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11 Ways to Master Your Charcoal Grill

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Whether you’re hosting the big family reunion or a casual backyard dinner, nothing brings hungry folks together like the smell of charcoal at a summer cookout. In some regards, grilling is the easiest cooking method imaginable: food plus fire equals savory charred morsels. But a perfect picnic requires more than just knowing how to flip the burgers. No matter if you’re a blue-ribbon barbecue boss or a rotisserie rookie, these steps will help you get the most out of your charcoal grill.

1. START WITH A CLEAN SLATE.

Always begin with a quick clean-up from the previous grilling session. First, clear out the powdery ash that accumulates in the bottom of the grill. Depending on the model of your grill, you may be able to sweep these ashes out through a vent or trap-door, or you may have a removable tray that can be emptied directly into the trash. Then use a grill-safe coil brush or pumice stone (wire brushes can be hazardous) to remove any charred food remains from the cooking grid.

2. MAKE A PLAN.

Before you reach for the lighter, take a few minutes to craft a game plan for your grilling session. Consider what types of food you’re making, how many people you’re cooking for, and how long you’ll need the coals to stay hot. Those factors affect how much charcoal you should use, how the coals should be configured, and how long it will take the grill to reach cooking temperature.

3. USE BRIQUETTES FOR A QUICK FIRE ...

American grills use two main types of charcoal: pre-treated briquettes and natural lump charcoal. Briquettes, the more popular option, include small amounts of flammable additives (like sodium nitrate) to improve how they burn. But those same elements can give your food unwanted acrid flavors if the coating hasn’t entirely burned off, so make sure the coals are covered in a light gray ash before you start cooking. Also, if you start before they’re completely covered in ash, your grill will continue to heat up while you cook, and things can easily get way too hot. Ideally, briquettes won’t impart any flavor on their own, so if you prefer a classic smoky taste, you’ll need to add extra wood chips. In the U.S., Kingsford is the most popular brand of briquette, and can be found at nearly any grocery or hardware store.

4. ... OR TRY HARDWOOD LUMP CHARCOAL FOR A SMOKIER FLAVOR.

Purists sometimes prefer natural lump charcoal, made from aged hardwood. With no additives and irregular-shaped pieces, the hardwood variety generally heats up faster and hotter, but requires a bit more care when managing the fire. The advantage is that lump charcoal can give food a delicious natural smoky flavor, with no need for extra chips. The brands Royal Oak and Cowboy are nearly ubiquitous, but true specialists should check out Doug Hanthorn’s Lump Charcoal Database, which reviews and ranks nearly 100 different types of hardwood charcoal.

5. USE A CHIMNEY STARTER FOR A FOOLPROOF FIRE.

Lighting the coals can be a stumbling block for novice grillers, especially in windy or humid conditions. No matter which charcoal you’re using, the most reliable method is to use a chimney starter, a large metal cylinder that sits directly atop the cooking grid. Place a starter (like crumpled newspaper or paraffin cubes) in the lower chamber, fill the upper chamber with charcoal, then use a long-handled lighter to ignite the starter. After 20 to 30 minutes, once the top coals are covered in ash, use protective gloves to remove the cooking grid and pour the coals into the bottom of the grill and place the starter somewhere safe to cool. Best of all, chimney starters are cheap—grab one at your local hardware store for about $20.

6. GO LIGHT ON THE LIGHTER FLUID.

Sure, there’s a cheap thrill to be had in using lighter fluid to create a fireball in your grill. But too much lighter fluid can leave your food with a gross chemical taste, defeating the point of grilling entirely. If you’re using a chimney starter, you can forget the fluid—thermodynamics will do the rest. In lieu of a chimney, a splash of lighter fluid will help get those coals glowing, but restrain yourself from soaking the whole pile in the stuff. Squirt just a bit of lighter fluid onto a few briquettes (making sure that the briquettes don’t already have lighter fluid in them), wait a couple minutes, then light them. Then put the rest of the pile around the now-lit coals. Now be patient while those nasty chemicals burn off; again, you’re waiting for the coals to be covered in a light layer of ash before introducing food.

7. KNOW THE HEAT BEFORE YOU EAT.

Grilling is all about heat, but not all heat is created equal. Most grilling mainstays, including burgers, hot dogs, steaks, boneless chicken, and vegetables, benefit from direct heatplacing the food right above the glowing coals. Denser meat like ribs or whole chickens do better away from the heart of the fire, so the meat can slowly roast without the exterior burning to a crisp. But fear not, multitasking chef—your trustworthy grill can easily accommodate multiple cooking zones simultaneously. To create a basic two-zone fire, simply pile the coals on one side of the grill, with the opposite side being devoid of any coals. Indirect heat on the vacant side is great not only for slow-roasting but also for keeping finished food warm before it’s plated. For even more precision, consider a three-zone fire or one of these additional configuration suggestions from Weber.

8. GO WITH THE (AIR)FLOW.

Fire needs oxygen, and lit charcoal is no exception. While the coals are heating, keep both the upper and lower vents fully open to draw air through the grill and ensure the flames don’t dwindle. Once the charcoal is ready, leave the lower vent open but utilize the upper one to control temperature: wide open for maximum heat, partially closed for a cooler, longer roast. If you’re smoking meat or fish, close the top vent entirely to trap flavors inside, but be careful to not accidentally kill the flame.

9. LEARN THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE.

Oversized grilling implements are popular, but a standard metal spatula and tongs are more than enough to manage burgers, dogs, corn, and other staples. Smaller items may fall through the cooking grid, though, so consider using skewers or a grill basket to keep your mushrooms, peppers, or other veggies in place. Metal baskets also work great for fish (which can also be cooked on a cedar plank or even directly atop a bed of citrus slices), and a pizza stone opens up endless Italian possibilities. Perhaps the most underrated tool in the grillmaster’s arsenal, however, is the basting brush: A few extra coats of sauce—when applied at the right time—can make the difference between a succulent success or a dried-out disappointment.

10. KEEP THE FIRE ROARING.

An all-day party or multicourse dinner may well require more fuel than your grill can hold at once. If it looks like your guests’ appetites are going to outlast the fire, be proactive and add additional charcoal while the coal bed is still hot (use tongs or heatproof gloves to protect your hands). Don’t wait until the coals have burned down to ash and embers or you’ll be back to step one with hungry mouths waiting.

11. MAXIMIZE YOUR COOKING POWER.

On the other hand, if you’re grilling for yourself or a small group, your fire may last longer than the meal requires. It’s perfectly safe to let the coals burn out inside the grill (under supervision), but to be more strategic, consider grilling extra food to store and use later that week. For instance, a few mixed-vegetable kebabs refrigerated overnight can be tossed with your favorite leafy greens for an effortless salad the next day.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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