Fuelling the fire
Cooking over glowing charcoal offers up truly magnificent flavour as well as effective, clean, grilling and roasting. From lighting the lump wood, to regulating and tending the fire, it can be an exciting challenge with some seriously great tasting rewards.
But even before you ignite your barbecue or fire pit, there is one very important question to ask yourself: What is charcoal?
Good lump wood charcoal is mostly pure carbon. This is made by burning wood in an environment with very little oxygen. The process that can take a number of days and will burn off volatile compounds such as water, methane, hydrogen, and tar.
In commercial processing, the burning takes place in large steel silos with very little oxygen and stops before the product turns to ash. The process leaves behind black lumps of carbonised wood, which are about 25% of their original weight.
The problem is there are many varieties and choices in the UK you can buy. Mostly fuel that comes from all over the world. Unfortunately, much of it is from developing countries where sustainability is often a second thought. As well as this, there are welfare concerns over those who make it – commonly among the poorest in their communities. When you factor in the huge carbon footprint which comes with getting the charcoal here, the whole thing does not add up to the smartest choice for your barbecue.
Here at The Garden Cook our focus is to use and promote a natural British product; charcoal that is made using the traditional methods. Sustainable, small batch charcoal that uses wood that would otherwise go to waste.
Ben Short Is a charcoal burner and woodsman, working in the countryside in West Dorset.
Earlier in the year we visited his yard. A picturesque spot in an elevated position stacked high with immaculately arranged wood piles, all waiting silently for their turn in the kiln. A short walk up a stony cart track, into a tranquil shaded clearing, we were met by two impressive steel charcoal burners coated in ferric oxide ready to be fired up. The strong scent of burnt timber filled the nostrils, it was unforgettable. In this remote location some of the best charcoal we have ever tried is created.
Ben’s approach in producing premium charcoal sits very much in line with our beliefs. Ben’s charcoal burning works hand-in-hand with coppicing (a method to support woodlands and protecting biodiversity.)
Grilling over a lump wood charcoal fire is an exciting experience. Lump wood charcoal gets screaming hot very quickly, usually in 10 or 15 minutes. The intense heat can sear food in seconds, charging the surface and scenting it with natural wood smoke aromas.
Lump wood charcoal is not often single species. Although Ben works with several wood varieties often his batches contain a high percentage of Hazel wood. Hazel has wonderful high heat property much like that of the best hardwoods, but with a more subtle flavour profile. With cooks lasting up to 45 minutes. However, replenishing is easy as uncooked charcoal placed on embers will light very quickly.
So, next time you go out for barbecue fuel just think twice about which bag you reach for. Consider charcoal an important ingredient to whatever you cook, rather than just a heat source.
Happy grilling, charcoal lovers!