Project Fire

Cutting-Edge Techniques and Sizzling Recipes from the Caveman Porterhouse to Salt Slab Brownie S'Mores


By Steven Raichlen

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.An electrifying new approach by the man who literally wrote the bible on barbecue. Cutting edge techniques meet time-honed traditions in 100 boldly flavored recipes that will help you turbocharge your game at the grill. Here’s how to reinvent steak with reverse-seared beef tomahawks, dry-brined filets mignons, ember-charred porterhouses, and T-bones tattooed with grill marks and enriched, the way the pros do it, with melted beef fat. Here’s how to spit-roast beer-brined cauliflower on the rotisserie. Blowtorch a rosemary veal chop. Grill mussels in blazing hay, peppery chicken under a salt brick, and herb-crusted salmon steaks on a shovel. From Seven Steps to Grilling Nirvana to recipes for grilled cocktails and desserts, Project Fire proves that live-fire, and understanding how to master it, makes everything taste better.

“Once again, steven Raichlen shows off his formidable fire power and tempting recipes.”
—Francis Mallmann


The Seven Steps to Grilling Nirvana

Grilling is the world's oldest and most universal cooking method, practiced in virtually every country and culture on six continents (seven if you consider the cookouts staged by grill-obsessed scientists in Antarctica). But ancient and universal don't automatically mean simple.

Today's grillers face a staggering selection of grills, from inexpensive hibachis to $20,000 supergrills. As for grilling accessories, the indispensable tongs and grill brushes are now joined by sophisticated digital thermometers and temperature controllers that communicate with your smartphone.

The once ubiquitous briquette has given way to specialty charcoals from as far away as Paraguay, Japan, and Indonesia. Then there's wood—used for adding a smoke flavor and as a grilling fuel in its own right. Which wood you use and how you add it has an enormous impact on the flavor of your food.

If you think grilling means searing a steak or burger over a hot fire, know that there are actually five different grilling methods—each with its own unique cooking properties for an equally unique roster of foods. And that's before you get to specialized grilling techniques, such as plancha grilling and rotisserie smoking.

Of course, you need to know about the rubs, marinades, brines, bastes, glazes, and other flavorings that transform simple grilled foods into live-fire masterpieces. How and when to apply them does much to determine the ultimate deliciousness of your final dish.

Finally, you need to know how to manage the food on the grill and cook it to the desired degree of doneness. When to take it off the grill and how to carve and serve it. How to clean and maintain your grill so it's ready for the next grill session. And some basic safety practices to keep you and your guests coming back for more.

In other words, there's a lot more to grilling than throwing that steak or chop on the grill.

Don't worry: I've got you covered. In the following pages, I'll walk you through the Seven Steps to Grilling Nirvana. Along the way, you'll get a refresher course on the basics and learn the new techniques and technologies needed to make you a grilling force of nature.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, fire up your grills!

Step 1

Choose Your Grill

"Which grill should I buy?" is one of the questions I hear most. I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all answer. I can't. A charcoal kettle grill offers great versatility (it's suitable for all five grilling methods). But a convenience-minded gas griller or diehard wood griller wants a different sort of live-fire experience. Here are the basic types of grills. Smoker grills are discussed in this book; straight smokers are covered in my book Project Smoke.

Charcoal Grills

Charcoal grills use lump charcoal or briquettes as their primary fuel. (Some come with a propane igniter to light the charcoal.) If you love the sport of grilling—building and maintaining a fire, waltzing foods from hot spots to cooler spots—a charcoal grill is for you. Charcoal grills burn hot (up to 800°F), which is great for direct grilling, and many are well suited to indirect grilling and smoking. They tend to be less expensive and more portable than gas grills and take up less room on your patio.

Kettle grill: The charcoal kettle is a near-perfect grill. Simple to use for beginners, it's sufficiently powerful and versatile to handle just about any food you want to grill. Works for all methods of live-fire cooking.

Front-loading charcoal grill: Modeled on the mangal grills used across so much of Planet Barbecue, the front-loader is a rectangular metal box with a door in the front through which you can add charcoal, wood chunks, and logs. Suitable for direct and indirect grilling and smoking.

Hibachi: Born in Japan (like me!), hibachi-style grills are used throughout Asia. Imagine a small metal (or, in some cases, stone) shoebox-like firebox with sliding vents at the bottom for heat control and a grate on top for the food. Designed for direct grilling.

Table grill: Put a large shallow rectangular metal box with a grate on legs and you've got a table grill. Some models (especially those sold or rented in Greek neighborhoods) come with rotisseries. Some models burn gas instead of charcoal. Designed for direct grilling.

Kamado-style (ceramic) grill: A large, egg-shaped ceramic grill/cooker originally from Japan—the first one being the popular Big Green Egg. Today, dozens of manufacturers make these versatile grills: most ceramic, a few metal (like the Weber Summit), others gorgeously decorated with mosaic tiles (like the Komodo Kamado). All have great thermodynamics thanks to their thick ceramic walls (or in some cases, insulated metal) and hyper-efficient venting: They cook low and slow (at 225°F for smoking), hot and fiery (700°F for direct grilling), and everywhere in between.

Grilling hack: Kamado-style grills burn extremely efficiently, using very little oxygen during the cook. So sometimes when you open them, air rushes in, erupting in a potentially dangerous burst of flame called a flashback. To avoid this, "burp" the cooker, that is, open the lid just a little a few times to bring air into the cook chamber before opening it all the way.

What to Look for When Buying a Gas Grill

There are hundreds of different gas grill models. So which is the right one for you? Price is a major factor and so are size, construction, and the warranty. Here's what to look for:

1. Burners: You want at least two burners (so you can shut one off for indirect grilling), preferably three or four. In inexpensive gas grills, the burner tubes are made from a cheap stamped metal alloy—often in a single piece shaped like an H. They burn and rust out in a couple of years. In better gas grills, the burner tubes are made of stainless steel or brass, one tube per burner. They last longer and burn better.

2. Igniters: Many gas grills have a battery-powered igniter that produces an audible click and a spark. Higher-end grills, like the Weber Summit, build the igniter right into the burner control knob. (Weber also has a Snap-Jet individual burner ignition system that gives you a whoosh of flame as each burner ignites—visual confirmation that the burner is actually lit.)

3. Grate: The place where you do the actual grilling. (In fact, our word grill comes from the Latin craticula, "gridiron.") There are various types of grill grates; my personal preference is cast-iron grates with ¼-inch bars—these give you the best grill marks.

Grill grates and more, from top left clockwise: plancha; hinged grate for charcoal grill; Tuscan grill grate with legs; stainless steel gas grill grate; laser cut stainless steel grate for seafood.

4. Grease collection system: Ducks or pork shoulders put out a lot of fat as they grill, and you want that grease funneled to and collected in a deep receptacle that's easy to access and empty. Beware of the large flat, shallow metal trays (some only ¼ inch deep) that come with some high-end gas grills; they're murder to empty.

5. Side burners: Useful for warming sauces, pan- and deep-frying, etc. I use my grill's side burner when I want to keep the spattering fat outside.

6. Cart/side tables: You can never have enough workspace, so side tables are a big plus in my book. Likewise, an enclosed cart for holding some of your grilling accessories in addition to the propane cylinder.

7. Built-in gas gauge: You need one to monitor how much gas remains in the tank. If your grill lacks one, buy a freestanding gauge like a Flame King.

8. Built-in thermometer: Usually mounted in the lid, it indicates the approximate temperature in the firebox. (Remember: This is the temperature at the tip of the probe, not necessarily at the level of the grill grate.) You'll also want to get a grate-level thermometer to tell you the temperature where you're doing the actual cooking.

9. Overall construction: Does the grill look and feel well-constructed and solid, or cheap and flimsy? Are there plenty of tool hooks and ample storage? Does it come pre-assembled? If not, are the assembly instructions clear and can you reach customer service if you need to? If you bought this book, I assume you, like me, will be spending a lot of time with your grill. Buy a grill built to last and buy more grill than you think you need: You'll grow into it.

10. Warranty: A grill has to withstand high heat, extreme weather (especially if you live up north), and a salt air environment if you live near the ocean. In other words, it undergoes a lot of stress. Buy a grill with a long, comprehensive warranty.

Gas Grills

The gas grill came on the American outdoor cooking scene in the 1950s. It's been a complicated relationship ever since. We love the convenience—the push-button ignition and the turn-of-a-knob heat control has led some 64 percent of American families who grill (according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association) to adopt gas as their primary grill. But purists deplore the lack of direct interaction with smoke and fire. Well, the good news is that gas grills are getting better. They're burning hotter, and many give you the opportunity to introduce wood, smoke, and even charcoal to the grilling process. If it makes you feel better, while I love grilling over charcoal and wood, I also own gas grills and use them on busy weeknights. Suitable for direct and indirect grilling and spit-roasting. Less effective for smoking.

Infrared Grills

In 1980, the Thermal Engineering Corporation (today known as TEC) introduced the first infrared grill. Here was a radical new technology that delivered an intense heat in a very short time. In 2000, TEC's patent expired and many grill companies began incorporating infrared technology into their grills—often in the form of sear stations. This gives you the option to sear your steak over the infrared burner, then move it over a conventional burner to finish cooking. Especially effective for direct grilling.

BTUs: What Are They and Do They Matter?

Say you're shopping for a new grill. You've probably seen banners screaming "30,000 BTUs" and "1,000 square inches of grilling area!" Sounds impressive, right? But what do these numbers actually mean? And how much should they influence your decision to buy one grill or another?

BTUs—British Thermal Units—are a traditional English measure of heat: specifically, the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1°F. With grills they refer to a complex formula that uses the fuel consumption of all burners to measure the heat output. (Liquid propane, for instance, has a rating of 21,600 BTUs per pound.)

The total number of BTUs doesn't mean much: What you really want to know is how many BTUs the grill delivers for each square inch of cooking surface. That's actual cooking surface, not warming racks or the grate space over any infrared burners, although many manufacturers include this additional space in their total square inch count.

To calculate this, divide the total BTUs by the total square inches of cooking surface. In general, you're looking for at least 80 to 100 BTUs per square inch.

But BTUs are only part of the story. Many other factors affect the heat output and total performance of your grill, including:

The distance between the burners and the heat diffuser (it should be about 2 inches).

The distance between the heat diffuser and grill grate (it should be about 3 inches).

The size and weight of the grate.

How tightly the lid fits; the gap between the lid and the cook chamber.

The overall construction of the grill, the tightness of the welds, etc.

Bottom line: Don't buy a grill based on its BTUs.

Wood-Burning Grills

In the beginning and for most of human history, grilling was done over a wood fire. It still is in grill-obsessed cultures as diverse as Argentina and Uruguay, Germany and France, and Mexico and the United States. (In Asian markets, they prefer charcoal.) Charcoal and gas give you heat, but only wood delivers a smoke flavor. If you love building and tending a fire, if you're mesmerized by the sight of flickering flames, if you relish the flavor of wood smoke, even if you love the way your clothes smell after sitting around a campfire, a wood-burning grill is for you. Intended for direct grilling.

Asado-style grill: This is the quintessential wood-burner from South America (especially Argentina and Uruguay), and it has inspired a new generation of grills. Picture a sloping grooved metal grate (the V-shaped grooves channel away the dripping fat) over a firebox (often open in the front), with a flywheel to raise or lower the grate. More elaborate models have a burn basket in the center where you burn whole logs down to embers, which you then rake under the grill grate. Intended for direct grilling.

Pellet grills: At first glance, these grills offer the best of both gas and wood-burning grills: electric ignition and turn-of-a-knob heat control while burning real wood (or at least hardwood sawdust pellets). But when you look more closely, most pellet grills are really outdoor ovens—unsuitable for direct grilling. They work better as smokers, especially when run at lower temperatures. Determined to overcome this shortcoming, a new generation of pellet grills, like the Memphis Wood Fire Grill, have removable burn chamber covers so you can direct grill over the wood pellet fire.

Grilling hack: To grill or sear on a pellet grill, install a plancha, a cast-iron skillet, or raised rail grill grates in the cook chamber. Heat your pellet grill as high as it will go. Then add the food and sear it on the hot metal.

Multi-fuel Grills

Can't decide among charcoal, gas, or wood? You don't have to. Several manufacturers make tri-fuel and dual-fuel models. Check out the high-end Kalamazoo Hybrid and the American Muscle Grill, which burn all three fuels; less expensive models include the Dyna-Glo Dual Fuel and Char-Broil Gas2Coal Hybrid Grill.

Specialty Grills

This brings us to a few specialty grills that are quite unlike any of the charcoal or gas grills most of us grew up with.

Upright barrel grills (aka drum grills): Typically made from steel drums, these grills combine the virtues of grills and smokers. Thanks to their singular thermodynamics, you can grill a rack of ribs vertically, with one end hanging just an inch above the coals. (Amazingly, the meat closest to the fire doesn't burn.) You build a charcoal fire in the bottom. The food sits on a grate at the top or hangs from rods stretched from side to side. With the lid off or ajar, you can use these drums for direct grilling. With the lid on, use them for indirect grilling and smoking. An adjustable damper at the bottom and small vent holes at the top maintain consistent temperatures for smoking and grilling. One popular model is the Pit Barrel Cooker.

Smoker grills: A hybrid grill of a different sort that allows you to direct grill over a hot charcoal or wood fire in the firebox section or smoke low and slow in an adjacent smoke chamber. Like a conventional offset smoker, it has a large firebox and a smoke chamber. But the firebox has a grate for grilling and dampers and a lid to manage the heat.

Plancha grills/pedestal grills: Cross a plancha (fire-heated metal slab) with a wood-burning grill, add a touch of sculptural artistry, and you get a grill like the Arteflame. A wide ring-shaped steel plancha surmounts a bowl-shaped firebox. There's a heavy steel grate in the center for direct grilling over a wood fire.

Rotisserie grills: These are grills designed primarily or exclusively for spit-roasting. You light a charcoal or wood fire in the firebox. Skewer the food on the rotisserie spit(s), securing it with prongs as needed. Attach the motor, insert the end of the spit in the socket, and switch it on. The gentle rotation ensures even cooking. Especially well suited for whole birds and roasts. The cool brand here is Carson.

Tandoor: This urn-shaped clay oven is India's version of a barbecue pit, developed more than 5,000 years ago to cook flatbread. You light a charcoal fire at the bottom. The food roasts on vertical metal rods. You run it at high; you don't really vary the heat. One good model for home use is the Homdoor.

Electric Grills

Think of them as underpowered upside-down broilers. Don't think of them as grills. Enough said.

Square Inches—How Many are Enough?

Square inches of cook surface are another selling point used by grill manufacturers, and this, too, can be misleading. First of all, a square inch—the size of a typical postage stamp—isn't very much. One hundred square inches represents a 10-by-10-inch area of grill space, which is about what you need to cook a single porterhouse steak.

You also need to know what's included in those square inches. You can't cook on a warming rack, but manufacturers often include that in the total. Nor should you count the grate area directly over an infrared sear burner.

As a rough rule, figure on about 100 square inches (the size of a large dinner plate) for each person you'll be grilling for. And remember: You always want to leave at least a quarter of your grill food-free as a safety zone.

Step 2

Select Your Fuel

In 1952, Illinois metalworker George Stephens created the charcoal-buring Weber kettle grill. Two years later, the Chicago Combustion Company introduced the first gas grill, the portable propane-burning "Lazy Man." A "grate" debate has raged ever since as to which is the better fuel for grilling: charcoal or gas. Then there's the original—and to my mind, the best—wood. Master these three basic fuels, and you can grill anything, anywhere, on any type of grill.

Charcoal Grilling Math

One standard chimney starter holds about 100 briquettes. Lump charcoal varies too widely in size to give an accurate count or weight.

One chimney full of lump charcoal is enough to fuel one 22-inch kettle grill for 30 to 40 minutes of direct grilling or 40 to 50 minutes of indirect grilling.

One chimney full of charcoal briquettes is enough to fuel one 22-inch kettle grill for 1 hour of direct or indirect grilling.


There are many types of charcoal made by manufacturers all over the world, but you can boil them down to two main categories: lump and briquettes. Regardless of the variety, charcoal packs more energy than wood or gas: A charcoal fire can achieve temperatures of 800°F or more. Gas typically burns at 450° to 600°F.

Grilling hacks

Use scissors or a knife to open a bag of charcoal, making a clean cut at the top. Many guys (and it's usually we guys who do this) rip the top open, often resulting in a tear the length of the bag that makes it impossible to reseal.

Store charcoal in an airtight container like a metal trash can. When it becomes wet, it becomes crumbly and moldy. And once it becomes moldy, it tastes moldy—even when burned.

When handling charcoal, slip a plastic bag over your hand to keep your fingers clean. I learned this trick in Vietnam.

Four types of charcoal (clockwise from top right): lump charcoal; briquettes; quebracho from South America; binchotan from Japan.

Lump charcoal: Pure wood that is partially burned without oxygen, then broken into chunks. Common source woods include oak, apple, maple, and mesquite—each with its own subtle grilling properties—but pretty much interchangeable. Mesquite charcoal burns the hottest and has an intimidating (or thrilling, depending on your perspective) tendency to crackle and throw off hot sparks. Lump is my go-to charcoal for grilling.

Grilling hacks

Beware of "lump" charcoal that has square corners and ruler straight edges. It began as scrap lumber.

When buying lump charcoal, look for brands that sell evenly sized pieces. Avoid brands with large amounts of pulverized pieces or dust at the bottom of the bag.

Pluses and minuses of lump charcoal:

Lump charcoal contains no additives, so it burns cleaner than briquettes, producing less ash.

Lump charcoal burns down more quickly than briquettes. So for long grill sessions, you need to refuel more often.

Charcoal briquettes: For many years, charcoal briquettes were the go-to fuel for American cookouts, and while more and more grillers are using lump charcoal, briquettes remain the preferred fuel on the competition barbecue circuit, from Memphis in May to the American Royal in Kansas City.

Briquettes come in many varieties, including:

Self-lighting briquettes: Impregnated with lighter fluid or other accelerant to help them light quickly and evenly. Some people like their convenience; others (me among them) would rather keep petroleum-based accelerants away from their food.

Wood-studded briquettes: Contain tiny bits of hickory, apple, mesquite, or other hardwoods. Whatever wood flavor you get is subtle—blindfolded, I'm not sure you could detect their presence.

"Natural" or petroleum-free briquettes: Held together with vegetable starches instead of petroleum binders.

Pluses and minuses of charcoal briquettes:

Briquettes burn longer (about 1 hour) and at a more consistent temperature than lump charcoal.

Briquettes produce a lot more ash than lump charcoal. This can sometimes smother the fire, so stir a briquette fire from time to time to keep it well aerated. Likewise, be sure to clean out the ash after each grill session. See box.

Briquettes emit an unpleasantly acrid smoke when first lit, so wait until the coals glow red and are lightly ashed over before you begin grilling.

Specialty Charcoals

Binchotan: A clean, hard, slow-lighting, super-hot burning charcoal traditionally made from oak in the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan. Due to its high cost, some Japanese grill masters use binchotan-style charcoal from China or Vietnam.

Quebracho: A hard, clean- and hot-burning lump charcoal from South America. Three good brands are Fogo, Jealous Devil, and Kalamazoo.

Coconut charcoal (extruded): Made from pulverized coconut shells, wood, and starch binders, then extruded into rods, cubes, or miniature logs—often with a hole in the center for better airflow. Coconut charcoal burns hot and clean, producing little ash. Note: There's also a coconut shell lump charcoal used widely in Southeast Asia.


C3H8 may not be a household term, but for a majority of American households, it's the grilling fuel of choice. I speak, of course, about a petroleum distillate known as liquid propane. The gas is commonly sold in white metal "cylinders" (cylindrical tanks) that are available (often for exchange—empties for full) at hardware stores and gas stations everywhere.

There's another gas used for grilling—a fossil fuel derived from methane called natural gas (CH4). The beauty of natural gas is that it's piped right to your patio, so you don't need to lug around propane cylinders. The drawback is that not all communities provide it. Dollars per grill session, natural gas costs significantly less than propane.

So how do natural gas and propane differ? Natural gas contains less carbon than propane so it burns cooler. To reach parity in the heat output, grill manufacturers drill larger holes in the burner tubes for natural gas grills, allowing more gas to be burned. Grills fueled with natural gas need to be specially outfitted by the manufacturer. The good news is that most grill makers offer conversion kits for natural gas.

Grilling hack: Planning an outdoor kitchen? Consider running a gas line from your home propane tank to your grill area so you don't have to change the heavy cylinders every couple of weeks.

How Not to Run Out of Gas

One of the big frustrations of grilling with propane is knowing how much gas is left in the cylinder. There are three ways to calculate how much propane remains:



  • "[Steven Raichlen is] the Julia Child of barbecue" —Los Angeles Times  

    "[Raichlen’s recipes are] smart, grill friendly twists on a global range of dishes, with ingredient combinations that instantly click" —Wall Street Journal

    "Raichlen once again enthusiastically brings spark and creativity to cooking on flames." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

    "Once again, Steven Raichlen shows off his formidable fire power and tempting recipes, from primal charcoal to elegant roast." —Francis Mallmann, author of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way 

    "Another addition to [Raichlen’s] magisterial collection…. [Project Fire] contributes useful new information for both novice backyard cooks and experienced grill chefs." —Booklist


On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
336 pages


Steven Raichlen

About the Author

Steven Raichlen is the author of the New York Times bestselling Barbecue! Bible® cookbook series, which includes the new Brisket Chronicles; Project Fire; Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades; Project Smoke; The Barbecue Bible; and How to Grill. Winners of 5 James Beard awards and 3 IACP awards, his books have been translated into 17 languages. His TV shows include the public television series Steven Raichlen’s Project Fire, Project Smoke; Primal Grill; and Barbecue University; the French language series Le Maitre du Grill, and the Italian series Steven Raichlen Grills Italy. Raichlen has written for the New York Times, Esquire, and all the food magazines; and is the founder and dean of Barbecue University. In 2015, he was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. His website is

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