How to Grill Directly on Hot Coals
If you want to take your grilling to a new level, chef Josiah Citrin thinks you should ditch the grate and get your food familiar with the coals. Citrin, the chef-owner of Santa Monica’s two Michelin-star Mélisse, recently opened Charcoal, a new spot in Venice focused on coal-roasting. “It’s a bit barbaric,” says Citrin of the cooking technique, which calls for placing meat or vegetables directly on hot embers. The goal is to completely sear or blacken the food’s exterior (or the foil it’s wrapped in), imbuing the interior with delicious smoky flavor. For the home coal-roaster, there’s an additional benefit: It’s forgiving. You already know you’re going to burn the food, explains Citrin, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Citrin recommends using lump charcoal, which you’ll want to arrange in the grill so it’s mostly flat. Wait until it’s smoking hot before adding your ingredients. Depending on what you’re cooking, you may or may not wrap your ingredients in foil—as Citrin will do for a Charcoal dish of cabbage stuffed with butter, lemon zest, garlic and chile flakes. Citrin recommends frequently flipping and moving whatever you’re cooking, so you get a nice even char on all sides. To bump up flavor even more, roast vegetables directly in the coals without any foil and cook chicken, beef or pork on the grill grates above. The meat will drip onto the vegetables below and season them with their fats and juices, says Citrin.
Here, Citrin offers tips for coal-roasting 11 different ingredients, from steaks to clams.
Steak: Flat-sided steaks like New York steak or prime rib are best for coal-roasting. Brush the meat with butter or olive oil, then nestle it in the coals and turn it every 1½ minutes. Cook the meat to the desired temperature and, as usual, let it rest before serving.
Sausages and Hot Dogs: Cook hot dogs or sausages directly in the coals, turning often, until they are charred on the outside and hot inside, about 15 minutes.
Rack of Lamb: Wrap the bones with foil and brush the meat with olive oil, then cook it directly on the coals, turning often, until it reaches the desired temperature.
Clams: Roast clams directly in the coals and take them off as soon as they pop open, which should only take a few minutes.
Cabbage: Brush a head of cabbage with olive oil and roast it directly in the coals until the outside is charred, about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Leeks: Roast fatter leeks, brushed in butter or olive oil, directly in the coals until blackened on the outside and tender within, 20 to 30 minutes. Thinner leeks can be wrapped in foil with butter and spices such as star anise.
Potatoes: Rub large potatoes with olive oil and roast them directly in the coals. Wrap smaller spuds, such as fingerlings, in foil along with butter, olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs. Roast potatoes for about 40 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork.
Asparagus: Wrap asparagus in foil with olive oil and fresh herbs and roast until tender, 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the spears.
Fennel: Wrap fennel in foil and roast it until blackened and tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Alternatively, chef Citrin likes to coat bulbs in a salt crust before coal-roasting.
Beets: Wrap beets in foil or brush them with olive oil and roast them directly in the coals. Either way, it takes about 1½ hours to roast baseball-sized beets.
Eggplant: Brush eggplant with olive oil and roast directly in the coals until the outside is thoroughly burnt, about 45 minutes. Citrin says this method works particularly well for making eggplant purees and dips.