Thursday, June 28, 2007

Charcoal Grillin'

Someone emailed me about my review on Epinions of the CharBroil Santa Fe, CharBroil's entry-level charcoal grill. I thought I'd shoot a couple pics of the grill, and try to elucidate a little on my comments for it.

I posted all the pics I took at Picasa:
Grill Pictures

The Santa Fe is a great grill, but it's cheaply made. That's how they can offer it at Home Depot for $100 (give or take a few bucks). But aside from its flimsy construction, it's a good grill; and I recommend it as a great starter grill.

The Santa Fe is basically a box with a hanging bed for the charcoal and a grate for the food. Because the grill body is rather thin, I've beefed mine up with ceramic tile. I tried to cut the tile straight and do a good job of it, but I failed. I do still need to fasten it in with mortar, but I think the idea is actually working. That is, the additional mass of the tile is making the grill "heavier", making the temperature fluctuate less with wind, etc.

Now, the charcoal bed that comes with the grill is basically a sheet of metal that hangs from some hooks on the handles:

This "charcoal bed" is obviously not the optimal solution to the problem. There are holes drilled through the bed in spots, but there is just not enough airflow to the charcoal. Further, the bed doesn't come high enough to get a really good sear on those steaks: it hangs on little hooks on the handles, and there are only three settings. The lowest is actually good for ribs or even pork butts, but the highest is way too low for hot cooking.

So what to do?

I approached the problem by laying some bricks on the bed, and putting a grate across the bricks:

This solves two problems. First, it raises the charcoal an additional inch or so, bringing it high enough to actually touch the grate the food lies on. Second, it gives an inch or so of "empty space" below the charcoal, allowing the air circulation the charcoal desparately wants to get really hot.

The thermometer on the Santa Fe is cheap: measuring "Warm", "Ideal", and "Hot". On my grill, a chimney-full of lump charcoal, raised to the hottest level gets the thermometer past "Hot" and back around to the line between "Warm" and "Ideal". That, my friends, is hot. I couldn't tell you exactly how hot it is (I never measured it to see), but the meat cooks like it's in the neighbourhood of 700F or so. Or at least, it cooks like it cooks on my other grill, when I've measured it at 700+ F.

Now, this guy has done a more thorough job of venting his charcoal, but he doesn't look to have solved the distance problem. (Thanks for the link, John!) But one improvement was his addition of dividers for the charcoal, which let you control the piles better.

My newer grill has those same dividers:

So that's my solution to the height and ventilation problem on the Santa Fe. It cost me a couple bricks I found lying around the yard and a grate I bought at Home Depot or Lowe's. The grate is actually a replacement grate for a gas grill: it was a replacement for the grate in the bottom of an older gas grill, where the lava rocks were put, above the burners. I think it cost me $20.

If I had it to do again, I'd actually buy some steel bolts, drill some holes in the charcoal bed, and fasten the bolts into the bed. Then I'd put some nuts and washers on the bolts about 2" (4.5 cm) above the bed, and fasten the grate there. That would be more "permanent", and the grate would be less wobbly than resting on bricks.

But you know what? It's been fun. And although I've tried to give my Santa Fe away, no one wants it. So I'm enjoying both my grills now.

Speaking of which, I have an offset smoker and my Santa Fe: two good charcoal grills I rarely use since I bought my Bar-B-Chef. I'd like to get rid of the one or the other. So if you live around NC and will provide a good home to a piece of charcoal cooking gear, give me a shout. Two grills is fun, three is getting a bit much... Personally, I'd rather part with the offset cooker and keep the Sante Fe, but let me know if you need either one...


Gwen said...

Wow. I had no idea a grill could get up to 700F. That's insane. What on earth could you cook that hot?

clumsy ox said...

That, my dear, is the secret to a good steak. "Tender meat needs heat."

If you just drop a steak on a grill that hot, you'll get a great rare steak. The secret to a better-done steak (I prefer mine medium) is "dwelling". Dwelling is when you lower the heat and let the steak sit in it until it's done. On a charcoal grill, you can "dwell" your steaks by lowering the charcoal away from the meat. On a gas grill, you can just turn down the gas. A warming rack works well too.

If your grill doesn't get hot enough, you can heat it up with olive oil: olive oil on the steaks will ignite, raising the temperature of the grill.

In the end, grandma's charcoal grill doesn't get very hot: an average gas grill gets hotter than an average charcoal grill. But if you get an above-average charcoal grill (or just adjust an average one to get better heat) charcoal gets much hotter.

Now, chicken doesn't work so well at high temperature. Chicken cooks much better in the "medium" (roasting) range; say 300F or so.

And tougher cuts, or whole chickens, do best down in the 200F range, but those take hours. I've seen people try to cook ribs or pork shoulders in 4 hours, but to get them done right, budget at least 10.