Today I want to write about a “hack” I have been using to get charcoal fires started. By hack I mean a tip, a trick, a shortcut — in the fashion of a home remedy.
Over a decade ago, I invited my friend Ray over for dinner and he noticed I was having trouble getting my charcoal grill going. The method I had been using was to put scrunched up newspaper in the bottom of the kettle, topping that with the smaller of two round metal grills that fit in kettle. I would dump charcoal on the smaller grill, then eventually place the larger metal grill on top of that. It’s the larger grill that holds whatever you might be cooking: hamburgers, chicken, bratwursts, whole onions, whole peppers, foil packs of sliced potatoes and butter. Pork steaks, carrots, asparagus, shrooms.
The problem with what I’ll call the “straight newspaper” method is that the newspaper would often burn up too quickly, not having burned long enough to have caught the charcoal, the flame wasting away too soon. In this event I would have to awkwardly lift the bottom grate, which was a little hot and which was still holding the unburnt charcoal. Then, in a vexed state, I’d have to shove more wads of newspaper down into the bottom of the kettle. Sometimes I went through three rounds of newspaper before the charcoal would finally catch.
Ray told me that the trick is to pre-treat the newspaper with vegetable oil. And I’m telling you today, dear reader, that this little hack has changed my entire attitude about grilling. I used to dread getting a charcoal fire going. Now, it’s a cinch. A snap of the fingers. Almost magic.
Get yourself some newspaper. If you don’t subscribe to a newspaper, get some old issues from someone who does. I used to burn a lot of USA Today, courtesy of one Brian F. Randall. He stopped getting that paper as it grew thinner and thinner over the years. These days it’s a lot of Belleville News-Democrat, which my parents still get. I also like the size and oil carrying-capacity of my mom’s hometown newspaper, the Okawville Times. But if you don’t know anyone who subscribes to a newspaper then look for the free newspapers or weekly/monthly magazines out in the little newspaper racks as you leave your grocery store or favorite restaurant. Or just buy an occasional Sunday Times, read what you want, and then start cutting.
Take a whole broadsheet of newspaper and tear it in half down the middle, vertically down the crease. It should tear fairly readily. That gives you two half-sheets. With scissors, cut the half sheets horizontally, cutting right along the crease that separates the top fold from the bottom. Now you’ve quartered what would have been four numbered pages of a newspaper, if you counted the front and the back. Stack these quarter-sheets one on top of another, twelve to a stack. Why twelve? Because that’s how many I use each time I start a charcoal fire: twelve balled-up quarter-sheets of oiled newspaper.
Buy one of those aluminum foil trays, the kind often used in baking or in grilling. Sometimes they come in packs of two or three. Get a size long enough to hold a folded-over quarter-sheet of newspaper, roughly ten inches by fourteen. Then take basic vegetable oil and drizzle some in the bottom of the foil tray. Partially place the first stack of twelve newspaper quarter-sheets into the tray, such that they’re halfway into the tray, halfway still hanging out. Before folding that packet of twelve pages over upon itself so that it perfectly sits in the tray, add another drizzle of oil, into what will be the middle of that stack once it’s folded. Vertically fold one half of the newspaper sheets over the other, like you were closing a book, and press down. Then drizzle a little more oil on top of the piece of newspaper facing up. Thus you’ve oiled the bottom of the stack, the middle, and finally the top. Pack as many folded stacks of twelve newspaper quarter-sheets into the tray as possible, or as many as you want, drizzling a little bit of oil into the middle and then on top of each additional twelve-sheet “pamphlet.”
Let the aluminum foil tray of oiled-up newspaper sit for at least a day. Yes, you have to plan ahead a little bit for this hack to work. The oil will diffuse, distributing itself with remarkable efficiency across all sheets, to all corners of the tray. Then, when you’re ready to grill, grab a book of twelve quarter-sheets, scrunch them into balls, and toss them into the bottom of the kettle. Cover them with the charcoal grate, add your charcoal. Light the paper, sit back, and let the slowly burning newspaper, flaming hot with oil, do the work.
When the charcoal starts to get going—listen for that little ticking sound charcoal makes—you can put the top grate above the burning pile of coals and get to cooking. There’s nothing like cooking on hot coals. Beats gas grilling any day, as long as you can get the fire started.