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Open-flame cooking tips from the pros

Inspired by the recent wave of restaurants boasting of their their wood-fired cooking? Steal their tips for your next backyard cookout.
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Público // Photo by Greg Rannells

Público // Photo by Greg Rannells

So you want to take your grill game to the next level. You’ve mastered burgers, conquered beer-can chicken and are ready to really flex your muscles and tame some flames. Maybe you’re inspired by the recent wave of restaurants boasting of their hearths, grills and wood-fired cooking; from St. Louis’ Pùblico to Camino in Oakland, California, open flames are the latest chef obsession. Here are chefs’ tips for making the literal hottest trend in restaurant cooking work in your kitchen or backyard:

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Chef Mike Randolph’s St. Louis pan-Latin restaurant Pùblico is a temple to wood-fired cooking, boasting an 8-foot, custom-fabricated hearth that encompasses a plancha, rotisserie and smoker. (“Luckily we have a pretty good wood supplier,” he says.) It enables Pùblico to fire up dishes from baby octopus to pork ribs to a 2.5-pound whole fish. First, he recommends getting to know the lingo:

Hearth: An open fireplace surrounded by heat-retaining stones; It may also contain a grill top or rotisserie

Oven: An enclosed chamber used for heating, drying or baking

Grill: Metal slats that suspend food over flames

Plancha: A flattop grill heated from below

Rotisserie: Vertical or horizontal rotating spits that allow for even, thorough roasting

Smoker: A semi-enclosed chamber that cooks with indirect heat and imparts smoke flavor from burning wood

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Chef Russell Moore spent 20 years in the kitchen of Berkeley, California’s award-winning Chez Panisse; today, he fuels the flame at Oakland’s Camino, a locavore lair where he cooks nearly everything on the Cali-influenced menu over an open flame.

Pared-down and austere, Camino is more chapel than chophouse. The facade and walls are constructed of brick and wood; small tables throughout the space are lined with church pews. And in the restaurant’s center: a massive, altarlike fireplace where chef Moore cooks nearly every dish. Catch him warming pork, hominy, chicharrones and pickled chiles near incandescent embers for his Pozole Blanco or taming writhing flames to roast whole legs of lamb. The man certainly knows how to play with fire—his book about the restaurant and open-flame cooking, “This is Camino” was nominated for a James Beard Award this year. His commandments:

Open-flame cooking goes by many names: “At Camino, we refer to whatever method is being used at the time: grilling, roasting, cooking directly in the coals. Everyone that cooks with fire has their own ideas and methods so I don’t think there is a universal term.”

Don’t get distracted: “You have to be totally engaged to cook with wood or coals. The temperature is constantly changing, so you have to pay attention with all of your senses to get the results you want. I like to see what’s happening to my food instead of relying on timers or temperature gauges.”

Think about the benefits: “Smoke flavor is an obvious one, but I think what is more important is the ability to control the heat with accuracy to cook exactly how you want. For example, you can cook a piece of meat or a vegetable that is thick on one side and thin on the other and still cook it evenly. You can also control how brown or not brown something is easily.”

Get the right tools: “The best advice I have is to have a way to keep making hot coals while you are cooking—this way you never have to cook directly over flames. Other than that, all you need is a simple iron grate, a few bricks, a wire brush and a clean rag.”

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Other tips to keep in mind before you begin:

1. Gather everything before you start cooking. Otherwise, the food will burn while you’re searching for a tool or ingredient.

2. Start hot to prevent food from sticking. How hot is hot? You should only be able to hold your hand 5 inches above the cooking grate for 2 seconds. If you can do so for 3 to 4 seconds, you have a medium-hot grill. Any longer and the grill isn’t ready.

3. Keep the grill clean. Burn off the leftovers from your last cookout while heating the grill and brush the grates thoroughly. Debris will make the food stick and give it a burnt or flinty flavor.

4. Always oil the grates before cooking. This is especially crucial when a recipe doesn’t specify oiling the food; it not only keeps your food from sticking but also makes cleanup easier.

5. Use baking soda, salt or sand—not water—to control a grease fire. Solids will absorb the grease and smother the fire; water will splatter the grease, causing the fire to spread.

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