Cooking With Fire

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

Cooking With Fire


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.

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?




Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 17 2014 11:48 PM Spanking Is Great for Sex Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?