Grilling on the Coals

Call it caveman grilling. Or call it Medieval. But it’ll impress your guests and give your ‘cue a new kick.
Published May 12, 2016

Low and slow — or fast and furious! These are your choices when it comes to summer grilling. Using indirect heat (the slow one) is a technique best reserved for large chunks of meat, like pork shoulder, which are usually cooked at low temperatures for hours on end—and often with the gas burners directly below the food turned off (or the hot coals pushed to the sides of the grill, so none are below the food). 

Using direct heat refers to applying high heat to smaller portions of meat and vegetables. It has the advantage of being fast as well as flavorful. If you’ve ever flipped a few hot dogs or hamburgers over an open flame or directly above fiery coals, you’ve grilled with direct heat. 

But there’s a more extreme side to direct-heat grilling — at least when you’re using hot coals (and not a gas barbecue grill). And it entails removing the metal grate on which you usually rest the food. 

“I refer to placing food on the hot embers as caveman grilling," says Steven Raichlen, author of Planet Barbecue and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. “It’s the oldest method of cooking, in use for about 1.8 million years." By placing your food directly in the hot coals you can make your next barbecue not just delicious, but a lot of more interesting for all parties. 


What About HCAs?

You’ve probably heard that burning meat or fish produces heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which are carcinogenic compounds that have been linked to stomach cancer and other digestive tract cancers. This is why most nutritionists warn against cooking meat with extremely high temperatures (say, above 600 degrees Fahrenheit) for long periods or grilling meat until it’s blackened. So it seems logical to think that “caveman grilling” with direct heat — in which you insert food directly into hot embers — would mean accepting a meal loaded with HCAs.

But that’s not necessarily so. Research shows that high heat and longer cooking times increase the amount of HCAs, and caveman grilling cooks food more quickly than indirect grilling or traditional direct-heat grilling (which places food on a metal grate, above the coals). Also, “the heat on the coals is not as hot as you might think,” says Raichlen. “We’re cooking in the 450-600-degree F range. The heat is actually higher two inches above the coals.” Finally, while all grilled proteins produce HCAs (they’re highest in chicken), remember that grilled vegetables have none. So make sure you include plenty of plants in the caveman cookout.



Make sure you’re equipped

Direct heat grilling requires little in the way of specialized equipment. “I’ve seen people execute this type of cooking with great results with nothing but a hubcap and some charcoal," says Raichlen. However, having a real charcoal grill and few other tools handy will, of course, make the job easier. Use this list:

-Natural lump charcoal (see below)
-Common chimney starter (sold in most hardware stores)
-Tongs with a long handle
-Aluminum foil
-Pastry brush (or any soft food brush) to remove ashes from the meat
-Grill hoe (or a long-handled garden trowel) for leveling your charcoal.
-Suede grilling gloves or welding gloves from a hardware store.


Don’t use typical charcoal briquettes

In order to cook food directly on the hot embers, you’ll need natural lump charcoal, rather than the typical compressed charcoal briquettes you’ll find in grocery stores (and you can’t use a propane gas grill, obviously). Unlike briquettes, which often include coal and accelerants, lump charcoal is made with only pure hardwood. It burns hotter and faster than compressed briquettes, making it ideal for “caveman-style" cooking, as Raichlen describes it. Many grocery stores and most home-supply stores sell natural lump charcoal; popular brands are Cowboy, Rancher, Royal Kingsford Charwood and Target's own brand. You’ll need a common chimney starter to fire up your natural charcoals; follow the manufacturer’s directions and don’t use lighter fluid (you don’t want to taint your coals with it). When all the charcoal is glowing red, give a quick fan to blow of the excess ash and you’re ready to go.

Here are seven foods that are particularly well suited for caveman grilling, and Raichlen’s tips to get the best results with each. 



Cooking perfect steaks in the coals starts with getting the right cut of meat, says Raichlen. Choose a T-bone, porterhouse or New York strip, cut at least 1 ¼" thick (it’ll be easier to get a custom cut at the butcher, or a specialty or high-end grocery store). If you go too thin, you’ll have an unappetizing, overcooked steak. 

Season the steak to taste with salt and pepper, then place it right on the hot coals. For a medium-rare steak, grill for about 4 1/2 to 5 minutes on each side. Using your tongs, move the cooked steak to a plate and use a pastry brush to remove any excess ashes that cling to the meat. Tent the steak with foil (cover the meat, but don’t wrap it snugly) and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving. “You should have a perfectly charred steak with wonderful smoky flavor, prepared with lots of drama," says Raichlen.​
Ingredient/Shopping List
-T-bone, porterhouse or New York strip steaks, cut at least 1¼-inch thick (½ or 1/3 lb of meat for each person)
-Salt and pepper



Try a whole fish, like red snapper and Barramundi. Season the cleaned fish inside and out with salt (to taste) and add fresh herbs inside it. Good choices include basil, thyme, parsley, and especially rosemary, which has the benefit of reducing HCA production in grilled meat. Place the fish directly on the embers (closed; don’t expose the inside of the fish to the embers). For a 1½ to 2 pound fish, grilling 8 minutes per side (or until the meat is flaky, and no flesh sticks to a toothpick or fork when pierced). If you want to avoid ashes, you can wrap the fish in aluminum foil before inserting it into the embers. It’ll steam in the foil, but it won’t have a smoky flavor. And, let’s face it, it’s not as fun.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-Whole fish (red snapper or Barramundi are good choices) for each person, 1 ½ to 2 pounds each
-Fresh herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, rosemary)
-Salt and pepper



The key to authentic and smoky baba ghanouj, according to Raichlen, is cooking the eggplant in the embers. Make a few slits in two medium eggplants and insert two garlic cloves in each. Then place them in the coals. Cook until charred around, which typically takes about 15-20 minutes. Carefully remove the eggplant from the coals, let it cool, and then remove the charred skin (no need to be perfect; just get off as much charred skin as you can with a knife and your fingers). In a food processor, combine the eggplant, 3 tablespoons of tahini, and 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, along with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Blend to a coarse texture and serve with pita bread.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-2 medium-sized eggplants (will feed 4-5 people as an appetizer)
-Tahini sauce
-Salt and pepper
-Extra virgin olive oil
-1 small lemon (or lemon juice)
-Pita bread


Sweet Potatoes

You can cook regular white potatoes right in the embers, but Raichlen prefers to use sweet potatoes, instead. They’re an excellent source of beta-carotene and do well directly in the coals. These firm tubers can really handle the heat, so use your hoe to cover them deep in the embers. Let them be for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until they’re easily pierced and soft when tested with a fork. After removing from the coals, Raichlen suggests simply cutting them in half and adding butter or seasonings before scooping out the tasty flesh. You can also caveman-grill a large squash this same way.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-1 medium-sized sweet potato for each person
-Butter (if desired)
-Salt and pepper



You may have enjoyed the taste of roasted red peppers at your local Italian deli, and this flavor is easy to duplicate in the coals. “Bell peppers are one food you can burn to jet black and still get great results," says Raichlen. Cook whole, uncut green or red bell peppers in the coals for about 10-12 minutes each, turning them with your tongs to ensure all sides are evenly charred. Remove the peppers from the coals, let them cool, and then use a paring knife to remove the charred skin and seeds. Cut them into bite-sized slices, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve as a side. Or reserve them for use in sandwiches and salads. You can use this same technique with chilies and many other peppers to add smoky, spicy flavor to homemade salsa.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-1 medium-sized red or bell pepper for every two persons (when served as a side)
-Salt and pepper
-Extra virgin olive oil



Deep-fried shredded onions are loaded with unnecessary fat and calories; opt for the natural sweetness of onions roasted in coals for a healthier version of this appetizer or side. Simply nestle onions in the coals, similar to the directions given for sweet potatoes above, and cook them for about 30 minutes. The first few layers of skins will be charred black, but inside there will be a soft, sweet, and smoky treat that can be served eaten immediately, or added to salsa or tacos.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-1 medium-sized onion for every two people (when served as a side)



Roasting corn in the fire, with or without the husks, is a technique used by American Indian tribes to prepare this staple food. The original Handbook for Boys, issued by the Boy Scouts of America in 1911, advises soaking the ears in water with the husks on for an hour, which delays the scorching of the husks and helps to steam the corn inside. Cook on the embers for about 15-20 minutes. When sufficiently cooled, remove the charred husks and corn silk. Serve this toasted, caramelized corn on the cob with herb butter. Or remove the cooled kernels and add chopped tomato, cilantro, chilies, salt, and pepper for a simple side of roasted corn relish.

Ingredient/Shopping List
-1 ear of corn (with the husk) for each person
-Herb butter
-Salt and pepper


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