The latest buzz among those in the culinary know is about cooking over live fire. Of course, this isn't a new phenomenon — several sources cite that fire was first used as a cooking medium over 1 million years ago.
Today, live fire cooking means cooking food over a naturally derived fire. Gas and charcoal are effective, but nothing compares to hardwood. It's difficult to think of more seductive flavors than a perfectly charred bone-in ribeye or slightly burnt marshmallow.
To truly cook with a live fire, you must build it with your own two hands using fuels found in nature. It can be done on a grill, in a steel barrel, or even in a freshly dug fire pit. One of the most exciting scenarios (at least to me) entails digging a hole in your backyard, laying some stones on the bottom and sides, and constructing a steel cross large enough to hold a whole lamb. Lay the carcass on the cross with its arms, legs, and torso tied to it. Build a grand fire by making a teepee of small brush, surrounded by a larger teepee of branches, followed by a teepee of large logs. Light it up and let it burn until the flame diminishes and you have created a hot coal bed. Then stick your "cross of lamb" into the earth, approximately two feet from the fire. Baste the lamb every hour with a solution of one part salt to five parts water. The lamb will be complete within 12 beers, which translates to six hours. Exact cooking times will vary based on the weight of the lamb and the temperature of the fire. One method for testing doneness is sticking a probe thermometer into the hip joint area. Remove it from the fire at 135 ˚F. Cover it with foil for 15-20 minutes to rest while you put the finishing touches on your seasonal accompaniments. This method is guaranteed to take your backyard barbecue to a whole new level.
Selecting your fuel source for live fire cooking is one of the most important factors in getting set for success. Hardwoods such as red oak, white oak, angel oak (just kidding), hickory, and mesquite are ideal for creating a hotter-than-hell coal bed that can last for hours if properly maintained and refueled. Supplement with unique varieties like pecan, apple, peach, etc. for added flavor. It is also paramount that your wood is seasoned, meaning that it's been kept dry and protected from the weather. It's much easier to ignite and also burns evenly, creating perfect embers.
If live fire cooking is something you would rather experience than create yourself, then come visit me at Stars Grill Room & Rooftop Bar, which will open this summer at 495 King St. Our cuisine will be defined by cooking over Wadmalaw red oak on custom kitchen equipment.
During the concept development of Stars, owner Keith Jones challenged me to find the most versatile grill with show-stopping qualities. After weeks of research, I finally had a sketch of the king of grills. I started a dialogue with J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas, and later sent them my optimistic sketch. Much to my surprise, these guys are just as crazy as I am and were up to the challenge of creating a live fire cooking suite outfitted with a six-spit rotisserie, an Argentine-style grill for fish and vegetables, a wide bar grill for steaks and chops, and a firewall for direct ember cooking. J&R built the grill within two months. Weighing in at 3,700 pounds and sitting on six casters, the grill was too heavy to be removed from the semi-truck using its on-board equipment. We had to use a lull, which is a heavy-duty forklift with an extension arm to get the grill off the truck. This process ended up temporarily shutting down King Street, as we had to block both lanes of traffic. At this point it was apparent that this was a grill like no other in Charleston, maybe even the world. After a sweaty debacle getting the thing into the restaurant, I soon realized what we would name the grill: The Grates of Hell.