my article: Sand Baking - South Pacific Style.) But anyway you look at it, this method is slightly dirty. However, when you taste the smoky flavour you will realize that it is well worthwhile.

17-TIPS AND TRICKS - Cooking directly on hot coal_1

Cooking directly on hot coals

Of course you can can’t use this method with a gas barbecue. But you can with a charcoal one.

However, not everyone agrees with Lang that this process assures against burning the meat. Chef Josiah Citrin, owner of the Santa Monica based Michelin two-star restaurant Melisse, warns that burning is inevitable, but embraces the technique in spite of this drawback.

Having opened a restaurant called Charcoal in Venice, California that specializes in direct charcoal roasting, Citrin stated that because burning the food is unavoidable, it’s “one less thing to worry about.” But Citrin was quick to concede that “It’s a bit barbaric.”

Citrin’s technique calls for making the charcoal completely flat and in some cases to wrap the food in foil. He also advocates combining cooking directly on the charcoal with use of the grate. Thus one of his methods involves roasting vegetables directly on the coals, whilst cooking meat above them on a grate above. The idea is that the hot juices and melting fat dripping from the meat will flavor the vegetables below.

He also recommends turning the meat frequently to ensure that it cooks evenly. The trouble with this method is, of course, that it increases the likelihood of separating the meat from its close contact with the charcoal that Lang regards as vital.

Citrin also adds wrapping certain types of food in foil - mostly the soft type that Lang advises not to cook this way at all. For example, Citrin has a dish that consists of cabbage stuffed with butter, lemon zest, garlic and chile flakes.

There’s also the question of coating and baking. With direct cooking on charcoal, this is a bit of a double-edged sword, as the coating can lead to the food getting burnt on the outside. Dry spices and herbs will form a crust that can easily get burnt. But this crust can be scraped off with a knife - and it might even protect the meat.

A wet thin marinade will dampen the flames. A wet sticky marinade will burn. But you can get around this problem by using a meat injector (See our review article: Things for your BBQ that you didn't even know you needed.) Inject the marinade into the meat and you get the best of both worlds: the marinade flavour without the danger or burning the outside of the meat. And for meat injection, a sticky marinade is probably the best.

In the end, anything you make of these methods will be an experiment, at least for the first four or five times you try. After that, you’ll start to build up a body of skills that you can apply to your own cooking and also - I hope - share with us.

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