Light your fire

No matter how much “progress” may (or may not) improve our lives, we still seem to retain a preference for the primitive. Vinyl floor tiles can’t beat slate or marble. Melamine furniture can’t beat solid oak. Rayon blends can’t beat Egyptian cotton. And nothing – nothing! – beats food cooked over fire.

The topic of cooking food over fire is too big for one post, so I’m thinking I’ll break it down into three, though I’d really like to break it down into about ten, because I love talking about it. And there’s so much to talk about! Rubs and marinades, grilling versus barbecuing, gas versus charcoal, hardware, recipes, dos and don’ts… where to begin?

Let’s start by lighting a fire. If you have a gas grill, turn on the knob(s), click the clicky thing, then take five and meet us about three paragraphs down.

If you use charcoal, listen up! It’s bad enough that briquets contain coal dust and clay (which is why you should be using lump charcoal, not those charcoal McNuggets), but you sure don’t want to add more toxins in the form of “lighter fluid”. For a clean burn, with no residue and no smell of burning dead dinosaurs, use Methyl Hydrate, which you can get at any hardware or paint store. It’s alcohol, which has always been a friend to the outdoor cook. Use it the same way you’d use lighter fluid (ie: spray it on like you’re marking your territory, then stand clear of the “woof” when you ignite it).

Remember to let your coals burn down until they’re white all over. At this point consider a fan for the coals, and a cold beverage for you. Be patient.

When your coals are ready (or your gas is lit… welcome back, gasheads) then it’s time to consider what to cook. Meat springs to mind, but so do veggies. In fact, it might be easier to simply list the things you cannot grill:

1. Scrambled Eggs
2. Rice
3. Pasta
4. Cereal

That’s about it. Anything that won’t fall through the grill is fair game (including game!) How about grilled chicken breast marinated in miso and green onion? Seared tuna with wasabe and sesame? Cremini mushrooms stuffed with crab? Or a whole eggplant, unadorned and grilled until the skin is charred and the insides are buttery? When was the last time you threw a hunk of Monkfish on the grill, maybe marinated in a little soy and garlic? Or made a simple BLT with barbecued bacon? Did you know that you can even grill pineapple?

Before you slap your food down on your brand new fire (it’s still going, isn’t it?) you might want to consider adding a little extra taste in the form of a marinade or rub. A marinade is any wet collection of seasonings, often with some added ingredients to tenderize meat, and a rub is a dry collection of seasonings that you, not surprisingly, rub all over your food.

A good starter marinade can be prepared from a half cup or so of olive oil, a quarter cup or so of wine vinegar or lemon juice (acids tenderize meat), a few cloves of garlic, smashed, some salt and pepper, and anything else you think would work. Orange juice for chicken, or red wine for a cut of beef, a bit of miso for grilled veggies, or some sliced up lemons and some rosemary for lamb, maybe? It’s not rocket surgery, folks. Just put it in and take your chances. Either it’s not going to change the taste or it is. Let it soak in the marinade for at least an hour, or (refrigerated) for a day. Ziploc bags are good for this.

For a good rub, start with a tablespoon each of salt, pepper, garlic powder (not garlic salt), onion powder, brown sugar, dry yellow mustard, and either sweet paprika or cayenne. From there, try adding some thyme, or tarragon, or some curry powder, or whatever suits your fancy. Mix it up, then rub it all over your food. Let it sit for a while for maximum flavour.

When the coals are ready (or your gas flame is lit) and the grill is hot, it’s time to put your food on. But wait! There’s still one more thing you can do before you slap down some meat: add some real wood. Wood chips are available anywhere barbecue supplies are sold, and typically come in bags about the size of a throw pillow. The chips get soaked in water and scattered on the coals or grill plate, and as they heat they give off aromatic smoke – cherry, sugar maple, hickory, apple and mesquite are common. You can also find pressed pellets of hardwood that you put in tinfoil (these are a little cleaner, if you have a gas grill), and if someone in your neighbourhood has recently felled a hardwood tree, maybe you can get some chips for free! Just make sure they’re seasoned and dry, not green, and the rule is that any tree that bears a fruit or a nut will make good smoke.

Ok, if your fire is still going, your wood chips are making your backyard (or fire escape) smell like a campground, your food is marinating, your grill is hot, you’ve got a cold beverage at your right hand and a pair of tongs at your left then… hold that thought.

Next instalment we’ll talk about what to do when your food is actually cooking, a bit about food safety, what kind of barbecue to get if you don’t have one, and maybe look at a recipe or two, just in case you’re stuck.


  1. I already knew about the charcoal lumps, Herr Magoo-san, and learned from you last year about the methyl hydrate (great idea), but the wood chips are news to me. Thanks again.

    So. I’ve been standing here refilling my glass for several days now. When do we get cookin’?

  2. Catchfire

    I’m a huge fan of lump charcoal + wood chips fro BBQs. Just using them earns such awe from any guests—let alone the incredible flavour they add. Thanks for the Methyl Hydrate tip, though. It’s so hard to weep through the lighter fluid tears at the leg of lamb you’re filling with toxic gas.

    My preferred generic rub is as follows:
    2.5 parts paprika
    2 parts salt
    2 parts garlic powder
    1 part cayenne
    1 part onion powder
    1 part thyme
    1 part black pepper
    1 part oregano

    Throw a bottle of beer over top and wait a day. Great for baby back ribs, I’d say.