The first problem encountered by the barbecuer, whether using fast-lighting pressed charcoal briquets or old-fashioned unpressed charcoal, is how to arrange them. No amount of lighting fluid or fire starter will light a poorly arranged fire.
Charcoal briquets must be set on a grate to allow for air circulation. Arrange them in a pile, the bottom layer of which surrounds fire starters, wood shavings or briquets soaked with lighting fluid. Pile successive layers of briquets on top and light. As the heat rises, it ignites the upper layers of briquets. These layers reflect the heat inward and intensify it.
By arranging briquets this way, there is no need for massive doses of precious and dangerous lighting fluid. Lighting fluid has killed and maimed many barbecuers who have tried to relight what looked like dead fires.
When the outer briquets ignite and the center of the pile glows red, spread the coals out, arranging the cold ones in the middle and the blazing ones on the outside. Heat will then reflect toward the middle and light any unburned sides. Cooking Meats Over Charcoal
Whether you barbecue hamburgers, chicken or wild boar, meat should be kept at least two inches above coals. Not because the meat might burn, but because the fat will melt too fast, drip onto the coals, flare up and coat the meat with a waxy, black film.
When you cook hamburgers, choose only lean meat. It does not drip the fat that would blacken your burger. Use only fresh hamburger meat. Frozen meat loses water while cooking, makes dry hamburgers and may even drown the fire.
Do not mix salt into hamburger meat. Salt shrinks the meat's tissues and makes dry burgers. It is, however, a good idea to salt the outside of the meat while cooking. It will not dry the inside of the burger and in combination with pepper, makes the meat more interesting.
Chicken has similar problems because today's chickens are overweight birds. Trim off excess fat. Like hamburger fat, it drips onto the hot coals and the fumes bathe the meat in soot. Thighs and drumsticks are easy to cook because they are uniformly thick. But breast meat is thin on one side and thick on the other. Arrange the pieces to keep the thickest parts of the breast over the most intense heat.
To test chicken parts for doneness, observe the juices oozing out. If they run clear -- no blood -- then the meat is probably cooked. If you are uncertain, poke the thickest part of the largest piece with a knife and judge doneness by the clarity of the juice.
Pork chops are easy to cook and are spectacular when their porky essence combines with the smoke flavor. Unless more than 3/4-inch thick, pork chops are done when both sides are brown. If you are unsure, insert the tip of the knife between the meat and the thickest bone. There should be no trace of pink.
Fish, especially fillets, are a risk to barbecue. But they are a delicious risk; the delicate sweetness marries well with smoked flavor. Because virtually all fish flakes and falls apart when done, fish should only be attempted on cross-hatch wire racks. The wires are set close enough together to keep pieces from falling through. Grease the racks thoroughly before cooking the fish on them. To turn the fish, just set one rack on top of the other with the fish sandwiched between. Then flip.
Because coals can never be arranged uniformly, you have to move the pieces of meat around while cooking. The best time to do this is when you turn each piece over to cook the other side. Rearrange the pieces so that parts which weren't cooking fast can now feel the heat. Vegetables Over Charcoal
Unlike meats, vegetables do not come with fats and juices that ooze out over the surface to prevent excessive scorching. As a result, vegetables burn on one side while staying raw on the others.
There are two ways to cook vegetables so they don't taste like scorched paper.The first way, wrapping in aluminum foil and baking directly on the coals, is most successful with corn on the cob and bulky vegetables containing lots of water -- like bell peppers and tomatoes. Corn is actually better baked on the coals than boiled or steamed. It may not cook quite as evenly, but it retains more water-soluble vitamins and acquires the healthy campfire flavor which most of us associate with the halcyon days of our youth.
To roast corn in foil, remove a few outside husks and wrap in a piece of foil, twisting both ends to seal. Arrange the corn ears on the coals, leaving at least one inch between each ear so the fire can breathe. Every few minutes, turn the ears so patches of kernels don't scorch. The husks, which cover and protect the kernels, do scorch.
If you are cooking corn with steak, hamburgers, lamb chops or other "10-minute meats," cook the corn first for 10 minutes. Then move the ears over just a few coals, concentrate the remaining coals and cook the meat. If you are cooking chicken or splitting cornish hen, brown both sides of the meat and, 15 minutes before serving, put the corn on the coals.
The second way to barbecue vegetables is as kebabs. The best vegetables for this method are green peppers, onions, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes should be skewered separately and cooked at the last moment. Cut the vegetables in one-inch pieces and alternate every three with small pieces of bacon. To time vegetable kebabs with meat, follow the same rules as for corn on the cob. Marinade, Sauces & Glazes
At some point in history, some person holding a fork and turning a spit decided that the blended flavors of wood smoke and cooked flesh weren't good enough. So he assembled some herbs in a bowl of fragrant oil and soaked the meat for several hours before barbecuing. That's a marinade.
Thousands of years later, after the birth of the sugar colonies, another smart barbecuer mixed raw sugar and molasses into his marinade and discovered that the finished meat acquired a beautiful shine. That's a barbecue sauce.
Still later, probably in the southern United States, a third smart barbecuer discovered that extra-thick and sweet barbecue sauce only needed to be brushed on at the end of cooking to give a beautiful shine. That's a glaze.
Marinades soften and flavor meat before it is cooked. If brushed on while cooking, marinades do not soak into the meat, but drip onto the fire where they vaporize. The best barbecue marinades do not contain wine. Wine flavor is overwhelmed by the smoke. Instead, marinades should be made with olive oil and herbs or a mixture of soy and hoisin (Chinese bean paste) sauces, ginger, garlic and lime juice.
A thin version of barbecue sauce can be made as a marinade. Then, in the final minutes of barbecuing, a sweetened, thick version can be brushed on to glaze. Or meat can be baked partially in the oven with the thick, sweet barbecue sauce and finished over the coals.