If you're buying organically grown veggies or grass-fed beef to cook on your grill, it makes little sense to use heat sources and other materials that have chemicals in them when you cook. Yet, in the past, I've dumped charcoal briquettes saturated in lighter fluid into my kettle grill to cook my good food.
I stopped doing that a while ago, and it wasn't difficult. I never went back to the quick lighting, chemically saturated briquets once I discovered natural lump charcoal and a chimney starter.
Natural lump charcoal
Lump charcoal is made naturally from wood, and the sizes of the pieces are not always uniform. (Photo: sharyn morrow/flickr)
Lump charcoal is made out of wood. The wood is cut to desired size and then it's cooked in a low oxygen environment for a very long time. The end result is material that is almost pure carbon, and it will burn longer and hotter than the wood it originated as. It's all natural. It doesn't go through the process that charcoal briquettes go through, a process that adds materials to help form uniform squares and sometimes chemical lighter fluid to help them light more quickly.
One issue some people find with lump charcoal is that it doesn't burn as evenly as briquets because the size of the pieces aren't uniform. People who want complete control of their grill may prefer briquettes, but I'm not such a grilling fanatic that I need that type of control.
This spring, I've been using an all-natural Oak and Hickory Lump Charcoal from Fire & Flavor in my kettle grill, and I appreciate how hot it gets and how long it burns. In fact, every time I'm finished grilling, I kick myself for not having something else prepared to stick on the grill because there's enough energy left in the charcoal to cook something else — perhaps some chicken to be used for future meals.
Fire & Flavor makes several all-natural products for the grill including grilling planks and papers, seasoned chips like hickory or apple to impart flavor in the food you're grilling, and fire starters to make lighting easier. I prefer to light my charcoal with a chimney starter, though. (Disclosure: Fire & Flavor sent me some samples of their grilling products.)
Using a chimney starter
A chimney starter makes lighting the grill very easy. (Photo: Eric Kilby/flickr)
I've heard people say that using a chimney starter is akin to cheating. I don't agree with that — and if I'm wrong, I don't care. A chimney starter makes lighting a charcoal grill easy.
The cylinder is filled with charcoal and paper is crumpled up underneath it. All you do is light the paper and the flames from the paper will light the bottom coals in the chimney. Within 20 minutes or so, you'll have hot, lit coals that you can dump on the grill. Some lump charcoal doesn't have anything added to help it light more quickly, so the chimney grill is a useful way to get the natural heat source burning quickly. You can walk away without worrying about a false start.
A basic chimney starter is inexpensive and is reusable for years, and the paper used to light it can usually be taken right out of your recycling bin.
Other natural grilling tips
- After you dump the charcoal out of a chimney starter, give the grill grate a good seven minutes or so to heat evenly once it's placed on top of the charcoal before you put your food on. A hot grate helps to keep food from sticking.
- Another way to keep food from sticking is to rub a potato on the grate before putting the food on it. The starch from the potato will create a non-stick surface and you won't have to use non-stick spray. It may sound silly, but I've tested this method and it works.
- To reduce the carcinogens on meat that may increase from cooking on the grill, marinate it. Research has shown that using a thin, vinegar-based marinade (without sugar), can reduce heterocyclic amines (HCAs), the compound that turns the outside of grilled meat into a potential-carcinogen, according to Rodale's Organic News.