Charcoal 101

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These are simple “get me up and running” instructions for those new to charcoal.

Firstly –  charcoal is not Heat Beads; neither is it compressed charcoal nor is it bio wood or any of that crap. Charcoal is wood that has been heated in conditions of reduced oxygen so that the volatiles (think wood alcohol – methylated spirits)  come off without igniting, and the carbon is left. It comes in a 20kg bag and it looks like this:

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The type of charcoal you get will depend on where you live. I’ve used charcoal from Australia, Greece and Argentina; my favourite is Australian Mallee – but the others are fine, I advocate using your local product. Look for it in woodyards rather than Hardware or BBQ shops, or if you come across a charcoal restaurant, ask where they  buy theirs. In my home town of Adelaide the best stuff comes from Gaganis.

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This much charcoal (about 500g) will cook half a dozen sausages,  shaslicks or whatever, provide a bit of warmth on a chilly evening and an hour and a half’s entertainment – all for under a dollar.

I put it in this little basket with a fire-lighter underneath. Purists will recoil in horror over the fire-lighter  but it’s easy and it works. Make a pile of the charcoal  if you don’t have a  basket, of if you’re using more charcoal. If you’re new to charcoal you will be worried that you don’t have enough; that your food won’t cook etc, so experiment when it’s non-critical. Cook a few sausages or some chicken shaslicks one evening when you’re alone; settle in with a decent bottle of wine and enjoy watching the charcoal.

This point is important – charcoal is dead easy to use, but it’s not quick. Don’t try to rush it or do other things while you’re waiting. Only use it if you’re prepared to relax and enjoy yourself.

While the fire-lighter is burning it will smell bad – this is the time to go and get your food organised, and when you come back the fire-lighter will have gone, the charcoal taken off and it’s all good from there on in.

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After 30 minutes your charcoal will look like this. Don’t poke it or worry about it while it’s getting going; it will be fine. It’s a good idea to use a watch to time it, just so you don’t rush things. Allow it the fullness of time.

Now you can spread it around for cooking:

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You need to allow a fair distance between the charcoal and the food. It’s not straight forward, because it depends on the amount of charcoal you’re using.

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You’ll notice I’ve elevated my charcoal here using a steel tray, and that’s because I’m using a small amount. If I were using more – to cook a boned leg of lamb for example, I’d remove that tray and have the charcoal lower.

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These patties are about half-way done. They need 30 minutes in total over over the slow heat. Remember that charcoal is slow. Use your watch to time it and don’t be impatient. Don’t let your mate sitting next to you tell you they’ll be overdone.

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I like to improve the cooking by adding a cover sometimes – particularly if the weather it chilly. Those of you running charcoal in your Webers  can use the lid.

So that’s it. Start simply, take your time, enjoy it.

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