How to build the perfect fire for your grilling experience

Before you can become a grill master you will need to know how to properly build a fire. The fire is the beginning of the grilling process. Without a proper fire, you can not expect to be a real grill master. Even if you use a gas grill it is an important skill that will make you a better griller.  Building your charcoal fire is more than just opening up the bag, dumping in the charcoal, dousing them with lighter fluid and throwing on a match, although that is how many people do it. Then after 15-20 minutes they shake the grill to settle the coals and go to grilling. Do it this way and you will probably end up with burned burgers or raw chicken, but sometimes you might get lucky and your food will turn out okay. Wouldn’t it be better to know that you will get good food every time? The key to good grilling is to have an even fire. The only time you should have any variation in heat is when you plan for it. If you just dump your coals in randomly you will have hot and cool spots. If you evenly distribute the coals you can minimize any variation and get good, even grilling. This is very important when you are cooking a large amount of food on the grill.  The number of charcoal briquettes you use will depend on the size of your gill, the amount of food you will be cooking, weather conditions and cooking time.  As a general rule of thumb, plan on using about 30 briquettes to cook 1 pound of meat. A standard five-pound bag contains 75 to 90 briquettes. You want to make sure that you have enough briquettes to cover the grills pan in a single layer and extending out about 2″ beyond the area of the food on the grill. In my opinion, the best way to start a fire is with a chimney.

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After the coals have begun to burn and ash starts to form, you will need to arrange them with long handled tongs into a single layer.  Once you have mastered even heating its time to step up to the professional level. A Pro likes to have a controlled temperature variation, a hot area and a not so hot area. In grilling this is called a two zone fire. If you have a dual burner gas grill just set one burner on high and the other on medium. The advantage to this is that you will have one area to sear foods and another area to cook them through.  For a charcoal grill you will want to set up half of your fire grate in a single layer of coals and the other half in two or three layers of coals.  This will give you the hot and medium areas to do your cooking. This method is also good if you are cooking different types of foods at the same time. For instance if you were grilling fajitas, you would sear the steak over the high heat and cook the peppers over the lower heat. After you have mastered the two level fire you will certainly see the advantage of this method.

The other type of fire you need to learn how to build is the indirect fire. The simplest form of this of this fire is to put all the coals on one side of the grill and no coals on the other side. For a gas grill this is equivalent to turning the burner on one side on and leaving the other off. With a charcoal grill you can do much more than this. The ring of fire is an excellent strategy for an indirect fire if you are using the kettle style of grill. To build this type of fire, after you have hot coals, push the coals to the outside of the coal grate leaving the middle empty. This method gives you an even heat around the entire grill and a good indirect cooking space.  When building an indirect fire one of the most common problems is having the fire on just one side of the grill. If you are using a gas grill there isn’t a lot you can do to avoid this. The problem with this is that the heat will be uneven and one side of the food you are cooking will get more heat than the other. This will require you to turn the food often to have it cook evenly. When you use a charcoal grill you can build the fire everywhere except under the food you are cooking and this gives you a more even heat.

Another thing to consider when building a fire is using hardwood. Using slow burning wood chips will add a smoky flavor to your food. If you are going to add wood chips to your fire then you will want to have a place to do that. For a gas grill you can use a firebox or wrap the moistened wood chips in foil. For a charcoal fire you will just need to leave a small area of the coal grate with just a coals. This makes a good place to put wood chips and they will smoke but not burn away quickly.


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