This post is part of the Home Ec 101 series on emergency preparedness.
Keep a charcoal grill for emergencies. Sounds simple enough, but what if you’ve never used one?
A charcoal grill is for outdoor use only.
Got that? Outdoor only. Every time there is a hurricane or ice storm, someone hurts themselves or their families by trying to grill in the house. No, inside the garage is not outdoors enough. Without proper ventilation, there is a very real possibility of the build-up of carbon monoxide. Even during a small-scale blackout emergency, responders are already taxed beyond their normal load. Do not add to their burden.
Lighting a charcoal grill
Off-season, a chimney starter can be bought on clearance for only a few dollars. At the start of the season, it may go as high as twenty.
A homemade chimney starter can be made from a #10 can (that’s the large, metal! one coffee or bulk food comes in). Remove the lid from both ends of the can. Use a church key style can opener to punch holes near the bottom of the can. There needs to be several around the bottom to allow adequate airflow. (While we’re talking about can openers, you have manual ones for an emergency, right? RIGHT?)
Place the chimney starter in the bottom of the grill, add loosely crumpled paper (not glossy), cotton dryer lint—make sure it was from a load of towels as polyester fibers won’t improve your meal—cardboard egg cartons or cardboard to the bottom and loosely fill the can with charcoal briquettes. Use a long kitchen match or a lighter to light the flammable material through the holes in the bottom of the can.
Now your job is to wait until the initial smokiness passes. When the briquettes first get started, they are smokier than when they’ve settled in for the burn. Heat should be radiating when you pass your hand over the top of the chimney. It’s time to dump the chimney and spread the charcoal, depending on your cooking method. Please use tongs or gloves, that can will be hot!
If the food you are grilling requires direct heat – hamburgers, thin steaks, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, or some vegetables, spread the coals evenly over the bottom of the grill. If you’re looking to cook larger cuts of meat or bake bread (yes, this can be done on a grill), you need indirect heat. Push the coals to one side of the grill before cooking.
Wait until all of the coals are uniformly gray or ashy before adding food to the grate. Clean the grate while it’s heating and you’re ready to get started.
Cooking on a charcoal grill.
Don’t worry; you’re not limited to using only foods that sit nicely on a grill. You can use pots and pans on a grill, just as if they were on the stove. Remember, thin pans are quite difficult to use as hot spots increase the risk of scorching. Consider investing in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven.
Cast iron pots and pans need to be seasoned before use, but an oven can be used for this purpose if you have a smooth top range that would be scratched by the cookware and have invested in a quality set of stainless steel cookware. Don’t use your favorite pan for practice.
Try simple foods: scrambled eggs, bacon, or grilled sandwiches. As long as there is no emergency, try challenging yourself to see what can be cooked on a grill. Cooking under stress isn’t exactly fun, so try to develop the skills when a mistake just means ordering a pizza.
Don’t forget items like hobo packets – foil packets of onion, ground beef, potatoes and a vegetable can also be made on a grill.
In a true emergency, trying only to use the grill once a day to conserve fuel is best. Cook as much food as possible in one go and heat water over the remaining coals to use in clean-up or for sponge bathing.
Oh, and a final tip for the caffeine-deprived. Heat water to boiling, remove from the heat, add the coffee grounds to the water and then pour through a filter. You’re welcome.