Tips & Techniques Grilling Fire-Building Basics

The most important point to remember about building a fire for outdoor cooking is to allow enough time for the fire to grow hot.

If you are using a charcoal grill, the coals need 25 to 30 minutes from the time you light them until they are ready for cooking. You can tell at a glance when they are sufficiently hot: They will be evenly covered in light gray ash or, in dim light at night, will glow red. Gas grills require lighting 10 to 15 minutes in advance so that their lava-rock or ceramic-briquette beds heat up fully.

Charcoal Fire-Starting Options
A properly built charcoal fire ensures quick, even burning. The most basic method calls for laying a base of paraffin-saturated corncobs or other fuel-soaked starting aids that can be ignited to start the fire. Alternatively, if an electrical outlet is safely close by, position the coil of an electric fire starter. (To avoid unpleasant fumes that can permeate food and to limit your contribution to air pollution, do not use lighter fluid or charcoal that has been presaturated with lighter fluid.)

On top of the starting aids, arrange a compact pyramid of charcoal pieces, building it large enough to cover the bottom of the fire pan in an even bed adequate for the cooking method youll be using. Then, use a match to ignite the starting aids, or plug in the electric starter.

Or, try an efficient chimney-type fire starter. Put the vented sheet-metal cylinder on the fire-bed grate. Stuff crumpled newspapers into the bottom of the chimney and pile the charcoal on top. Then, light the paper. The coals should be ready in about 20 minutes.

Whichever method you use, once the coals are ready, they must be spread in the fire pan as required by the cooking method. Chimney starters have heatproof handles that let you dump and spread the coals. If you have ignited them in a pyramid, use long metal tongs with a heatproof handle to spread the coals while keeping yourself safely clear of them.

Firing Up a Gas Grill
If you are using a gas grill, starting the fire is easy. First, open the lid of the grill and make sure that the burner controls are turned off. If you are using fuel from a propane tank, make sure the tank has fuel. Then turn on the valve.

Light the grill following the manufacturers instructions. If your gas grill does not have an automatic spark-inducing ignition button, use long wooden fireplace matches to ignite the gas jets. Then close the lid and let the bed of lava rock or ceramic briquettes heat for 10 to 15 minutes.

Fire-Building Basics

Direct Versus Indirect Heat

Before you begin grilling, determine whether youll need direct or indirect heat. For either method, once the fire bed is ready, set the metal rack or grid on which the food will cook 4 to 6 inches above the heat.

Direct Heat
Foods cooked with direct heat are placed directly over the hot coals or burners of a grill. Use this method for searing and for grilling small or thin food items that take less than 25 minutes to cook, including some poultry pieces, steaks, chops, burgers, sausages, fish fillets and kabobs.

To set up a direct-heat fire in a charcoal grill, use long-handled metal tongs, a long poker or another safe tool to spread hot coals evenly across the area of the fire pan directly below where the food will sit.

For a direct-heat fire in a gas grill, heat the burners beneath the rack on which you plan to cook.

Fire-Building Basics

Indirect Heat

Indirect heat cooks foods by reflected heat, much like roasting in an oven. Use this method for grilling large pieces of food, such as a boneless leg of lamb or a whole chicken. Heat circulating inside the grill cooks the food more slowly and evenly, although you may turn the food partway through the cooking time to ensure uniform cooking.

To set up an indirect-heat fire in a charcoal grill, place a drip pan (an aluminum-foil roasting pan is ideal) on the fire grate and use long-handled tongs to position the hot coals around the edge of the pan. Then put the food directly on the grill rack over the pan and cover the grill. For foods that require 40 minutes or more of cooking, light a second batch of coals in another grill or other fireproof container and replenish the fire as needed.

In a gas grill, heat the grill using all the burners, then turn off any burners directly beneath where the food will cook and put a drip pan on the fire grate. Replace the grill rack, put the food over the drip pan, and adjust the burners on either side of the food to equal amounts of heat.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Complete Grilling Cookbook, Edited, by Chuck Williams (Time-Life Books, 2001).