What types of Charcoal do the Chowhounds use ??? I have been using Wicked Good Charcoal from a place in Maine. I was wondering if there were any other brands I should give a shot.
I use the lump house brand from Walmart. It is really inexpensive, and has a great flavor. It is about $4 per 10# bag. I buy many at a time because they sell out fairly regularly.
We buy ours from Trader Joes - only $4.49 bag. Good deal I think. We tried Walmart's too, its not bad. I just don't like giving them our money.
Are you in the Boston area? Just about all of the Brazilian stores sell hardwood charcoal (carvao). It is more irregular than "cowboy charcoal" (commonly available at True Value and a number of supermarkets) -- which for me is a feature and it burns plenty hot. It is readily available in 20lb bags -- a big feature for me, and is inexpensive.
(Caveat Emptor) Generally the Brazilian companies certify that the forests used (its usually eucalyptus) are native and "sustainable," the latter part you may want to take with a grain of salt. One thing I will note is that in a number of other countries the conditions under which the charcoal is produced in large ovens is pretty horrid, although in Brazil there have been efforts to improve this. Just because its a more natural product, it doesn't mean some harm isn't being done both to the environment and also people that work with the product.
I usually purchase it in Brazilian butcher shops as they tend to stock it year-round and almost always have 20lb bags. Sometimes its cheaper in Brazilian supermarkets (Belo in Allston, Gol in Somerville or Framingham) but it could also be more expensive. The most reliable butcher shops would be Casa de Carnes Solucao on Bow in Somerville, Acogue Brasileiro on Middlesex in Medford. Slightly less reliable alternatives would be Tony's Foodmart on lower Broadway in Somerville, El Valle de la Sultana on Broadway in Somerville and Everett (both of these are oriented toward spanish speakers, but with Brazilian butchers), plus what used to be Sinai Travel on Main in Medford. Peabody, Worcester, and other cities have Brazilian butchers too. Quincy I think there is now a butcher, but don't know where it is.
New Deal fish market in Cambridge usually carries bags of Argentinian charcoal which I haven't tried.
I don't know that brand, but it's definitely worth seeking out good hardwood charcoal. But the brand of hardwood charcoal matters. I swear by a brand called Lazzari that is made from mesquite wood (they also have non-mesquite also) In Chicago you can get it in a 20 lb bag from Dominicks for about $10. See http://www.lazzari.com/ You can also ask them who your local distributors/retailers are.
I defintely do not recommend Cowboy brand hardwood charcoal. It's made from scrap wood, which means the pieces are really small and burn incredibly quickly. You also don't get nearly as good a flavor with these compared to higher quality woods. Cowboy brand is sold at Trader Joe's, and a lot of home improvement stores. It's also sold under the Whole Foods label at their stores and under the Martha Stewart label.
A great website for info on hardwood charcoal and reviews of many brands is http://www.nakedwhiz.com/ceramic.htm. They have pictures of the charcoal and you'll easily see which ones are scrap wood and which are larger pieces.
If you can't find good hardwood charcoal, at least look for "natural briquettes," which don't contain fillers and chemicals. A brand I like is called Big Briq, but there are others that are good also.
Finally, hardwood has a reputation of burning too quickly for many grilling applications (esp because Cooks Illustrated did tests demonstrating this). The problem is that many people buy hardwood charcoal that is little more than small pieces of scrap wood. Of course these burn quickly. But good charcoal looks like fist-size or larger pieces of wood and burns much slower. I have never had a problem doing a low-and-slow dish (ribs, pork shoulder, etc) using good hardwood.
Darren, you seem like an expert. I think you answered my post about smokers with great detail.
If you find the time, could you give me a step by step for doing ribs (baby back or Spare ribs, whichever's best) on my Weber Kettle with wood, chips, etc...I get lost on how long and how to best keep the temperature right.
Sure thing. First I'll tell you what I do, then I'll tell you a nice modification.
1. The night before I'm going to cook the ribs, I do two things: first, pull the "silver skin" off the underside of the ribs, and second, coat the ribs with a spice rub. Then wrap the ribs in foil and refrigerate until you are ready to cook (if you don't have time to let the meat rest with the rub on, don't worry about it. You can also rub the meat and cook immediately. It be the same, but it will still be excellent). You can wrap several slabs together in the foil.
The silver skin is a thin, papery substance on the underside of the ribs. Get a little piece off and then slowly rip the rest of it off. The reason you take it off is so the rub can penetrate the meat from the underside of the ribs. Plus, when cooked, some people find it to be a little chewy. If you can't get it off, forget about it. The ribs will still be great.
My no-fail rib rub is called Bronzeville Rib Rub, from the Spice House in Chicago. See http://www.thespicehouse.com/category.... Penzey's (http://www.penzeys.com) also has excellent spices and a lot of retail locations, if you don't want to do mail order. You can also make your own rub, making it as spicy or mild as you want, or featuring the flavors you like best. Search the net for ideas. You can also do something as simply as salt and pepper.
Note that Bronzeville has salt in it. When I use a rub that doesn't have salt in it, I add salt. It's good to have the meat salted during this resting period to help develop the flavor and help the meat remain most.
2. Now you are ready to cook. On a webber, allow about 2 to 2 1/2 hours from this point until serving time. Here's what you'll need: charcoal + some kind of smoke wood (hickory and mesquite are the most popular). For charcoal, I like to use hardwood/lump charcoal, in particular a brand called Lazzari. Do not use "scrap wood" versions of hardwood charcoal, such as Cowboy brand. See this discussion: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... for more info. If you don't have/can't find hardwood charcoal, regular briquettes are fine.
The smoke wood comes in two types: wood chips and wood chunks. Chips are small pieces that burn more quickly, while chuncks are about 3 inches by 3 inches and burn more slowly. If you are going to cook something for 30 minutes, definitely go with the chips. If you are going to cook something for 10 hours, definitely go with the chunks. The ribs will cook in about one and a half hours on the weber, so you can go with either style. The chips are much easier to find.
If you use the chips, soak them in a water for about 20-30 minutes before using. If you use the chunks, don't bother soaking.
There is also some optional equipment. First, you can get a rib rack. Weber has this one: http://www.weber.com/bbq/pub/grill/ac.... I bought a $4 model at Menards. Basically, the rack holds the slabs of ribs on their side, so you can fit more ribs onto to the grill. Second, you might want a drip pan to catch drippings and/or hold water. Third, you might want a bbq mop to put on a vinegar+spice mop during the cooking process. All of these are optional.
Ok, now light the charcoal in the weber. I like to use a chimney starter for this. Once the coals are lit, empty them either on one side of the grill (and then you'll cook on the other side), or put half on one end and half on the other end (and you'll cook in the middle the grill). The latter is better if you have a lot of rib racks.
Next, you want the temperature in the grill to be between 200 and 350. I know that is a large range. The reason I give such a large range is that you can successful cook the ribs anywhere in that range, and you shouldn't stress out trying to hit one particular temp. If you are at 350, baby back ribs will cook in about an hour-fifteen; if you are closer to 200, the ribs will have more of a smoky flavor and take longer to cook. Perhaps 2-3 hours. Spare ribs will take a bit longer to cook; perhaps 25% longer. Some people like to smoke their ribs for 4-6 hours at 200 degrees. I haven't tried that.
So how do you regular the temperature? You regulate the temperature by opening and closing the air vents. THe less air you let into the grill, the lower the temperature will be. But be careful not to close them too much or you'll extinguish the heat completely. Start with all vents open half-way and see what the temperature is after 10 minutes of cooking, and go from there. You'll have to experiment with this, because the temp will be influenced by a lot of factors (air temp, amount of fuel, etc.)
One note: with ribs, you will probably not have to add more fuel. But you may want to add more wood chips. Thus, it helps to have a grate that opens on either end. See the replacement grate on this page: http://www.weber.com/bbq/pub/grill/ac.... This is very useful to have because it allows you to add fuel (if necessary) and wood chips during the cooking process without having to take off the meat.
Ok, so you've got your charcoal going. Now add the soaked wood chips (two-three handfuls will be fine). Then put the meat on top of the grill. You don't want the meat directly over the fire. You want the fire on one part of the grill and the meat in another. (Classic indirect grilling). Now cover the grill.
Let it go for 10 minutes and then check the air temperature. I like to just stick a candy thermometer into the top air vent.
Depending on how hot your grill is, let the ribs cook for an hour and a half. If your grill is over 300, check them after an hour. You’ll know the meat is done when it comes off the bone a good 1⁄2 inch. You can also tear a small piece of meat off and you’ll know if it’s done or not. Some people wiggle the bones, and if you can wiggle the bone free from the meat, it’s done. That’s very tender meat and is more easily achieved if the meat is cooked at a very low temp for several hours.
Two optional steps for while the meat is cooking:
A. You may burn through the wood. If you don't see any more smoke coming off the grill, you may want to add more during the cooking process.
B. You may want to baste the meat with a "mop" sauce. A mop sauce is basically a combination of vinegar and spices (no sugar-it will burn), perhaps other ingredients like whiskey, soy sauce, etc. I usually don't do this, though. Search the web for mop recipes, if you want to try it.
3. Ok, when it’s done, take the meat off the grill and immediately wrap it in tin foil. Put some towels over the foil-wrapped meat to help retain the heat. Let the meat rest for 30 minutes. You can eat the meat now, or move on to step 4. If you are going to move on to step 4, don’t extinguish the grill while the meat is resting (but you can cook other things on the grill during this time). Also, you can hold the meat for several hours at this point; for example, you could cook a bunch of slabs during the afternoon and hold them wrapped in foil until dinner time.
4. When you are ready to serve the meat, unwrap it from the foil. Save the juices that have accumulated in the foil – those are good eats. Go back to the grill and now you want to cook the meat directly over the heat for about a few minutes per side. This will caramelize the outside. The longer you let the ribs rest in step 3, the cooler they will be, and the longer you may have to reheat them in this step. Don’t over heat them, though.
Regarding sauce: use can serve sauce on the side at the table, serve no sauce at all, or brush the ribs with sauce before heating the meat in step 4. If you do the latter, be sure to watch the meat carefully because the sauce will burn within a few minutes when it is on direct heat.
I like to cut the slabs into 2 rib pieces before serving.
That’s it. Now let me give you a modification that uses the oven.
1. Do step one above, but wrap each slap separately in the foil.
2. Preheat oven to 325. Put the slabs in the oven, keeping them wrapped in foil. In case juices drip out of the foil, it’s best to put the ribs on a baking sheet. Bake for one hour for baby back; perhaps one hour and 20 minutes for spare ribs.
3. Let the ribs rest, as in step 3 above.
4. Now you finish the ribs on the grill, as in step 4. Or finish them under the broiler.
The latter method is nice if you are cooking 10 slabs for a party and don’t have the room to do them all on the grill.
Finally, two good references are: (1) Any book by Steven Raichlen. In particular, he has a new book called something like Ribs, Ribs, Ribs, that has a lot of rib recipes. (2) The Cooks Illustrated Guide to Grilling. I don’t think their method is the same as mine, but I’ve used this book for other foods and it’s pretty good.
Good luck! Let me know if you have follow-up questions.
Wow. Darren rocks!
Amazing directions. I think you answered all my questions (Although - can I use my oven thermometer...ie place it on the grill grate to see/regulate temp?)
Soon as i get the chance to try this out, will report back, but I'm printing this out and saving.
You should write the book on smoking
Thanks. I'm glad is makes sense.
You asked "can I use my oven thermometer...ie place it on the grill grate to see/regulate temp?" Yes. The only problem is that you'll have to open the grill to read the temp. Opening the grill lets heat and smoke escape, and will increase the cooking time. If you do it once or twice, that's fine. But try not to open it too often.
"One last question, though...I'm always confused about adding wood or charcoal...do you just toss it on or do you need it relit somehow?"
That's a good question.
First I'll tell you the best way to do this, then I'll tell you my way.
When you are ready to add charcoal, light the new charcoal in your chimney starter somewhere else other than the grill (because the grill is busy cooking the food). You can do this on a concrete patio, on top of an upside down galvanized steel bucket, on top of a second grill, etc, anywhere that is fireproof. When the coals are lit, add them to the grill.
I don't do this. I just add the unlit coals to the grill. I think this method is fine, especially when you are using natural charcoal (i.e. there are no chemicals or starter fluid), such as Lazarri. Just be sure not to add too much new charcoal or you could end up suffocating the fire.
If you are using charcoal that has chemicals in it (especially Matchlight), you can always take the meat off the grill for a few minutes while the new charcoal burns. The chemicials will burn off in a few minutes. But I'd recommend looking for a charcoal that doesn't have chemicals. (There's already enough carcinogens!)