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Charcoal Grilling for Beginners

You've already resolved the debate of charcoal grilling over gas and now you're ready to purchase a bag of charcoal and some lighter fluid. What next?

So - you've chosen the great taste of true outdoor grilling as opposed to the niceties of speed and the convenience of a gas grill. Now, you aren't quite sure how to proceed. Some people may stare at you in disbelief if you admit you know nothing about grilling. Don't say a word; just read on...

First, follow manufacturer's directions. The instruction booklet will have some general tips - read it through to the end. We assume you have assembled the grill and that you have cleaned the rack (it will have a coating on it to prevent rust formation while it sits in the store).

You have made some hamburger patties or are ready to cook chicken. You may even want to try some veggies on the grill. Practice, enjoy the moment, and you'll be fine.

Let's start with grill location.

If your grill is mobile, take wind direction into consideration. You want to be able to raise the lid and not have a puff of wind sweep the heat away from the grill. Situate the grill away from buildings and any low-hanging vegetation. Make sure the grill is stable, and keep children/pets away from the grilling area, especially if they are active.

Before you light the fire, you should brush the rack with vegetable oil. This will keep food from sticking and make it easier to clean afterward. Don't wait until the rack is warm to add oil.

Now we can add the charcoal.

-If your grill is not vented on the bottom, place a layer of aluminum foil on the floor of the grill. This will help preserve your grill and will make cleanup easier, too.

-Depending on the size of the grill, dump out anywhere from 15-25 briquettes and pile them in the middle of the grill. Spray lighter fluid over the tops of the coals - not too much, this isn't a bonfire. Never, never, never use gasoline; only lighter fluid. Light a match and pitch it onto the coals. As an alternative you can use an electric starter and eliminate the matches the lighter fluid - just place the electric heat source underneath the coals. If you're using matches and fluid, the initial ignition will cause flames and some can go two or three feet in the air. Keep an eye on the fire until the flames die down - about 5 minutes.

-Charcoal needs about twenty minutes to burn off all the chemicals. Then, the briquettes should begin to turn from black to a gray-white ash color. Now your fire is probably ready. Depending on weather and wind direction, the coals may turn semi-white sooner or they could take longer.

-You'll need a spatula and a pair of tongs. Use the spatula to lift the grill rack. Take the tongs and reposition some of the coals from the pile; just spread them out a little bit. You want to keep the hottest part of the fire in the middle of the grill and the perimeter at medium-hot. As your food cooks on the outside, you can move the pieces to the medium-hot spots to continue cooking on the inside.

You can begin cooking any time, but don't wait too long - those coals won't last forever.

-Put the food on the center of the grill. Leave space in between so the smoke and fire has room to circulate.

-Now you need to babysit the food. Try to turn only once, but you can lift the meat or food item to see if the underneath is getting some nice grill marks. Do not pierce the food unless you absolutely have to. This will let the juices out. The only time you should do this is if you are using a meat thermometer. Always make sure that meat, poultry, and fish have reached the proper internal temperature.

-Turn the food over and continue cooking. As it begins to look done on the outside, rotate it outward to make sure it cooks completely through. (Just a reminder: always let food come to room temperature before placing on the grill. Never use frozen food - the insides may never get hot enough before the outside burns to a crisp.)

-If you're pretty sure the food is ready, put it on a platter and take it inside. Use the meat thermometer to check the temperature. You can also cut into it to see what the insides look like.

Just a few hints about things to cook.

You can marinate, baste, and dry rub just about anything that you put on the grill, including vegetables. If you're cooking kabobs, however, forget about the pretty pictures you see in cookbooks and magazines. Put all the same veggies on their own skewers and keep meats separate. Vegetables cook at varying rates and usually need less time than meats. This way, everything gets done.

Zucchini, squash, and eggplant are perfect for grilling. Slice them, cover them in your favorite salad dressing, spread them out in a hinged grilling basket, and set them over the fire. When you see blistering, take a taste test.

Now that you've developed the basics skills of grilling, it's time to start hinting around for all those neat tools and gadgets that an expert grill chef deserves.

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