Build a Better Burger: Charcoal GrillingBy Todd • Nov 17th, 2010 • Category: How To Cook Burgers
“My theory is, that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. Which way they choose tells me who that person is. For instance, there’s only two kinds of people in the world: Beatles people and Elvis people. Now, Beatles people can like Elvis, and Elvis people can like the Beatles, but nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.”
That’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, where Mia Wallace is getting to know Vincent Vega before their dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. That speech also perfectly sums up my philosophy on grilling: just replace “Beatles” with “gas” and swap out “Elvis” for “charcoal.” There are gas people, and there are charcoal people. Somewhere, you have to make a choice.
In this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, we’ll go step-by-step on grilling a burger over a live bed of hot coals. Whether you’ve got a standard Weber kettle, a tailgate-size hibachi, or a big-dog barbecue rig, the process is the same… and the results are magical.
For me, it all starts in a chimney. It’s like a supersized coffee can with a wire basket in the bottom end. Crumple up a few sheets of newspaper, wad them in the bottom, pile charcoal briquettes up top, and flick your Bic.
The newspaper burns long enough to ignite the coals on the very bottom of the chimney, starting a fire that spreads up the cylinder. The chimney keeps the coals contained and gets your fire going a lot faster than Dad’s traditional pile.
The chimney eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which can seriously affect the taste of whatever you’re grilling. Lump charcoal burns cleaner and way hotter than briquettes and are a nice alternative for cuts of meat that need to cook a while. Briquettes are cheaper, easier to find, and get plenty hot enough to cook burgs. Within 30 minutes, the full chimney’s worth of coals is ablaze. The bottom coals are rip-roaring, with the top coals just dusted over in white. This is your cue to dump them out.
Use some tongs (NOT ones you’ll flip your burgs with, Ashy McAsher) to arrange the hot coals so that they touch each other in one single layer across the grill’s bottom grate.
Add the cooking grate over the coals… and wait. Yeah, really. The instinct is to work quickly now that the coals are spread out and burning, to throw those burgers on the grill as fast as you can before the fire goes out. That’s a great way to scorch the burgs’ exteriors before the centers even know they’re being cooked. Those coals will stay hot for a long time; use this extreme heat to clean the grate.
See all that gunk leftover from the last thing you grilled? You don’t want it getting embedded in your burger. Close the lid and let the grate heat up for 5-10 minutes. Then use a grill brush (or a crumpled-up ball of tin foil) to scrape that now-softened garlic-herb-chicken detritus off the grate. Once it’s clean, test the temperature with the oldest thermometer known to man.
Yes, your hand. Some grills have a temperature gauge built in to the lid, but they’re notoriously unreliable. Your hand is foolproof. Place your palm just above the cooking surface and start counting. How long can you hold it before the heat is too much? The answer tells you how hot your fire is:
2 seconds: Hot
3-4 seconds: Medium-hot
5-6 seconds: Medium
7 seconds: Medium-low
Your personal pain threshold notwithstanding, this is a surprisingly consistent way to gauge a fire’s temperature for grilling anything. For burgers, you’re looking for medium-hot. Anything less, and you won’t get that sexy sizzle when you lay your patties on the grate. But before you drop the meat, now’s the time to safeguard against your burgers sticking. I soak a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil and rub it all over the grate with my tongs.
Non-stick sprays work, but regular cooking spray may not stand up to the grill’s high heat, and some will really flame up when you spray it right above the hot coals. Oil is cheap and does a much better job, I’ve found. Get that grate glistening, and then arrange your burgers right over the coals.
Now, leave them alone! A lot of grill jockeys start poking and scooting things around with a spatula right from the jump. This is a telltale sign of a rookie griller. You want to see nice sear marks when you flip that bad boy over, right? The only way to get them is to let that meat stay in contact with the hot grate exactly the way it landed. And no pressing or smashing! That’s fine for griddle burgers where the fat has nowhere to go, but do it in the backyard, and all that tasty grease starts leaking out onto your burning charcoal. The result will be out-of-control flames and a dry burger. Just crack open a beverage and let the burgers cook for a good 5 minutes. You’ll start to see nice browning on the bottom sides of the burgers, like above.
Now when you flip them, you should be rewarded with crusty stripes of char. This is when every second actually counts. If you like ‘em rare, (or as Vincent Vega prefers, “bloody as hell”), just two minutes should do the trick, and those burgers will be ready to come off the grill. Every 30-60 seconds will bump the burgs up to the next doneness level, so it won’t take long, even for “burnt to a crisp.”
Grilling over charcoal takes some planning. It takes patience. It takes time. It’s not really an option for a quick homemade burger on a busy Tuesday night. But the smoky taste can’t be beat. And for us true Elvis people burger hounds, isn’t that what it’s all about?