Cooking With Fire

Why Do We Love Barbecue?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
June 14 2006 3:46 PM

Cooking With Fire

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Hi, Sara; hi, Chris,

Ah, the old gas-versus-charcoal debate. Actually, my favorite fuel is neither. It's wood. 

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Unlike gas, which has no intrinsic flavor, and unlike charcoal, which has its flavor-producing compounds removed in the manufacturing process, wood gives off a fragrant smoke that actually flavors the food. Anyone who has tossed soaked hickory chunks on a fire to smoke ribs or pork shoulders knows what I'm talking about. (The soaking slows down the combustion, so you get smoke instead of flames.) And anyone who has dined at your restaurant, Chris, knows the gustatory pyrotechnics that result when you grill food over a wood fire.

What most people don't realize is that you can grill over wood embers or blazing wood precisely the way you would gas or charcoal. This can be as simple as setting up a Tuscan grill (a gridiron on legs) in your fireplace, or as elaborate as using a wood-burning grill, like the Grillery or Woodflame.

Not that you need a specialized grill for wood. Most hardware stores and grill shops sell bags of hardwood chunks. Place these chunks in your chimney starter and light as you would charcoal. In 15 or 20 minutes, you'll have a bed of blazing wood embers, which will beat the pants off grilling over gas and charcoal. Rake out the embers to make a 3-zone fire.

When you grill over wood, you generate not only heat, but flavor. And each type of wood is unique: Mesquite has a strong, almost bitter flavor, best-suited to beef; hickory has a sweet, smoky flavor good for pork; and the fruitwoods you mentioned, Sara (apple, cherry, grape vine trimmings, etc.), are light enough to complement poultry and seafood. These distinctions are subtle—but they're interesting to play around with.

Of course, this is moot for the majority of Americans, who prefer gas grills. Unlike both of you, I personally own and use gas grills. Propane is part of my barbecue world for reasons both practical and philosophical.

Roughly 65 percent of Americans own gas grills. We choose gas grills for their push-button convenience and turn-of-a-knob heat control. We like the ease and speed of lighting it (especially on a weeknight). We like the consistent heat, and—admit it—the testosterone thrill of gleaming stainless steel and high BTUs under the hood. Chris, you revere charcoal for its fear factor; we gas-grillers prize propane for precisely the opposite reason: It's reliable and consistent.

You're absolutely right that, historically, Chris, gas grills lagged behind charcoal in terms of heat output. But gas grills have improved dramatically over the past decade, and the new generation of gas "super-grills" burn as hot as properly controlled charcoal.

On the philosophical side, many factors contribute to the character of grilled meats: for example, the caramelization of proteins in meats and plant sugars in fruits and vegetables when you expose them to the high, dry heat of a grill. Another factor is the localized charring or "branding" that occurs when food hits a hot grate, producing those signature grill marks. Both can be achieved on a well-designed gas grill.

Let me add that I, too, used to be a charcoal snob—until I dined at Inakaya in Tokyo. Inakaya specializes in robata yaki—highly ritualized Japanese hearth grilling. Dinner might consist of 15 tiny courses: kobe beef kebabs; fresh king crab legs; delicate, seasoned rafts of asparagus; and if you're there in August, a tiny river fish called ayu grilled with salt—its creamy guts intact. At the end of this extraordinary meal, I asked to meet the grill master. His grill turned out to be a high-tech, infrared gas grill not much bigger than a shoebox. It gave me a whole new tolerance, if not respect, for gas grills.

I agree with you both that gas grills present limitations—the most significant of which is smoking. It's very easy to smoke on a charcoal grill—toss some soaked wood chips on the coals. It's virtually impossible to smoke on a gas grill.

My advice is this: If you like the convenience of propane, use your gas grill during the week and invest in a charcoal grill—an inexpensive kettle grill works fine—for smoking and smoke-roasting on the weekend.

As for the kamado grills (ceramic cookers like the Big Green Egg so beloved by you, Sara), I own several and like them, but they're not my primary charcoal grill. For me, part of the pleasure of a charcoal grill is being able to poke the coals and waltz the food from hot spots to cool spots. It's cumbersome to do this on an Egg.

I'm almost out of space, and I haven't even addressed questions of tools (I'm a big proponent of them), how to be more innovative with what we grill (let me count the ways), or how best to prep food. Hopefully I'll get to some specifics on those questions later, but I did want to address Sara's final question: What's the fundamental appeal of cooking with fire? 

Anthropologically speaking, it's probably because barbecue is part of what makes us human. About 400,000 years ago, one of our hominid ancestors began to use fire to crack open bones to extract the marrow. Man became the first (and still the only) animal to cook, and that act happened over what we today call a barbecue pit. The advent of grilling (and it happened long before Neanderthals appeared) was a powerful evolutionary force—leading to language and complex social organization. I've said it before; I'll say it again: Barbecue begat civilization.

Second, the high, dry heat of the grill and the fragrant scent of wood smoke make most foods taste better than if cooked indoors.

Finally, grilling is just so darn fun and cool. When I was an adolescent, I used to build elaborate model ships and airplanes for the sole purpose of filling them with firecrackers and dousing them with lighter fluid, then setting them on fire and blowing them up. Guys love playing with fire—it's as simple as that.

Warmly,
Steven

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