Cooking With Fire

The Great Charcoal vs. Gas Debate
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 14 2006 12:07 PM

Cooking With Fire

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Hi Steven and Sara,

Thanks, Sara, for getting us started. Gas vs. charcoal or wood: That is the fundamental grilling question. I generally prefer taking a nonjudgmental approach to cooking, encouraging anyone willing to make an effort. But over the years, I've found that if I don't take a stand, folks start to question my chef credentials. Thus, I present my criticisms on gas grilling.

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I acknowledge that gas grilling is easier, quicker, and safer, but for me, one fundamental reason I love grilling is the excitement that's born from the risk involved: With charcoal grilling, there's a big chance you'll ruin your dinner. I love the challenge of starting the perfect fire, and cooking over live coals is unpredictable and thrilling. (And perhaps, Sara, this point speaks to your question about why men love grilling. Steve, what do you think?) This unpredictability might turn some people off, so let me offer one other reason coals are preferable to gas: Gas only burns two-thirds as hot as live coals. To me, the characteristic flavor of grilled food comes from its interaction with high heat, the ensuing browning, and the resulting deeply concentrated flavor—something that's just not possible with the heating output of gas. Having said that, some of my good friends own both gas and charcoal grills; one for the weekdays and the other for the weekends, when they can spend a little more time at the grill. That's not a reasonable solution for most, but it is a compromise I can live with. Sara, I know a lot of people who cook with the Big Green Egg, and they rave about its heat. Is it able to brown things quickly? Do you use dry rubs with the egg? Steve, I'd love your take, too, if you use one.

My biggest grilling inspirations come from my travels. Cooking with fire is not uniquely American—many cultures use grilling as their principal cooking method. Steve, I've found that your Big Flavor Cookbook, which features BBQ recipes from around the world, has some outstanding flavor ideas: fresh herbs, spices, chilies, and citrus. I use some common flavor combinations for specific cuisines, like chilies, lime, and cilantro for Latin flavors; soy, ginger, and scallions for Chinese cuisine; chili, lime, and fish sauce for Thai-styled dishes; and tomato, garlic, and basil for Italian. These simple combinations make for very creative grill flavors.

You're right, Sara, that a lot of people shy away from grilling seafood because of its perceived complexities, but they shouldn't. To prevent seafood from sticking to the grill, here are three tips:

1) Clean the hot grill.

2) Lightly oil the fish.

3) Allow the fish to stay on the grill a while before trying to move it. This allows for a sear to develop between the fish and the grill, which facilitates turning it.

All seafood is appropriate for the grill. Clams and oysters in their shells are some of the easiest seafood to grill, followed by shrimp and scallops, and then fish steaks and fillets. You can earn your seafood-grilling Ph.D. after successfully grilling a whole fish.

A major part of the enjoyment I get from grilling lies in its simplicity. So, I suggest only three basic tools: long-handle restaurant tongs, a stiff wire brush for cleaning the grill, and a cool beverage of your choice—mine is beer. Steve, what do you think of all of the fancy grilling tools you can find around these days? Unnecessary? Fun?

As I mentioned earlier, the fun, flavor, and the casual vibe of grilling is part of the appeal of live fire grilling. And it's a fantastic way to share food with friends and family. I imagine there are tricks to using a gas grill with regard to promoting flavor, but I'm just not experienced. Steven, what do you do?

—Chris

For years, Sara Dickerman worked as a restaurant cook; she is now the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine. Steven Raichlen is the author of award-winning Barbecue Bible, How To Grill, and the new Raichlen on Ribs, and is the host of Barbecue University on PBS. He's also the creator of the Best of Barbecue line of grilling accessories. Chris Schlesinger opened the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., in 1985. He is the author of eight cookbooks and also won the James Beard award for the best chef in the Northeast. 

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