It’s grilling time!
What is it about grilled food that’s making it ever more popular? It’s always been a part of our lives, especially in certain types of regional cuisine, but it can’t be denied that in recent times prominent chefs and restaurants have been focusing heavily on menus prepared using this technique, in an authentic and traditional manner reflecting the grilled cuisine that can be found in any walk of life.
It is an ancient food preparation technique that humans across the planet used for centuries before the arrival of other forms of energy that are easier to use, such as gas or electricity. But grilling has returned to our kitchens in force, and is here to stay. This natural cooking method is perfect for ensuring the best results, as it indisputably gets the most out of high-quality ingredients when done correctly using the heat from the embers of good charcoal.
The wonders of grilling
The versatility of charcoal-grilled cuisine is legendary. Meats and sausages understandably come to mind first when discussing grilling, but don’t forget that it’s also a safe and healthy way to prepare excellent fish, seafood and vegetable dishes, among others — almost any culinary idea can be brought to life successfully in a grilled version.
Meats require less oil as it is made unnecessary by the juices of the cooked pieces themselves, part of which fall on the embers producing smoke and imparting that highly sought-after grilled meat flavour, thus resulting in lighter and much healthier dishes.
In the case of fish — shellfish included — special vigilance is required. Ideally, appropriate accessories such as customised grills, fish pans, cages etc. should be available to prevent the product from sticking to the grill, which should have extra oil. These accessories are also suitable for small vegetables and greens. Vegetables benefit greatly from grilling: they retain nutrients and vitamins better than they do when cooked using other methods such as baking, and their taste is also very attractive with touches of the aromas resulting from charcoal and high-quality grilling.
Lastly, as we all know, the textures that are achieved — that outer crispiness and inner tenderness — and the nuances provided by the aromas of the grill can’t be beaten by any other type of food.
An enclosed charcoal oven or an open grill?
There are two basic systems for grilling: the closed charcoal oven created in the 1960s by Josper, and the traditional open grill. Both are available in different formats and sizes, depending on whether they are intended for a larger or smaller number of diners and on the specific cooking technique.
But which device is best for cooking the best grilled products? To summarise, it could be said that open grills are the more traditional system. Examples of these could include the Basque grillor robatagrillthe mangal; the system is essentially an open grill above the embers with a greater or lesser distance to the wood or charcoal, although ideally this distance should be easily controllable.
The other method, the ember oven, retains the heat, meaning that it is possible to cook food in much less time and to control the air flow and in turn the intensity of the embers, making it possible to reduce coal consumption and to give a special touch to the food. Moreover, being closed, it allows the typical techniques of an oven such as baking from above, smoking, etc.
Grill cooking is easy and simple
Eating grilled food is clearly very healthy and rewarding, as we have seen, requiring only minimal skills and knowledge of the equipment and accessories such as tongs and special grills (as discussed previously), tools that serve both to handle the food and to prevent the product from falling on the coals, and regular cleaning of the equipment; avoiding improper use of these while mastering the grill is a matter of practice.
Coal or charcoal for cooking? At this point there are still some who wonder whether it is possible to use both of these fuels for cooking. Coal is of course extracted from the Earth’s crust and is not renewable; it is usually coal of a hard type such as lignite, anthracite, peat or coke. This type of coal should not be used for food preparation. Charcoal, however, has been used for millennia for cooking. It results from incomplete combustion of wood and other vegetable products and is made under controlled conditions, in a process that is renewable and environmentally friendly while emitting fewer polluting gases and retaining the aromas and properties of natural firewood.
Now then: What about firewood? Is it better to use charcoal or firewood for cooking? At first glance, it would seem that charcoal, with its high heating power (sometimes three times that of wood), is much better than firewood. But it all depends on what you wish to prepare. If you wish to cook slowly over embers, the ideal gastronomic ember for all sorts of foods is undoubtedly charcoal, as starts to smoulder quickly — much sooner than any type of wood — and this is just one of its qualities.
But if, for example, you wish to make a delicious calçotada in the traditional style of Valls in Tarragona, you will need a type of firewood such as vine shoots, for example, to get a very lively flame over which to put the calçots. For a case like this, firewood is perfect. Of course, once the delicious calçots have been prepared, the expert cooks of Valls know that now, with only the embers left, it’s the ideal time to cook other vegetables such as artichokes, or meats such as chorizo, black pudding, etc.
Another widespread use of charcoal is undoubtedly to flavour certain products, as happens when, for example, it is used to flavour vine wood. In short, each cook has his or her own style; each one will choose between charcoal or firewood (or even use both) for flavouring.
Types of firewood, charcoal and flavouring wood chips
Holm oak charcoal is very well known. It is undoubtedly the type of charcoal most traditionally used in charcoal-grilled cooking in Spain. The reasons for this are the abundance of holm oak in the Mediterranean forests of the Iberian Peninsula, its high heating power, its fast and efficient combustion and low sparking, the controlled pruning of the trees and its characteristic intense aroma which is ideal for meat and fish.
Other highly characteristic and traditional fuels used in Spanish kitchens definitely include products derived from vines: both firewood and vine shoots obtained from pruning are widely used in Hispanic gastronomy. They are highly aromatic with earthy nuances, burn more slowly than holm oak and are used widely to provide aromatic nuances to the final product.
What about binchotan? This is the most ancient organic charcoal in Japanese culture, perfect for Oriental charcoal cooking: traditionally (indeed, for centuries) Japanese dishes such as yakitori or skewers of countless types have been made with binchotan in its eucalyptus version (also known as white eucalyptus charcoal) which is a very high-quality charcoal manufactured at a lower temperature, providing high heating power and reduced odour emissions.
Another equally environmentally friendly and high quality version is lychee binchotan, and both coals have a characteristic whitish colour and metallic sound. Another coal solution offering high heating power is subtropically-sourced high-density white quebracho charcoal, which lasts much longer and is ideal for meat and fish, or sparklers marabú charcoal which burns very slowly and is ideal for open grills and highly recommended for vegetables and white-fleshed fish. You could even consider briquettes, which are ideal for cooking on a charcoal grill due to their robatagrillslow combustion and heat yield.
Grilled food is already present in haute cuisine, consumer demand for it is increasing day-by-day and chefs are developing new recipes using the most ancient techniques for the mastery of fire. It’s grilling time!