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No one eats charcoal, at least not unless your stomach is edgy and you remember some elderly aunt saying that’s what she chewed in her day. But we all taste a little charcoal when we enjoy grilled vegetables or a hamburger or fish pulled from the grill. There is even carbon coming back onto food from gas grills.

Real charcoal, however, does have its own flavour. Its mild tang mixes with food much better than hickory or mesquite or other popular wood burning chips. These often blur the flavour of barbecued food with too much smoke.

Real charcoal is made from hard wood and it is not briquettes. Briquettes may be easier to find but hardwood charcoal is common in Quebec and worth looking for.

Briquettes come in different qualities. Cheaper brands are soft and powdery. They leave a huge deposit of ash. Better quality brands are harder and burn a little longer. However, all briquettes are made from compressed charcoal and petrochemicals. They are inherently noxious. Don’t give one of these to your Aunt Ida when she feels a little queasy. And don’t throw the left over ash on the compost heap.

More importantly for my purposes, briquettes can give food an oily taste, particularly if food is put on the grill while the briquettes still have some black to them. They should never be used for smoking or covered cooking.

Charcoal, however, burns hotter, longer and leaves little ash. What there is, is easily composted. Real charcoal comes in uneven chunks. It may be a little harder to get started than briquettes but it gives a strong, persistent heat. It is great for grilling, slow cooking and covered smoking.

Build a charcoal fire a half foot below your grill. Put the food on when the coals are barely covered with ash. This will reduce flaring and let the charcoal smoke yield its subtle flavour to whatever you are cooking.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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