BBQ Season: the Quest for Fire



xray-delta has discussed BBQ in the past (Does This Explain our BBQ Attraction?) and with the heart of summer upon us we must enjoy and make the most of the all-to-brief season (at least in Canada) to lounge about the wonderfully basic pleasures of the BBQ and it’s attendant rituals and paraphernalia. In his article “The Carbon Debate,” Rob Mifsud describes the subculture of knowledge, ritual, and black art that is charcoal. It is not enough to ponder the pros and cons of types of grilling equipment (such as gas-fired vs. wood vs. charcoal) but within the sub genre of charcoal there are many schools of thought.

Fortunately there are websites (naturally) that provides opinions, analyses, and expert advice (such as naked and it’s Tao of Charcoal).

Of course no area of human ingenuity is immune to the “tail” of obsession. In the case of charcoal Mifsud describes binchotan, the traditional Japanese charcoal, that has varieties that cost $100 for 10 kg of charcoal made from the Wakayama prefecture oak trees. Here’s a link to a blog devoted to binchotan.

Of interest to xray-delta is the science behind the sear. According to Chris Young, author of the Modernist Cuisine cookbook, what provides the subtle flavours and aromas of grilling is “gaseous marinade,” the deposition of volatile compounds formed when drippings from the items on the grill strike the heat source, vaporize, and then drift upwards to coat the food above. The nature of the flavours and aromas depends on many factors such as the temperature of the heat source.

According to Young one critical element is the amount of ash created by the burning charcoal. His analysis indicates that sources such as binchotan and various hardwoods is that they produce less ash which tends to reduce the effective temperature. Some cheap briquettes contain a lot of filler such as ashes that reduces the radiant temperature.

Mifsud provides some grilling tips from Chris Young such as never soaking wood chips because this causes the wood to smoulder at a lower temperature that can create more carcinogens and less of the phenolics that imparts the flavour we crave. Another tip is to use grills that are straight sided (not rounded) and shiny as this will direct the radiant energy (“we grill mainly with light”) better to provide a more even cooking zone (one that cooks more evenly at the centre and towards the edges).

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