There are certain people (and we’re eagerly awaiting comments from you all) who think that cooking meat on a gas grill isn’t “real” grilling. Personally, we’re a little more lenient and admit there are times when the instant and easily controlled heat of a gas grill suites us just fine. We do agree, however, that if you always cook on a gas grill you haven’t truly experienced what separates grilling from all other cooking methods.
Meat cooked over charcoal (or regular wood) has a smoky flavor that simply cannot be achieved by cooking over a gas flame or in an oven. It’s not that gas grilled meat doesn’t taste good, it just doesn’t have that subtle but addictive smokiness that complements pretty much any type of meat so well. People who claim that meat cooked on a gas grill has a smoky flavor are often mistaking “burnt” for “smoky” – a blackened exterior is not ideal for your health or for the flavor of your food. Meat cooked over charcoal, in our experience, also cooks more evenly and is less likely to become dry and stringy.
So if charcoal-grilled meat really does have a more complex and tender flavor, then why do so many people use gas grills? One word: convenience. Light a match, turn a valve, wait five minutes for the grill to heat up and you’re good to go. Preparing to grill over charcoal does take longer, but not as long as you might think. In 15-20 minutes your grill will be ready, which gives you just enough time to mix together a spice rub and season your meat.
Before lighting up your charcoal grill, choose your heat source wisely. Avoid briquettes made from wood by-products (i.e. industrial waste) and additives that guarantee that your food will taste like it’s been doused in chemicals. Instead, choose charcoal that is made from 100% wood with no chemical additives or fillers. For a more pronounced smoky flavor, soak a few 3-5 inch chunks of wood in water for an hour then place directly on top of the briquettes before you begin to cook.
To light the grill, use a chimney-style charcoal starter, which is the fastest and easiest way to get charcoal good and hot quickly without lighter fluid. Turn the chimney upside-down and stuff two or three sheets of crushed newspaper in the bottom. Flip the chimney back over and fill with charcoal. Place the chimney on the lower grill grate and light the newspaper on fire. Smoke will begin to billow out – don’t panic, just wait a few minutes and the smoke will mostly clear except for a little bit coming out of the top. In 15-20 minutes small flames will be coming out of the top of the chimney and the edges of the coals will have turned white. Dump the coals out into your grill and have your meat nearby, because you’re ready to grill.
A charcoal grill can go well above 500 degrees, perfect for searing meat at the beginning, but also perfect for over-cooking meat if you’re not careful. For the best results set up a hot zone (direct, high heat (see pic below)) and a cool zone (indirect, medium or low heat) by stacking most or all of the charcoal on one side of the grill. Instead of using a temperature knob to control the heat like on a gas grill, you move the meat back and forth from the hot zone to the cooler zone as needed. Because there aren’t any high flames, flare-ups rarely happen on a charcoal grill, making the dreaded “raw on the inside, burnt on the outside” phenomenon less likely. If you make use of a medium or low heat zone, meat can be slow-roasted for hours, another reason that a charcoal grill makes more sense than gas grill if meat cooked slowly until it falls apart is what you’re after.
Any type or cut of meat can be grilled over charcoal. We figure you’re comfortable with steaks and chicken so let’s talk about a hunk of protein that can be a little trickier: pork loin. Pork loin can be really, really good but it can also be really, really dry, especially when grilled over gas. It’s a cut that is remarkably more tender and juicy when cooked over charcoal. The heat from the charcoal caresses the meat, coaxing it into doneness rather than scorching quickly with a flame. Follow our easy recipe for Charcoal Roasted Pork Loin and you’re guaranteed a succulent, tender cut of pork seasoned with fragrant, toasted spices and flavored with that subtle smokiness that makes charcoal grilling worth the effort.
We should also mention that in addition to the great taste of the meat there is something satisfying about cooking over charcoal. It feels more primal, less modern: more relaxed, less rushed. Cooking over charcoal feels…how should we put this…it feels, well…we have to admit, it really does feel more like real grilling.
Approximately 4 servings
Remove the meat from refrigeration.
Fill the chimney starter to the top with charcoal and light the chimney starter.
Rub the meat with oil; sprinkle with spices and rub into the meat.
When the coals in the chimney starter are white around the edges (after about 15-20 minutes), dump them onto one side of the bottom grill grate. Put the top grate in place over the charcoal.
Put the lid on the grill and let it sit for five minutes so the grate becomes hot.
Remove the cover and place the meat directly over the hot coals for about 2 minutes per side, turning so all sides are seared and browned.
Move the meat to the other side of grill so it is close to the charcoal but not directly over it. Position it so the longest side of the loin is closest to the charcoal.
Put the cover on the grill, open the vents halfway, and let the meat cook for 15 minutes.
Remove the cover and turn the loin so the side that faced the coals now faces away from the direct heat. Replace the cover and continue cooking until an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of roast reads 140 degrees, about 15-30 minutes depending how thick your cut of meat is. Check the temperature at regular intervals, as it can rise quickly.
Transfer meat to cutting board and let rest 15 minutes. Internal temperature should rise to about 150 degrees. Slice and serve.