With Chicago occasionally heating up and being nice out, at least long enough to fire up the grill, I've been getting my grilling set up.
Charcoal vs Gas
The number one criteria for me is taste. The best tasting food off the grill comes from wood or charcoal fires. Gas is convenient but in no way does it compete with the flavor of charcoal. Gas grills can get ridiculously expensive. A decent charcoal grill you can get for less than $100. I found a small Kingsford charcoal grill at Home Depot for $39 (shown above on right).
I started my test with Cowboy brand Hardwood Lump Charcoal available at Home Depot. I picked it up at the same time as the grill. Disappointed with the low heat from this charcoal I bought a bag of Kingsford Competition Briquets, much better. Then Trader Joe's got their charcoal in which I've used in the past and liked.
Best way to light charcoal - the chimney starter
Absolutely the best way to light charcoal is the chimney starter. It uses nothing other than a few sheets of newspaper and a lighter or match. It works so well it is silly to consider anything else. You crumple up a few sheets of newspaper and stick that in the bottom and place it on the grill. Then pour the charcoal in the top and light the newspaper below. In approximately 10 minutes you have coals ready to go. Simply pour then into the gill from the chimney when the coals are hot. Some charcoal takes longer than others but it works without fail over 90 percent of the time. Once in high winds when it was very damp out I had to go for a relight. With charcoal lighter fluid I always had to babysit the fire. Of course I never had the lighter fluid when I wanted to cook a meal or I had to wait too long for the taste of the fluid to burn off. Never again. Home Depot sells the fancy Weber model for around $20 (or was it $25) but Menads has the one pictured above for about $7.
So after cooking several meals on all the thee charcoals listed above here are my results...
#1 - Trader Joes Natural Hardwood Charcoal Briquette - about $7 for 18 pounds it has the best price, burns HOT, lasts long and tastes great, my search stopped here.
#2 - Kingsford Competition Briquets - starts faster than all of them, slightly more expensive, burns hot, lasts long, tastes great
#3 - Cowboy Natural Lump Charcoal - honestly I haven't found a use for this, it lights ok but does not burn hot enough for decent grilling, don't waste your time
My testing was rather unscientific and a general "seat of the pants" type of experiment. I cooked several meals for just two people so I didn't use lots of charcoal but enough to get the job done. This translated to filling the chimney about 1/2 or 2/3 of the way. On my Kingsford grill I found the lower grate inside that the charcoals sits on to be too low for smaller meals with less charcoal. I ended up using the grate from my gas grill that was larger in diameter and raised the charcoal closer to the grilling surface. For larger meals where you use a lot of charcoal this might not be needed.
I followed the excellent video tutorials on the Kingsford site and created a "two zone fire" by placing a pile of hot charcoal on only one side of the grill. This allows me to sear meat and then move it to the low side for indirect heat. This works great with so many meals that I use it almost all the time unless there is something special I am trying like "beer can chicken" which this little Kingsford grill is too small for.
The Cowboy charcoal I started with simply did not get hot enough to get the meat to sear well. Both the Kingsford Competition Briquets and the Trader Joe charcoal worked great for this. The Kingsford Competition Briquets I found to be more flavorful that the Trader Joe charcoal and give it more of a smoky flavor. With some more delicate foods it might be too much which nudges me towards the Trader Joe charcoal. I also found the Trader Joe charcoal cooked hotter and lasted well. It seemed hotter than the Kingsford but took slightly longer to light and bring up to temp. The bag of Trader Joe charcoal was cheaper than the Kingsford and also 18 pounds instead of 12 pounds for the Kingsford which influenced my decision.
If flavor is what you are after then get a cheap charcoal grill, a chimney starter and a bag of Trader Joe charcoal. It can cost you less than $100 bucks for the whole setup and I highly doubt you will find better flavor on any other grills regardless of price. If you don't have a Trader Joe near you then the Kingsford Competition Briquets are a perfect substitute and widely available. If you favor spending money, looking flashy and value convenience then go out to dinner - or go to Costco and drop a pile of coin on a gas grill.
food & photos by David Ditzler