Ever been to a barbecue party where the ‘chef' placed as much food as he could possibly fit onto the barbecue grill, every so often stabbing the food with a fork and juggling it around so that it cooks evenly? Ever noticed how, within a few minutes, the flames start gently flickering under the food, the chef proudly standing back admiring the char grill effect that he's creating? Ever notice the panic that sets in when the flames suddenly leap up and around the food burning it black on the outside and leaving it raw on the inside?
The difference between great char grilled barbecue food and burnt offerings lies in a few small precautions. The chef that we've just described made a few fatal errors that could easily have been avoided. Before discussing the errors though, lets consider the equipment that we're talking about. Although the same can happen with gas as with charcoal, gas grills can be turned lower, or off, when the flames start getting out of control.
The flames can also be controlled if the barbecue grill has a tight fitting lid, as with a Weber kettle grill. However most people seem to cook on an open top barbecue grill with the lid, if it has one, open. Note that we're talking about a barbecue grill here, where the food is cooked directly over the hot coals. True barbecue uses indirect heat with the food fully enclosed as though in an oven. So, the barbecue grill that our imaginary chef is using is an open top, charcoal, barbecue grill.
Now lets have a look at our imaginary chef's errors. First, he filled the grate with charcoal along its entire length, providing a constant heat source, with no area of lower heat to place food if it started to burn. A simple solution is to use the rule of thirds. Imagine the grate of your barbecue being in thirds. Fill two thirds of the grill with charcoal and leave the remaining third empty. Cook your food over the hot coals and when your food is ready, or starts to burn, or creates out of control flames, move it over to the section above the empty grate. The food will stay warm but won't cook any more (or possibly it will but much more slowly), and wont cause any flare-ups. A further refinement can be had, if you've a large enough grill, by placing a double level of coals in one third of the grate, a single level of coals in the middle, and no coals in the final third. You now have three levels of heat!
A further mistake was to overfill the grill. Completely filling it leaves no room to manoeuvre the food. You're not able to turn it for even cooking and you've no space to move the food to a lower heat. Assuming that you're using the rule of thirds as described above, , when you first start cooking, leave empty the area of the grill above where you've placed no coals. You've then space to move the cooked food into. Secondly, don't pack the cooking part of the grill with food. Leave room to comfortably turn your food.
A second problem caused when over filling the grill is to use foods that require different cooking times. When the coals are first ready to use, they're at their hottest. This is the time to cook small, thin items of food that can be cooked in a short time with a high heat. These include items like sausages, burgers, kebabs and small pieces of meat off the bone.
Don't forget that food, such as burgers and sausages, drip fat and juices onto the charcoal during cooking and it's this that causes flare-ups. So you'll need to constantly watch the items of food and move them to an area of lower heat if necessary (did I mention the rule of thirds? ). After the heat has died down somewhat, start grilling food that takes a little longer to grill like chops and steaks and meat on the bone. Finally when the heat is even lower, grill food like fruit kebabs that really only need heating through.
Last, but not least, our imaginary chef stabs his food with a barbecue fork to turn it over. During the initially few minutes of grilling, the heat seals the surface of the meat, sealing in the juices. When the meat is stabbed the juices flow out onto the coals, causing the meat to dry out and become tough, and producing a flare up which burns the food. When turning food, always use barbecue tongs.
With a charcoal barbecue controlling the heat is difficult. Instead you need to ensure that you cook your individual items of food at the most appropriate time and that you have separate areas of heat. Use the rule of thirds to provide separate areas of heat. When cooking your food, first grill quick cook food when the coals are at their hottest. Second, cook food that requires cooking at a mid temperature for a longer time. Thirdly, cook food that needs a low heat. Another rule of thirds!