In the summertime outdoor cooking can almost be imperative, because cooking inside the house becomes unbearably hot. Use of charcoal for cooking outdoors is one way to avoid heating up the house. Additionally, cooking with charcoal in winter months can help to add a little variety to the daily menu at home.
For the best flavor use real charcoal, instead of briquets. The difference between briquets and real charcoal –briquets are made from compressed charcoal particles held together with petroleum based byproducts that keep the briquets burning. Real charcoal is hardwood that was burned (or charred) and then quickly cooled, leaving just the chunk of carbon. Real charcoal burns cleaner than briquets and imparts a better, more natural smoke flavor to anything you cook on it. It is more expensive but well worth it.
Never use petroleum based fire starter. It leaves an awful petroleum flavor on the food. Instead, use an electric coil to ignite the charcoal, or, better yet, start your coals in a chimney with a little paper.
My old charcoal cooker was well used over about 8 years and it had seen better days. I decided to spring for a new model and found one on sale for a decent price. It’s always a good idea to break-in a new cooker before using it to actually cook food. This set of pictures shows the process of using the chimney starter.
For steaks, chops or burgers and anything you want to cook quickly, direct heat is best to sear the meat and seal in the natural juices. Cooking over direct heat also permits you to make those nice grill marks on the item you are searing. Always start with the presentation side down onto the grate first.
Indirect heat is best for larger roasts, like, a full rack of ribs, or a whole chicken, or any roast over 3 pounds Pushing the hot coals to one side of the cooking unit and placing the meat on the opposite side allows for the smoke to slowly penetrate the meat and the heat to cook slowly without burning. You may also try the ring method, by pushing all the coals to the outside edge and leaving a hole in the center of the embers. It is the same idea as pushing the coals to one side, but provides for a more even cooking temperature without the need to turn the roast as often.
Steam convection is also a good way to cook larger and less tender pieces of meat. Slow cooking with the aid of steam helps to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. Make a ring with the coals and then place a pan of water in the center. This will create steam vapor to mix with the natural smoke. So, you will get the full effect of smoking and the added benefit of steam convection to help tenderize the meat and expedite the cooking process.
Marinating meats and veggies prior to cooking is also a good way to impart a complex and rich flavor to the end product.